Experiential Learning; from string and bucket games in the 80's to meaningful business tool.
Sabre's Founder and MD Talan Miller reflects on how experiential learning has evolved since the 1980's, and where it might he heading next.
The niche profession of "experiential learning" has made some big leaps in terms of the methodologies and approaches that are used to get results for a client.
The underlying principle still stands, and that is that people learn far better through experience (especially when it comes to teaming and leadership behaviours).
Having said that, it does need to be the "right experience" to generate the desired outcomes for a client, and to effectively target exactly what "learning" is required for the client and their team.
This is the tricky bit, especially when some clients may be driven by superficial themes / the bells and whistles of the activity constructs themselves over and above what they actually might draw out in a behavioural sense.
It seems like an eternity since the "old school Outward Bound style" climbing ropes, harnesses and raft builds of the 1980's. These till have a place occasionally, but in a risk averse world they are harder to get across the line for decision makers.
We now deploy far more sophisticated constructs than when we first started in 1988, such as tailor made business simulations and business games that target meaningful behavioural and leadership outcomes.
Regrettably the ubiquitous Google term "team building" has become an absolute catch all term since to describe everything from lawn bowls and cooking to genuine L&D interventions. This has muddied the waters somewhat for decision-makers. This can be especially problematic if they have devolved the initial research for potential providers to someone not properly briefed and / or across the actual aims. Many times we have seen a well meaning PA / EA chasing proposals for an Amazing Race, when the decision-maker's needs were in fact far more complex.
Most of the purely outdoor adventure mediums can easily put individuals and teams under enough pressure to draw out some observable points, but invariably lack the sophistication to draw out the full spectrum of behavioural clusters that occur at work.
Decreasing timeframes for L&D based programmes is also a critical factor, with many clients simply needing to obtain a bigger impact from much shorter durations.
With this in mind, probably the biggest evolutionary shift in experiential learning since the 80's has been the enhanced complexity of the challenge constructs. They must have the ability to match activity constructs to advances in the behavioural sciences that underpin group and team behaviour. This helps us to obtain better targeted results in shorter timeframes.
After all, it's these deeper behaviours that will define whether a team will succeed or fail under real world pressure. They are therefore what must be better understood not just by us, but also by the team and their leadership.
An ill-considered programme can open up "cans of worms" in working relationships that you simply may not be able to put the lid back onto in a half day off-site.
Experiential learning constructs therefore need to be carefully designed to take participants "functionally" away from their comfort zones / thresholds of tolerance, yet still draw out the "behavioural and process" related issues of the workplace.
This is often a fine line to walk, especially when timeframes allocated for L&D driven off-sites are not as long as they used to be.
We therefore advocate the use of a good diagnostic profiling tool that is quick and easy to understand (and thus has a far greater chance of long-term success) like the Belbin Team Role Model.
Once the actual underlying dynamics and behavioural biases of a team are properly understood, it's far safer (and also somewhat quicker and easier) to target the required learning outcomes that have been requested by a client.
We can make far better use of the available time with good diagnostics under our belt first, and it is along this trajectory that we see experiential learning headed.
The use of sophisticated business games matched to relevant theoretical underpinning and profiling tools like Belbin is the future for making best use of time to achieve lasting outcomes.
Advances in the field of neuroscience are also helping us to better understand the chemistry for successful teaming and leadership behaviours that can help real world teams and leaders accelerate team development. Once again, helping to achieve results in shorter timeframes.
We have definitely come a long way since the old fashioned adventure based approaches and the string and bucket games of rudimentary event based team building.
Whilst these approaches may still have some validity for the occasional client, the reality is that it's now a sophisticated blend of the "arts and sciences" of experiential learning that achieving lasting value for clients.
The advent of technology as an enabler for remote meetings and conferences (that often occur in place of face to face meetings) has also been an interesting factor for us to consider. If anything we have seen the increased social dysfunctions that are brought on by misuse such technology as a source of increased business.
The social systems of the brain, and the subtle behavioural interplays that define the real dynamics or a team are just far harder to tap remotely via technology alone. Face to face contact and interaction will always be the most effective way to tackle team and leadership development.
Getting people's heads out of their devices, and meaningfully focused upon what actually makes themselves and their team tick is the key. Whilst some new remote teaming approaches can work to an extent, impactful experiential learning that actually works always needs to be face to face.
The future of experiential learning is a bright one, but it will require ongoing flexibility to absorb new insights, integrate them into learning constructs and build upon the solid principles from which experiential learning was born.