Unlike a lot of businesses who feel they need a presence near London, you won’t find training provider Outward Bound Professional moving its headquarters from Eskdale in the Lake District to somewhere just outside the M25.
For general manager Alan Brenton, this part of Cumbria provides an inspirational backdrop where learning and development can thrive.
“Our courses for leadership and team development are very much reflective processes. We are asking people to change, and this landscape provides the perfect reflective environment,” he says.
And while Brenton is keen to emphasise that not all the learning the company delivers takes place outside,Eskdale’s woods, hills and lakes lend themselvesperfectly to development activities.
He says outdoor corporate learning is experiencing a renaissance as a new generation of in-house training professionals discover the potential of the great outdoors.
Providers, says Brenton, have become more sophisticated in the training they deliver, for example using Myers-Briggs and Belbin profiling tools and employing qualified facilitators, rather than the cagoule and Gore-Tex brigade doing a bit of corporate work on the side.Buyers are also more savvy about the benefits of outdoor learning compared to 15 years ago when al fresco training fell out of favour.
Instrumental in discrediting outdoor learning at that time was an infamous television documentary broadcast in the early 1990s. This showed a team of senior executives braving freezing water and strenuous treks in the Scottish Highlands as part of a team-building programme with the John Ridgeway School of Adventure.
This was the extreme end of outdoor learning at the time, but providers agree it put a lot of companies off looking at any kind of outdoor learning.
“The programme did the industry a lot of damage,” says Brenton, who also thinks the rise of e-learning over the past decade has also kept people away from the openair while they study in front of their computers.
But today there is a general recognition among the training community that a blended approach is required if participants are to really change behaviours and that theory must be mixed with experiential learning.
As a company synonomous with outdoor learning, Outward Bound Professional has ridden the peaks and troughs of L&D trends and is now benefiting from the good times. Outward Bound Professional is the corporate arm of the educational charity the Outward Bound Trust – it deals only with companies, but any profits it makes are ploughed back into causes championing the development of young people.
The courses it delivers are mainly in the areas of leadership and team development. Brenton says the leadership events suit all levels from senior teams to line managers. One major retailer uses the teambuilding programme for staff from a new outlet.
The programmesinvolve short tasks or projects -some outdoor, some in -followed by feedback and de-briefing sessions where participants reflect on how they worked as individuals and as a team.
Outdoor activities range from short problem-solving exercises involving barrels and blanks to two-day business simulations where a team is invited to tender for the building of a structure, asked to find the materials in the valley and then build it. Events cost on average £300 per person per day including meals and accommodation at the Eskdale centre.
When it comes to how far participants should be stretched on outdoor training events, Paul Bate, a learning and development consultant at Brathay, says it’s important that activities are devised so people can decide themselves how far they want to go physically or mentally.
Bate says typical events at Brathay, which is also located in the Lakes, include rowing expeditions where teams of eight share a canoe and have to work together short tasks where members are blindfolded and communications skills come to the fore and the climbing of the pamper pole – a standard device used by outdoor training providers -which entails scaling a high pole in a safety harness supported by fellow team mates.
“These challenges are underpinned bytheory and combine the reflective qualities of being outdoors with key insights into teams and leadership,” says Bate.
Being outdoors and taking part in team activities simply provides the opportunity to have some fun says Soozi Parker, head of corporate and management training at outdoor activity specialist Treejumpers, which operates a number ofactivity centres around London and the Home Counties.
She says in this informal environment people are relaxed and the work hierarchies are done away with, which can allow more junior members of the team to shine and take a lead.
“The barriers come down and people show their true colours,” she says.
Treejumpers, whose past clients include HBOS and Citigroup, offers a wide range of activities from rope-bridge building, quad biking, caving and paint balling with a day ofevents costing between £60 and £300 per head.
At experiential learning provider Impact Development Training Group, UK head Andy Dickson also says there has been a resurgence in the popularity of learning in the open air.In particular,hesays there is growing demand for training programmes that combine outdoor activities with community-based corporate responsibility work.
The company has developed the concept of its five-day leadership programme which costs £1,500 including accommodation and meals. This mixes self-development activities withhelping others. Participants take part in an outdoor activity and spend some time working for a good cause such as reading lessons at a local school or building a garden at a respite centre for disabled children.
“A change of environment has a big impact on people’s ability to learn. These different settings can open your mind to other ideas,” says Dickson.
But outdoor learning need not just be in the countryside.
Corporate team building company City Challenge, for example, takes groups on an urban orienteering experience around historic cities such as Oxford, Cambridge and York.
With the aid ofcryptic questions,mathematical quizzes and anagrams, teams have to navigate their way round a city collecting information.
The events, which are fully-facilitated, cost between £200 to £400 per person per dayand managing director Jane Read says they provide an opportunity for teams to break out of the office and to work together in attractive settings.
“Many of the tasks can be related to their work but by placing them in a fun context, the lessons become much more memorable, which gives the learning longevity,” she says.
Case study: Friends Provident
Financial services group Friends Provident asked learning consultancy Impact to devise a team development programme for their senior management team following an organisational restructure. Although the new team were meeting business targets, there was a clear opportunity to work together in a more cohesive and effective way.
The company also wanted to incorporate community action learning into the event.
Impact designed an intensive learning ‘journey’, blending a team development process with clear business issues and opportunities that its consultants had derived from pre-event interviews.
The team then spent three days at Impact’s HQ in the Lake District. Here events included a navigation project with a night in a mountain hut and a day spent building a sensory garden at Hart Street Respite Centre – a centre for disabled children in the nearby town of Ulverston.
A follow-up session reviewed the event, applied the learning to current business projects and looked at ways of inspiring others in the organisation.
Head of administration at Friends Provident, Andrew Shaw, says the learning had a positive impact on the workplace.
“Our recent success in handling multiple projects with thin resources to deliver the best-ever new business results did have its catalyst in the Impact programme and, in particular, the sensory garden experience.
“We now use this phrase ‘garden experience’ to remind ourselves of successes within the business,” Shaw says.