A coming of age?

Emerson argues that soft skills can best be developed experientially

Institute of Management’s Karen Charlesworth in her piece, ‘Aiming for
Excellence’ (Training, September 2000) provided yet further evidence for what we
have known for a long time, that “whilst technical, hard skills are important,
the most sought-after are those that focus on bringing out the best in people
and teams”. 

surely strengthens the argument for further developing and making use of experiential
learning approaches, as opposed to more formal classroom-style training,
distance learning and e-learning approaches through which some still think
interpersonal skills can be developed.

benefits of experiential learning have long been recognised for engaging
participants emotionally as well as intellectually. It is felt that they
provide a forum through which these all-important “soft skills” can be
practised and feedback on their impact received.

the 1960s and 70s, experiential learning in an organisational context has
developed and matured. And by the 1980s skilled facilitators could be found
with real organisational understanding, who could help participants draw
meaningful, transferable learning.

recent years, the experiential learning paradigm has expanded enormously. We
are seeing theatre being used to unlock creativity, role play incorporating
trained actors to develop interpersonal skills, circus skills to encourage
mutual trust and team development, comedy to build confidence and presentation
skills, sports coaching to develop coaching-based management style, and even
the use of horse whispering to enhance empathy and communication skills.

search for ever more creative ways to apply the principles of experiential
learning may have something in common with the motivation that drove the
outdoor instructors of the 1960s and 70s to use their work in a business
context. That is the belief that because the experience was powerful for them
(the instructors) and they learned a huge amount from it, the same will be the
case for everyone else.

was clearly not the case then and it took a long time, some very bad publicity
and a recession for the lessons to be fully learned and for the market to

these “new” approaches are going to be successful, providers would do well to
learn (and certainly many already have) from the history of the outdoor
development world. They need to:

Understand the environment from which learners come and be clear about
objectives and success criteria and design to meet those needs

Resist packing programmes with so much action that no reflection and learning
can take place

Remember that just because you are good at something, does not mean that you
are necessarily the best person to help others learn from it

Ensure that participants are supported in finding ways to apply the learning
they have gained back in the workplace

increasing number of different approaches available means that for training
managers, the selection of an experiential approach is still one with
significant risks. Get it wrong and the response is likely to be, “That was
great fun, but I’m not sure what I learned”. Get it right and people will
immediately know what they have learned. 

more importantly, they will know how they are going to apply it and make a
difference in the way they get the best out of themselves, other people and the
teams in which they work.

Emerson is the managing director of Interaction Development & Learning Consultancy
and a director of JollySerious Events

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