Organisations are taking a more strategic approach to their use of the outdoors in experiential learning. Margaret Kubicek takes a look at how providers are responding to client needs
Pressure is growing for organisations to be bold in their efforts to inspire high performance, creativity and energy in their people. And with low unemployment and a predicted upturn in the economy later in the year, employers are likely to find it evermore challenging to hold on to quality staff – much less to close the productivity gap with France, Germany and the US that we hear so much about from the Government.
Fuelled by market forces such as these, there has been an explosion of high adventure management development programmes being offered by experiential learning providers – everything from dog-sledding in the Arctic to solitary camping in the woods. Providers are pushing the envelope on perceived adventure as employers renew their interest in the outdoors and get smarter about aligning objectives to business outcomes.
“There are a lot of people in senior positions who have done everything and need the next level of experience,” says Richard Greaves, international manager of Impact Development Training Group. Impact launched The Leadership Odyssey for senior managers last year – a five-day Arctic trek in Iceland, where the team works on a live business project and emerges with a renewed passion and motivation for life and work (see box 2).
Greaves argues the management development industry reflects the general trend towards adventure and sport in the leisure market, but says that it is also tapping into the “desperate need for people retention”, which so many major organisations are experiencing today.
“We need to find ways of engaging people and keeping them in the business,” says Greaves. “Financial reward isn’t enough anymore. That group of people who crossed a glacier or sat in a thermal spring together are probably tied together more than if they had been in a sterile conference room in Basingstoke.”
Big Thunder at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground offers a range of driving activities, including wind-in-your-hair thrills behind the wheel of Ariel Atoms. General manager Toby Davis, says: “It motivates people hugely, because they will talk about their experience for weeks and months after the event.
“It is a raw experience and people love it,” he adds. “From a training point of view, we’re putting people in situations they have to adapt to very quickly.”
Beyond the jolly
The benefits of experiential learning in the outdoors are well-documented: events that are memorable, consequences that are real not theoretical, immediacy in determining individual behaviours and team dynamics, and rapid impact on participants, to name a few.
Nevertheless, learning in the outdoors has suffered something of an image problem in the past. So it seems surprising that the market is seeing a rise in high-octane, high-priced experiential programmes – with the likes of The Leadership Odyssey costing some £4,000 per person.
“Historically, what can happen is people go away, have a great day, get to know one another better and there’s a general good feeling, but they may not have ever changed the way they were working together,” says Lee Nicholls, learning development consultant at Vision Development Training. “That’s why there has sometimes been bad press and it was seen as a bit of a jolly.”
In contrast, according to Nicholls and others, today’s outdoor market sees clients and providers getting more strategic in setting objectives, not just for soft skills such as communication and teamworking, but for specific, hard business outcomes. Greaves says: “Now it is: ‘We want to develop these changes for these specific reasons – for example, increased sales revenue or lower staff turnover’.”
In line with HR and development managers becoming more commercially accountable, there’s now a greater emphasis on analytical measures, too, such as 360-degree feedback before and after the learning.
John Atkinson, chief executive of Fusions Training, based in the Yorkshire Dales, emphasises the importance of focusing on ‘the nuts and bolts’ of what happens at work.
“Most team development launches on the behavioural-emotional bit,” says Atkinson. “But you can see huge differences straight away by focusing on the process part: why does this team exist, what are its targets over the next year, who makes what decisions, who does the communicating?”
Today’s clients are looking for innovative outdoor learning that can be integrated into more than just teamwork and leadership programmes, says Shirley Gaston, learning and development director of Log Heights, which is based at Ripley Castle in North Yorkshire. ‘Why not use the outdoors to demonstrate messages and aid learning in coaching, creativity, customer service and health and safety training?”
Adventure can take many forms, and providers are becoming increasingly creative in responding to client demand for the ‘wow’ factor. Log Heights has incorporated the stretchering of a ‘casualty’ down a cliff into a customer service exercise, and a 60-strong Brazilian drum performance into a teamwork programme. There’s also a growing trend towards activities with an environmental or corporate social responsibility element, meaning the impact is lasting and truly special, says Gaston.
“People are asking me to incorporate things such as rebuilding a stone wall they can take their family to and say: ‘We helped renovate this wall in the Yorkshire Dales National Park’.”
Graham Robb Associates is based in Winchester and runs programmes throughout the UK and Europe, offering something of a minimalist take on adventure with its ’24-hour solo’ – the final activity on many residential senior management development programmes. Participants spend 24 hours camping outdoors on their own in the woods, with time and space to reflect being their only companions.
“We give them rations, a ream of paper and a load of pens,” says senior development tutor Peter Brent. “They get 24 hours to think about their life both at home and work and time to jot down their thoughts.”
Participants have emerged with results as varied as re-written business plans and pages of poetry.
As adventure in outdoor experiential learning is being redefined for the 21st century, the market is splitting. There are the business objective-based programmes versus corporate ‘jollies’, and a number of providers are marketing their experiential learning and rewards and hospitality events under separate brands. Vision Development Training and Unique Events [the latter does corporate entertainment and basic team-building events] is one such example, as is the Dove Nest Group, which markets its corporate fun activities under Corporate Kinetics.
And despite a surge in programmes offering high drama in exotic surroundings, there are also signs that many providers are actually reducing their proportion of outdoor work. Dove Nest designs some of the most adventurous trekking-based programmes on the market – taking in the likes of the Mont Blanc tunnel and cable car over the Mer de Glace in France – but the bulk of its experiential learning is provided indoors, according to director John Driscoll.
“More clients are wanting indoor programmes,” says Driscoll. “They want shorter programmes delivered close to their workplace, and we’re making a clear distinction between corporate entertainment and serious outdoor learning.”
Dove Nest is increasingly bringing the principles and even the practices associated with outdoors into urban environments as well, such as a recent programme for the John Lewis Partnership that involved some 100 staff abseiling down the retailer’s flagship store in Oxford Street.
But the outdoors accounts for less than half of Dove Nest business, as is the case for Brathay, a training provider.
“Half of Brathay’s work doesn’t happen in the Lake District and doesn’t involve the outdoors,” says CEO Godfrey Owen, noting how the company has moved far more into the ‘mainstream management development and organisational market, with coaching forming a fifth of its work.
Some players in the experiential learning game have gone so far as to abandon the outdoors altogether. Martin Thompson, managing director of MTa International, has developed an experiential approach where participants use large-scale plastic pieces to design and build models, words, shapes and other projects – all done ‘exclusively indoors’.
“It’s not that outdoors doesn’t work,” says Thompson. “I just find it is inefficient because of the amount of time it takes to do things.”
He maintains he is simply responding to client demands. “Efficient ways to improve performance at work – that is what clients say they want.”
Breath of fresh air: MBAS in Windermere
Manchester Business School (MBS) is incorporating a programme of personal and professional development in the Lake District into its MBA curriculum. The bespoke programme of experiential learning will be delivered by Brathay at its training facility on the shores of Lake Windermere.
MBS had already been working with Brathay, and the new agreement formalises the role of outdoors-based experiential learning on its MBA.
“We selected Brathay because of its proven expertise in creating and delivering team development programmes,” says Susan Moger, MBS’s associate director of management development. “Using a blend of theoretical methodology and practical activities, students are able to better understand the dynamics of their new team, and learn how to maximise the power of combining their skills and talents.”
The Manchester MBA attracts students from around 35 countries, and the Brathay programme aims to provide them with the tools and behaviours needed for working as part of a multicultural team.
Moger says: “Many of the career paths the students will take will involve working in a variety of countries. This requires them to communicate effectively both verbally and non-verbally to manage people from many cultures. Brathay’s programme provides an environment where the students are able to develop these new skills.”
A blend of interventions will be used to improve individual confidence, trust and support, says Godfrey Owen, deputy CEO of Brathay.
“These new skills sets and behaviours will enable them to support each other throughout their work at MBS, and assist them throughout the rest of their careers,” he says.
Learning on ice
It’s experiential learning at its most extreme. Billed as the ‘most powerful programme on the market today’, it takes senior managers well beyond their comfort zone in some of the harshest terrain in the world – all in the name of leadership development.
Impact Development Training Group launched The Leadership Odyssey last summer as an open programme in Iceland, marketed as ‘a glacier-based journey in the land of fire and ice.’ It is aimed at board-level leaders who are highly experienced – both in their careers and the world of management development programmes – and it provides participants with focused feedback about their personal style and practical tools for self-development.
The team takes charge of all planning and management of the five-day journey, and they are also given a live business project to work on during the programme. Richard Greaves, Impact’s international manager, maintains that unusual locations such as the arctic provide environments where people can be immediately engaged with the programme, and open and honest with each other. And because the environment is so radically different from the everyday office, the messages delivered will be lasting.
“Say they’ve spent two hours dog-sledding to an Arctic hut,” says Greaves. “They’ve got there in an unusual manner, and once they arrive, there is no-one to rely on other than themselves. We then bring in a management guru as a surprise, to deliver a very powerful message.”
The Leadership Odyssey was launched as an open programme, but has drawn more interest as a corporate programme that can be tailored to individual client needs – costing up to £4,200 plus VAT per person.
It is expected that a European postal service provider will be the first corporate client to embark on the Odyssey this summer. Impact has offices in 11 countries, and further global ‘odyssey’ regions are being planned, such as a jungle in Thailand, and a desert in Morocco.