Training professionals are under pressure to build outdoor training into a
more holistic approach – and call it experiential learning instead
Gone are the days when attending an outdoor management training course meant
donning fatigues, marching up rain-sodden mountains and munching Kendal mint
cake. Mistakenly seen as a holiday to half the management population and
torture to the rest of us, training managers were finding it harder and harder
to justify the expense.
So different is the market now, few suppliers or buyers of outdoor training
even describe it as such. Now it’s experiential learning, which the experts
tell us could be indoors, outdoors – or, as the new jargon has it, "near
Don’t be fooled, says Steven Taylor, director of training with Lakeside
Management, the outdoors is still a popular medium for teambuilding and
leadership training and with good reason. "It’s a great way of spending
training resources because the effects are immediate and lasting," he
But he too admits its use has changed. In the old days, outdoor courses were
about taking people out of their working environment and giving them a
challenge. "Now what firms want is an holistic approach to training that
involves body, mind and spirit," Taylor says.
And this means finding time to reflect on and discuss the activities.
The outdoors, he says, is ideal for this approach to development. "The
very nature of the outdoors experience is reflective, you can’t help but talk
about it, so what we have done in the last few years is formalise that
process," he says.
At the same time – as with all training – suppliers using the outdoors as a
venue are having to prove its value to the business.
Fifteen years ago, companies were only interested in the old task, team and
action model of leadership – what was important was getting people up the
mountain, even if it meant breaking their spirit in the process, explains Chris
Goscombe at airline EasyJet.
"Now we have a fourth circle around these three and that’s environment,
which enables us to relate training and development back to the
workplace," Goscombe says.
Suppliers such as Impact and Brathay have also noticed this change.
"Training departments have had to respond to the pressure of showing what
value they are adding to an organisation.
"They are always concerned to put the context of their organisation
into what we do for them," says Jonathan Lagoe, business development
manager with Impact. "And we are required much more now to say how what we
do will improve a client’s performance," he says.
Usually this means aligning their training to a company’s management
"It’s comforting for the accountants, who can see what they are getting
for their money," Lagoe says.
This trend also reflects the changing nature of training as a function.
Budgets are being devolved down to line managers and in some cases to
individuals, leaving training departments struggling for a role.
The best have grasped the nettle and are turning themselves into internal
"Training departments are moving away from the old administrative role
of putting people on courses, and are becoming advisers," Lagoe says. They
assess the organisation’s training needs and research possible trainers.
Some companies are taking this further and drawing up lists of approved
suppliers, which anyone who is buying training must stick to.
"Most of our big clients are saying that they have to narrow their
suppliers down from 200 plus to 15, 20 or 30," Lagoe says.
Gill Brewer, client communication manager at Brathay, maintains that the
growth of company intranets will further boost the preferred supplier route.
Managers will be able to log on to the HR system, find the list of suppliers
and click on the hyperlink straight to a website or booking form, Brewer says.
It means that organisations like Brathay are having to work hard to be sure
they are on the right lists. "It’s not about the door being closed, but
about really proving yourself to get on," Brewer says.
However, it’s a move that is coming primarily from company accountants
looking for a cheaper deal and training managers are not very keen. "Our
own research shows they are concerned that it will take away an element of
their judgement," Brewer says.
EasyJet’s Chris Goscombe and Jonathan Wainwright from the Halifax agree.
"It would be far too restrictive," Wainwright says, while Goscombe
suggests it would prevent training professionals snapping up that new idea
around the corner.
Many of the changes that have taken place in outdoors experiential training
But there is some regret among the training community that the tightening
grip of finance departments is limiting its potential impact.
"Surely there has to be an advantage in saying training should be
valuable in its own right," says Lagoe.
Easyjet prepares for take-off
Chris Goscombe, head of people and organisational development at budget
airline EasyJet, is a big fan of using the outdoors.
"The outdoors is the most stimulating of the experiential learning
tools – it’s very powerful. I’ve used it as a line manager and now I propose it
to others," he says.
"It doesn’t have to be about pushing yourself to the limits.
"Often it is about exploring what those limits are, but you don’t have
to reach them."
EasyJet recently used Impact to provide leadership training for its
These are the men and women who organise the logistics of a flight on board
the aircraft – saving a few minutes off the turn around of flights can save the
airline huge sums of money.
But it’s a complex job that involves working with many different people who
don’t necessarily share that precise agenda. The training Impact provided
involved a variety of exercises – not all outdoors – that reproduced these
challenges, without simulating the workplace.
"We were removing the context of work from people and enabling them to
see things in a different way," Goscombe says.
"Often the context of work gives you an excuse for not doing things –
but in experiential learning, there is nowhere else to go apart from yourself
and the people you are working with. You can’t just say, ‘Oh the IT people are
always like that’," Goscombe explains.
However, it didn’t necessarily work for everyone. "Some were
brilliantly enlightened by the experiences," Goscombe says.
"Those who weren’t, we need to manage and treat almost as if they have
never been on the programme. These people need the context of work."
An added extra from the halifax
If you’re a graduate trainee with the Halifax, you will almost certainly get
the chance to battle with the elements as part of your management training.
"We’re quite conventional about it," says Jonathan Wainwright,
management development consultant at the Halifax.
"We use some high impact exercises, which we then review. Our graduates
won’t have had a lot of experience of working in organisations or working as a
team and this is a safe and supportive way of looking at leadership and working
However, when it comes to the bank’s leadership development programme, the
outdoors is far more important for its inspiration than the challenge it
offers. The programme is designed for senior managers with exceptional
potential and about 36 people are taken on each year. There are five modules
and two of them take place at Brathay.
Participants spend their first few days on the programme at Brathay getting
to know each other. They go back several months later fora fourth module on
"We’re more interested in Brathay for the quality of its facilitators
and the environment it offers rather than the outdoor activities,"
Wainwright says. "Senior management development is about building people’s
self-awareness and understanding of their own values and beliefs. They get this
from reflection and dialogue with each other."
There are experiential exercises built into the Brathay modules that provide
a focus for discussion – and this may happen to be outdoors. "We’re not
too concerned with the content of the activities any more, or whether or not
our managers can climb a rope," Wainwright says. "We’re only
interested in whether or not exercises foster an environment that leads people
Nonetheless, there are the opportunities for managers to climb ropes or row
boats if they want – but these are extra-curricular activities. "And it’s
not the rowing that’s important, it’s the shared experience," Wainwright