Let’s face it, the idea of bunking up with colleagues for a night in the great outdoors or bonding while abseiling isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Yet the outdoor training sector seems to be booming – possibly because it has re-invented its image and training outcomes.
Despite the rise in the number of available options in recent years, there is still a blurring of the lines between valuable, structured learning and corporate ‘fun days’.
Simon McElroy, a director at training provider The Key Network, says this confusion was a key issue for outdoor training providers, because of the higher costs involved in advanced experiential learning.
“Team-building means many different things to different people and, unfortunately, it’s often misrepresented,” he says. “There’s a big difference between serious learning, simple team-building and company jollies.
“Companies have got used to investing in informal jollies, but the cost of serious development is a lot more, because it’s longer lasting,” he says.
Know the difference
Key Network offers both types of outdoor event, although there is a marked and measurable difference between the two. He says the activities – which include archery, abseiling, and even oil painting – all add to the power of the training.
“It’s active rather than passive, and the training is more powerful because the participants actually experience what they’re learning,” says McElroy.
“The activity is almost irrelevant because it’s the process they go through that provides the learning and helps them work together as a team. The activity is just the medium for the team to work out its own identity and explore all the possibilities,” he adds.
Iain Jennings is a director of Peak Activities, which operates several courses in the Peak District and the Austrian Tirol. He says that employers need to make a clear distinction between bonding sessions, serious people development and simple company fun days.
“Outdoor training needs to be a targeted investment that is measurable and tangible,” he says. “People assume that all outdoor training is the same, and that’s a bit of a problem for the industry, because we’re not all in the same boat.”
Jennings believes that any course should be a partnership between the provider and client, so that the exact skills needs can be identified and matched against the most appropriate activities.
He believes this type of training can be suitable for everyone from apprentices to CEOs, as long as employers are very clear why they want to use it.
“Training should be fun and enjoyable, but it must also provide serious development. The activities are just the vehicle for learning, and only really the tools we use to deliver group and individual learning,” he says.
The firm regularly conducts activities such as caving, abseiling and rock climbing to help build leadership skills and encourage team development. But Jennings wants more regulation of outdoor training companies and greater recognition for courses that are run properly.
“The big problem in the outdoor training world is that there are thousands of companies that aren’t properly qualified,” he says.
Andy Dickson, head of Impact UK, which provides courses in the Lake District, says outdoor training can be far more powerful than traditional classroom learning, with inspirational experiences helping the learning to stick.
“We use the great outdoors because it’s powerful, memorable and can engage people,” he says. “Delegates should feel like they have been stretched and challenged. It’s good for leadership, teamwork, confidence, problem-solving and team management.”
Dickson believes this type of training is suitable for people of all abilities, taking staff outside the traditional boundaries of the office and creating an exciting, inspirational experience.
“It can have a powerful psychological impact because it opens up the mind and challenges people to think and behave in different ways,” he says.
But Dickson says the more serious courses must lead to measurable and tangible results back in the workplace, with results that can be judged against a series of performance indicators.
Richard Ward, a director at team-building firm Quest, also argues for the stringent measuring of outdoor training.
“Companies need to see definite results back in the workplace. They must be able to measure how they performed before and after the training events,” he says.
The activities on offer are dependant on many factors, such as age, fitness and ability, and it is not always the rugged, macho stuff. One course involved delegates preparing a gourmet meal, after hunting down the ingredients from local shops using co-ordinates on a map.
“The process is the key thing, rather than the activity or task,” says Ward. “It’s about looking at the roles within a team and developing how the team works.”
Ward thinks this quirky approach is increasingly being adopted by employers to try to combat a growing breakdown in communication skills in the workplace.
“Employers are looking to get people to talk to each other and communicate more effectively,” he says. “Staff are so reliant on e-mail and the telephone that they are reluctant to talk to each other, even when they’re in the same office.”
Jane Turner, a programme director for the executive development portfolio at Newcastle Business School, warns that employers need to think very carefully about planning an event, and how it will benefit the business.
“Employers often think it will re-energise the team and create some change. It can be an exciting, fun day away from the office but this shouldn’t be confused with serious development.
“Employers must make sure they get what they want from an event, and that means deciding exactly what they need. Some people have had very powerful experiences, whereas others have been left disappointed,” she warns.
It is also important that individuals are comfortable with the tasks they will be given and don’t feel pressured by the rest of the team. Turner is also concerned about keeping the momentum going after an event, and working out just how much the business benefits once staff are back in the workplace.
Additionally, there is the risk of things going wrong during team-building events, and it is essential that providers have the right qualifications and insurance cover for the planned activities. Only recently, an accountant was left hospitalised after an accident during a confidence-building fire walk left the employee with serious burns to the feet.
City Challenge takes teams of employees around some of the UK’s most famous locations in what is essentially urban orienteering, with cryptic clues and practical challenges. Company founder Jane Read says this type of course offers a useful alternative that can help bring together disparate teams.
“It can help people build their confidence and take part in an inclusive task. Employees also get the chance to develop specific skills that they might not be able to use in the workplace,” she says.
“Getting out of the office can lead to an experience that’s far more ‘real’ than traditional training. You often can’t achieve the same thing in the confines of a classroom.”
The Sundial Group offers another outdoor alternative, with delegates using planks of wood to move people and objects around a set area.
HR director Lucy McGibbon says the Teamscape events are often used as recruitment tools to help look at individual skills as part of an assessment centre.
“It involves people having to work together and complete a task. You can then analyse their behaviour away from the usual office environment.
“Employers have come to realise that people learn by doing,” she says. “If you give staff the opportunity to learn, it gives them the chance to think about the impact they have on other people within the organisation.”
Whatever the setting, outdoor training can provide a range of benefits for employers. But there must be a level of clarity and understanding about exactly what can be achieved, and how it impacts on the overall business.
- Decide exactly what you want from the event
- Look at the performance indicators
- Investigate the business benefits
- Consider the needs and abilities of all team members
- Assess any potential risks to staff
Peak Activities provides bespoke developmental training as well as fun weekends and corporate events. From around £200 per head.
Impact Experiential learning specialist offering team-building, leadership and graduate integration events. Prices range from £150 to £500 per day, depending on the course.
Quest offers bespoke team-building exercises and corporate events. Prices vary by project.
City Challenge Urban orienteering and problem solving from £145 per delegate
Sundial The teamscape events provide problem solving and team-building events in an outdoor setting. Costs vary depending on event and participants.
The Holt provides a range of outdoor training programmes at centres around the UK. Costs vary.
The Adventure Activities Licensing Authority inspects activity centres in areas such as climbing, water sports, trekking and caving.
by Ross Wigham