Outdoor pursuits were once regarded by employers as the ultimate in staff development, but today’s workers want to be challenged in ways that relate to their jobs. Ross Bentley finds out how the experiential landscape is changing
During the 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed that if you wanted to make it in business, you had to push yourself to the limit on an action-based outdoor development break.
Marketing directors could be found orienteering on the Yorkshire Moors and creative teams were adrift on rafts of their own making in the Lake District, while sales managers were unable to take your call because they were abseiling down a cliff somewhere in North Wales.
Today, however, while numerous wild terrains still provide an outdoor environment where office workers can be tested beyond their comfort-zone, the experiential learning landscape has changed as ideas about how employees should be stretched have become more sophisticated.
“We are seeing an increasing need for people to challenge themselves by going inward, rather than outward,” says Godfrey Owen, deputy chief executive at organisational development specialist Brathay.
“This is in opposition to the fashion for extreme physical challenges and focuses much more on a personal exploration of deep-seated beliefs, drivers and motivations, and recognising how these affect the individual in corporate life.”
Marc Atherton, a chartered occupational psychologist, says this change in thinking has been driven by two majors shifts in the way training departments have approached the development needs of employees.
First, as human resources and training have become more strategic, there has been a demand from the business and employees for training courses and learning experiences that are directly related to work.
“People began asking questions about how abseiling down a cliff face in the rain could possibly help you in the workplace,” says Atherton. “They wanted more evidence than some vague notion that it was good for teambuilding and self-understanding.”
Second, trainers are now getting employees more involved when deciding which development programmes to enrol on.
When faced with assessing their own development needs, employees are more likely to question the value of physical-based training. They want courses that inspire them, and make them better at their jobs.
“And besides, what looks better on a CV?” asks Atherton. “A three-day course in advanced negotiating skills from the London School of Economics, or tree-climbing in the New Forest?”
But outdoor learning has not disappeared altogether. Many training providers still include physical elements in their training programmes. Delegates on the Leadership Trust’s five-and-a-half day flagship leadership and management course, for example, will be expected to turn their hand to abseiling, caving and diving on the company’s base at Ross-on-Wye.
Gareth Edwards, a senior research assistant at the trust, says that giving people a physical challenge reveals how they act in an alien environment and deal with stressful situations, and creates opportunities to build teams and test leadership skills.
But there is now a broad acceptance that people do not need to be pushed to their physical limits to learn. The ‘break people down to make something of them’ mentality has, on the whole, been discredited.
“Today, it is not about how far you can push people,” says Andy Dickson, UK general manager of Impact Development Training Group. “It’s about giving people opportunities and encouraging them to push themselves.”
The trick, he says, is developing a programme that sparks the imagination before people “get stuck in”.
Dickson also says there is a realisation that work-based or problem-solving type exercises can, in many cases, be just as demanding as a physical challenge, and just as effective in enabling participants to find out about themselves and the people around them.
He recalls training a group from the Agricultural Board. These outdoor types had no problem with the physical aspects of the training programme, but were far more stretched when it came to devising a marketing strategy and creating a new logo for their organisation.
As far as Lucy McGibbon, director of venues and team-building company the Sundial Group is concerned, people don’t have to experience fear to further themselves. “People need not go any further than two feet off the ground to learn something,” she says.
The company’s Teamscapes approach provides giant 3-D puzzles where, for example, groups work together using everyday items such as planks of wood, ropes and barrels, to get from one place to another without touching the ground.
McGibbon says these dynamic activities provide the perfect opportunity for teambuilding and collaborative work without the fear of isolating people who do not want to climb up a telegraph pole or cross a scary rope bridge.
Most trainers agree that whatever the challenge, learning is improved when people work in what is called the ‘stretch zone’ – where they are being pushed so that their adrenaline flow is increased, but are still making positive choices about what they are doing.
Push them too far, and any learning is reduced significantly. All the participants will take away with them is an ‘I’ll never do that again’ attitude, or a sense of inadequacy about not being able to contribute and having to rely on colleagues. Push them too little, however, and they will coast along in their comfort zones, too relaxed to learn anything new, and unlikely to recall it later.
But, according to Owen at Brathay: “In the pulse-quickening zone called ‘stretch’, people take more on board, senses are heightened, and learning is anchored to the feelings of excitement, making it everlasting.”
The most exciting trend in experiential learning, according to Dickson, is the emergence of training linked to community-based projects.
Recent programmes have seen a group of marketing executives from technology company Sony apply their expertise to promote the Sightsavers International charity, while earlier this year, training group Impact Development Training Group oversaw the renovation of a community dance studio in West London with 50 graduates from a major German investment bank.
Dickson says team-working lessons are drawn from the projects, and the visible end result means that participants get a buzz out of seeing what they have done for a good cause.
For Justin Hughes, managing director at training company Mission Excellence, which has run course for the likes of Lloyds TSB and Astra Zeneca, the stretch experienced by senior executives in their day-to-day work provides enough examples to learn from.
Learning from experience
The problem, he says, is that too few companies have the adequate skills and processes in place to draw lessons from business situations. But at Mission Excellence, where many of the trainers were previously fighter pilots in the Royal Air Force, de-briefing every incident or project is second nature.
“If you are responsible for a multi-million pound fighter jet, travelling at 500mph at 250 feet, you have to constantly review every aspect of your performance to ensure you stay in one piece,” says Hughes.
Using workshops and one-to-one sessions, Mission Excellence specialises in passing on these skills and developing expertise in 360-degree feedback, performance assessments and coaching.
Mission recently worked with a major construction company, an industry where is it quite normal to spend six to nine months and several millions of pounds preparing a bid for a contract. “It was obvious they couldn’t afford too many failed bids, so it was imperative they learned from any failures and introduced an extensive debriefing element to the process,” says Hughes.
His message is, regardless of the stretch experience, little will be learned unless people study and analyse how the situation was dealt with, and consider what could have been improved.
Jill Connick, director at Aim Associates Drama – a company that specialises in drama-based learning and development – agrees that some of the greatest challenges faced by people occur in everyday working situations.
“For some people, giving a presentation or taking a tough personal assessment interview is much harder than climbing a wall or abseiling back down it,” she says.
Aim’s approach to learning is to use trained actors who act out imaginary work scenarios, such as a difficult interview or meeting, before asking programme attendees to intervene and deal with the situation or assess their peers’ performances.
The training company has also recently introduced a number a workshops where the actors play out the decision-making process behind a historical event, such as Custer’s last stand and the charge of the Light Brigade. Attendees observe the enactments and then analyse the personalities and management techniques that led to a breakdown in communication, petty squabbles and, ultimately, tragedy.
Connick says her courses are aimed at developing people’s emotional intelligence – the understanding of one’s own limitations and an awareness of what drives other people.
“To put yourself in someone else’s shoes and really understand where they are coming from has to be one of the biggest stretch experiences of all,” she says.
Getting the best from people
Chartered occupational psychologist
“People need to know they can call a halt to an exercise without feeling like they’ve let the side down. Trainers must create an open-ended situation, so people feel confident they can say ‘enough is enough’.”
Director at AIM Associates
“Hammering people into submission achieves nothing. Allowing them to make discoveries for themselves does.”
Deputy CEO at Brathay
“Challenges do not have to be physical, nor do they have to be extreme. Let’s face it, suffering never did any one any good. While trekking across the arctic may create strong personal awareness and create powerful interpersonal bonds, how relevant is it to the corporate context, and how transferable in terms of learning?”
Senior research assistant at the Leadership Trust
“To learn from an experience the stretch needs to be significant.”
UK general manager of Impact
“You don’t learn to ski without falling over. Perhaps we should let people fall over a bit more at work.”
Director of training firm Mission Excellence
“A lot of people are stretched just doing their job but few learn from their experiences.”
Director of venues and team-building company the Sundial Group
“If you make some tasks too extreme, you will isolate some people just when you want people to be working together.”
Partner at occupational pyschologist firm Pearn Kandola
“I don’t dismiss action-based training but companies need to think through clearly what they are trying to achieve. Otherwise, you can dress your company golf-day up as training.”
- Brathay www.brathay.org.uk
- Leadership Trust www.leadership.co.uk
- Impact www.impact-dtg.com
- Sundial Group www.sundialgroup.com
- Mission Excellence www.mission-x.com
- Aim Associates Drama www.aimass.com
- Pearn Kandola www.pearnkandola.com
Trend-spotting:what works today?
Chartered occupational psychologist
“[Today’s training trends include an increased emphasis on linking training with work-based tasks and issues, and employees having a say in choosing their training.”
Head of Impact Development Training Group
“Today, it is less about how far people can be pushed rather than how far they push themselves.”
Deputy chief executive at organisational development specialist Brathay
“Learning is generally heightened when done in a stretch zone.”