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Learning By Doing

As products give way to people as the key differentiator of competitive advantage, companies are turning to experiential learning programs to foster a new breed of workforce collaboration and cooperation.

By Joel Schettler

Believe it or not, one of the best definitions ever offered for experiential learning came, not from Merriam-Webster or David Kolb, but from Confucius, who once said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

“Experiential learning is all about accomplishing behavioral change,” explains David Minionis, a partner at Footprints Consulting and Training, an Evergreen, Colo.-based experiential learning provider. “Naturally, you have certain objectives and concepts that you are trying to teach, but you clearly need to create an ‘aha’ moment. An experiential activity, in many cases, will get those light bulbs going off. Instead of responding to a concept demanded by a corporation, an employee will be personally committed to it.”

This level of commitment—that proponents say experiential learning programs best instill—is critical for organizations to compete at today’s break-neck speed. As we leave the remnants of the industrial age behind and as the information or “knowledge” age comes into full view, products are giving way to people as the key differentiator of competitive advantage. Consequently, successful companies must rely on workforce collaboration and cooperation—precisely the targets of most experiential learning programs—to generate new ideas, products (or services) and technological applications.

But if it were as universally simple and effective as Confucius put it, why don’t more companies invest their training dollars on these programs? And why does experiential learning seemingly have so many critics who commonly claim that outdoor ropes courses, play-acting and the like are little more than “expensive days at play?”

Perhaps the reason behind critics’ raised voices is experiential programs are by and large aimed at developing softskills—teamwork, leadership and group problem-solving—which, at best, are extremely difficult to measure and, at worst, don’t sit well with those seeking more instant corporate gratification.

Despite their great potential, such programs are easily left on the chopping block, largely due to high costs and lingering perceptions of unfulfilled expectations. “These programs can cost an arm and a leg,” says Nancy Gansneder, a professor at the University of Virginia and board member for the National Society for Experiential Education (NSEE). “The people who have a much shorter view tend to want that one-day romp in the park to affect how a team is going to work together. That’s not going to happen. We have to invest an awful lot of time in it, and the payoff is way down the road.”

Indeed, this invest-today-payback-tomorrow mentality can prove to be a rather short-sighted view for any training program let alone experiential methods, but for companies like FedEx Express, 7-Eleven and Quantum Corp., a much broader view has led to substantial returns.

A Greater Return

For the past 17 years, Memphis-based FedEx Express has used experiential methods in all of its training programs at its Leadership Institute. Steve Nielsen, managing director of the Leadership Institute, has simplified the textbook experiential learning steps (see sidebar, “Better By Design") even further by answering three rather simple, albeit key, questions: what? so what? and now what? For Nielsen, this analysis gives experiential learning its teeth, and separates a shared group experience from being just another day out of the office.

“This is where the rubber hits the road,” explains Nielsen. “[David] Kolb creates that abstract conceptualization, where you develop a hypothesis asking: How does that play out in other situations, broader than what we have just experienced? Have you seen this before? Have you experienced this before? If so, then you can make that jump to action and talk about putting those principles into place.”

At Fed Ex’s Leadership Institute, training professionals primarily conduct experiential programs to bridge the gap between what is taught and how people feel to ensure a longer lasting commitment to and immediate adoption of content. “If you don’t make that link, the most hard-hitting training can be short-lived,” he says. “If, as a learner, I have made a connection between the cognitive and the feelings—and I now understand—it helps me buy into the course more. Because of the impact it has made on me as a person, I can now apply what I learned at a much deeper level.”

To help create a greater impact, activities at the institute are facilitated by “preceptors,” successful FedEx managers—the people who have “been there and done that"—chosen from the ranks to work at the Leadership Institute for a minimum of two years and a maximum of three. FedEx selects preceptors based on their success at the positions to be held by many of the trainees and because they also have also met specific management criteria.

The Leadership Zone, a recent addition to the Institute’s curriculum, incorporates experiential activities taken from diverse disciplines such as sports psychology and the performing arts. To help preceptors facilitate activities, the institute staff hires an array of specific session leaders, which have included a sports psychologist, who leads sessions on overcoming hurdles to peak performance, and a former Vietnam prisoner of war, who guides trainees through activities designed to combat “prison-thinking,” or mental blocks that limit actions.

Ultimately, most of FedEx Leadership training is aimed at reviving employees’ motivation levels. And when motivation is spurred to great heights, “ownership of outcomes is substantially better,” says Nielsen, which ultimately leads to greater return. Nielsen is quick to warn, however, about the perils of adopting a narrow focus on outcomes.

“If you only look at the bottom line, you are only going to work on the things that can truly be measured,” he says. “And if that’s all you are going to work on, then you are doomed to failure. You must deal with people where people live—in their hearts—and then tie it to their minds. If you have sold out experiential learning as being useless to your organization, you have kept your employees from receiving as much education, learning and training that is feasibly possible.”

Whose Style Is It Anyway?

Experiential learning’s application is not always tied to leadership or team-building exercises. And despite what critics say, such programs don’t have to be expensive or time-consuming to have a substantial impact.

7-Eleven, for example, conducted a two-day experiential learning retreat last December designed to teach 20 corporate field consultants the value of personality styles, thereby helping them to establish and maintain long-term relationships with franchisees. For Adriana Vargas, one of the participants, the program was invaluable in improving the work relationships she has with seven franchisees she oversees. While not immediately measurable, this typical “soft” return eventually led to an increase in new product placement among the franchisees.

Part of Vargas’ job requires her to regularly visit the franchisees (which share store profits with the parent company), and encourage them to stock certain store items or take advantage of specific promotional materials. Frequently, however, the corporation’s marketing and merchandising strategies do not match with those of local managers.

Enter: “Whose Style is It Anyway?,” the experiential learning retreat that closely resembled the popular television show, “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” which allowed participants to play different roles in impromptu skits. The roles were built around various personality styles which had been taught to the group earlier in the program.

One activity required the “actors” to sell knives in a television commercial, adopting the characteristics of a certain personality style. An analytical person, for instance, might speak about the exact length of the knife and praise how the balance and feel of the handle worked best with the blade’s curvature, whereas an expressive type may reenact something akin to John Belushi’s famous “Saturday Night Live” samurai-warrior sales pitch.

While the participants thought the games were light-hearted and fun, acting in roles outside of their normal comfort zones pushed them to understand how another person’s world-view, background, and most importantly, personality types, can actually shape perspective, thought and action. Conflicting personality types also inhibit communication when “tension” becomes the focus.

The activity allowed Vargas to better understand her own personality, both its positive and negative attributes. She also learned that a simple change in her approach to colleagues with differing personality types could vastly improve relationships. Following the program, Vargas put what she learned to use and started to notice a difference in her relationship with two franchisees in particular, who had in earlier weeks been “troublesome” to deal with. While it is admittedly “too soon” to measure any real sales improvements due to the training, Vargas reports greater success moving new products into the store than before.

“I have been through many training programs, and I really think this teaches skills that I didn’t get from any other program,” she explains. “I liked the interaction. It really taught me how to work with people on a different level…I’m using many skills I didn’t know how to use before. I still pursue my goals with franchisees as I have always wanted to do, but I now have a way to do it that is more appropriate for both of us.”

A Quantum Leap

Experts say that relationships, like Rome, can’t be built in a day, but don’t tell that to anyone at Milpitas, Calif.-based Quantum Corp., particularly not Jennifer Hamilton. Three years ago, Hamilton, then vice president of corporate marketing and e-business, led a large-scale project aimed at overhauling the company’s online infrastructure across its global operations. Internally referred to as Quantum Leap, the 18-month project involved a diverse group of members from the IT, engineering, marketing and graphic design departments.

Like many cross-functional teams, the group consisted of highly talented, yet very different people who weren’t used to dealing with each other, working on very aggressive timelines. Compounding the problem was the fact that some members of the team were virtual workers spread across the country, and, as Hamilton explains, “People will talk about the work, but they tend not to talk about their feelings or frustrations on a conference call.”

While attending a business conference, Hamilton found a solution—the Pacific Playback Theatre, a San Francisco facilitator of experiential learning sessions based heavily on the performing arts. “These kinds of approaches help group members increase synergy, develop trust and create a shared vision in shaping a new perspective on their current experience,” says the theater’s artistic director Nan Crawford. “They also help groups develop action plans to achieve their goals.”

Hired to facilitate periodic group meetings for the Quantum team, Pacific Playback actors led the group through a series of improvisational activities designed to reenact and share personal stories. With some music, simple props, lighting and costumes, the actors would interpret the stories told by team members.

As visual expressions of the team dynamics, the actors portrayed “roles” of several feelings such as isolation and frustration. Other times, team members would play the parts, even assuming the roles of other team members. The highly interactive sessions allowed each team member to ask questions of the actors or of one another, as they remained in character of one of their co-workers throughout the exercise.

The activity “gave everyone permission to put it all on the table,” Hamilton explains. “And we would leave those events being reconnected with each other, appreciating something about each other that we didn’t appreciate before.”

But the team also came away from the activities with much more than warm feelings: Empathy became more than a buzzword and work relationships began to change. In one instance, it was revealed that a team member’s son was suffering from a serious blood disease, which was causing some work delays. Instead of dealing with emotional roadblocks— assumptions like “This guy is a screw-up and doesn’t meet deadlines"—the team was developing strong bonds of understanding.

“What happens is that everyone starts to work that way,” Hamilton says. “It may be an extreme example, but those personal aspects helped create strong bonds between the people on our team. And it created a level of humanity rather than just deadlines and deliverables.”

Had the group not undergone team-building training, Hamilton says the corporative imperative likely would have been at risk of completion, not only on time, but also on budget. “Just about any team can get together and work hard for a couple of weeks or even two months,” Hamilton explains, “but to work hard for 18 months, with the same people, in an aggressive environment, with challenging deadlines at a real high caliber is something completely different.”

And Hamilton, for one, isn’t so sure that other training approaches would have yielded the results her team desperately needed. “In a traditional, structured learning environment you can get at the issues, but not the feelings,” she says. “And so often, the feelings are what affect a project’s success. Everything breeds on everything else; someone kicks you, you kick the next person, and all of a sudden a work group is really not happy working together. The work suffers and everyone starts pointing fingers. You have to change that. You do that by appreciating each other and seeing what each other is bringing to the table. And you can’t always do that in a classroom.” But you can in experiential programs.

April 2002, Training

Sidebar:
Better By Design

By Joel Schettler

When designed properly, experiential learning events can help employees increase their motivation, improve the quality of work groups and prepare teams to successfully meet today’s ever-increasing business demands.

Experiential learning is not new; rather it is a manifestation of the classic theories of group dynamics, behavior and learning. Broadly defined, experiential learning is a transformation of experience into what is then loosely called “knowledge.”

The experiential label is often applied to any training that simply involves the participants in some sort of group activity. As is the case, many training programs that simply place workers in simulated job situations are labeled “experiential.” But that would be an incorrect label, say experts; experiential learning involves much more.

While all programs vary in design, true experiential programs should take learners through four distinct phases-learners gain conceptual knowledge and theories, take part in a behavioral simulation, analyze the activity, and connect the theory and activity with prior on-the-job or life situations-according to An Experiential Approach to Organization Development, Sixth Edition (Prentice Hall, 2000) by Donald Brown and Don Harvey.

Prior to ensuring that an experiential program’s design incorporates the four steps, however, it is critical that, like any other training initiative, the program be tied to a specific business problem, says author and consultant Hersch Wilson. “Experiential learning is badly misused when it is just done because everybody else is doing it or when a meeting planner thinks it would be fun to go rafting, both of which happen a lot.”

Such poor examples, experts say, give experiential programs a bad name. In the typical scenario, a training director will hire an outdoor education company to conduct a ropes course. “The staff members are really excellent outdoor providers, but they know nothing about business or the language of the organization,” Wilson explains, “so they are not able to make the important connections to people going through the event. They tend to speak in glittering generalities, that unless you are about 10 years old or have been living in a cave, you already know these. It’s just not very useful. This is a problem for any organization.”

Once the business imperative has been identified, training professionals should next assess their audience, as some programs can be a bit off the wall and may not work well with some people, warns David Minionis, a partner at Footprints Consulting and Training. “The goal is to push participants outside any comfort zones, but within the group’s limits,” he says. “You don’t want to push so far that participants just don’t get it, or they are not willing to do it.”

And even when stretching people to their limits, Minionis says training professionals should never cross the fine line to make participants uncomfortable. “It should be challenge by choice. Sometimes you go out there and some people perceive the activities as dangerous-either physically or mentally,” he says. “You should never force someone into doing something that they are uncomfortable doing.”

In a large group, there is bound to be a few people with reservations, but those participants can take part in other roles and activities, such as acting as an observer looking for certain things during the exercise, so the debriefing process can still have meaning for them.

Training professionals should also be sure to engage multiple learning modes-kinesthetic, audio and visual-when designing experiential programs, offers Nan Crawford, artistic director of San Francisco-based Pacific Playback Theatre, an improvisational acting group that provides interactive experiential training programs. And when preparing specific activities for an effective experiential program, Crawford often asks participants for input on the session’s goals. Once these goals are created, she then asks participants to create values-based action plans based on their goals-allowing participants to take greater ownership of the activity and its outcomes. Clear communication about expectations is critical, she says, even when the participants have generated the outcomes.

Lastly, and equally as important, training professionals should have support from within their organizations. Wonderful training can get participants willing and committed to change, says Footprints’ Minionis, but then if they go back to a work setting that is not supportive, “the training just fizzles out and dies.” To ward against this, many companies, including several Pacific Playback clients, use the Gallup Organization and its Workplace Survey (dubbed the Q12), which ties improvements in business climates to improved financial results.

Other companies point to sophisticated in-house surveys that post accurate before-and-after “snapshots” of work group activity when undergoing experiential learning. But the most successful experiential program, Minionis argues, must have built-in metrics and best practices to assure its success-much like most “traditional” training programs.