Experiential Learning is not new but is incredibly under used as a method for training and developing staff. Consider for a moment how people tend to be trained at your place of work and what methods top the list?
Training courses where people learn via presentations, group discussions, case studies and perhaps some role playing are likely to figure quite high on the list for most companies. But how much of this is actually taken back to the workplace and transferred into improved performance? Traditional training courses are essentially a method of knowledge transfer with a small amount of skills development. As knowledge transfer goes they can be very effective, especially if delivered by a good trainer but it is somewhat hit and miss if this knowledge is applied effectively by the trainee upon their return to work. How much support will they receive from their manager? Will the learning be reinforced and reviewed at regular intervals? Will they get an opportunity to practice what they have learned? How much of the knowledge will be lost or watered down over time?
An alternative to sending staff on a training course is for the manager or an experienced team member to train them on the job. Coaching can be the most effective form of learning when it is done well. Knowledge can be transferred by the coach, skills can be developed in stages and both can be applied in live but supervised situations. This provides an opportunity for the work to be reviewed and feedback provide in order to facilitate rapid learning. Given that coaching is a widely effective form of experiential learning, what are the downsides? It requires a large investment of time by the coach. It requires a high level of coaching skill. Perhaps most significantly, it takes two people, the coach and the trainee, away from their normal tasks making them both less productive in the short term.
Another form of on the job training is to provide the trainee with a leap experience. This essentially involves providing the staff member with a specific job assignment or project aimed at developing a targeted skill set. This is raw experiential learning. If successful the individual is likely to learn rapidly, hence a leap experience. However, the downside of a leap experience is the risk of failure and the accompanying damage to both the person’s confidence and the business.
When I set up the Experiential Learning Centre it was with the intention of combining the best of these learning methods in order to provide the most powerful developmental outcomes at the lowest possible risk. Together with a small team of learning and development experts, we designed a series of simulations and activities that mirrored a range of leadership, team working and business skills scenarios but delivered within the safety of a classroom environment. A great simulation in itself is not enough. In order to complete the learning experience each simulated programme needs to be supported by high quality facilitation and expert coaching. The results have been extremely powerful.
Trainees are able to learn by experience and transfer what they have learned back in the working environment in order to perform at a significantly higher level. In essence, what we have developed is a series of safe leap experiences which is the holy grail of staff development.
As one of our leadership facilitators, Jonathon Elliott says “It really is quite remarkable to see the learning that takes place during an experiential leadership event. Delegates don’t just learn from being a leader themselves but also from how others go about leading and managing. Sometimes they will be on the receiving end of an activity in which there is a weak plan or where a conflict is poorly handled. Other times they will experience an exceptional piece of teamworking or find themselves being motivated at a high level. In both scenarios they are learning something that they will be able to take back to work and use immediately. At the end of an experiential event, people are noticeably at a significantly higher level of competence than when they joined the programme. They are able to apply what they have learned in a variety of situations and perform better.”
The reality is that many managers lack the time and ability to facilitate experiential learning in the workplace. The result is that staff are often unable to develop as well as they could or they are thrown in at the deep end, often with high risks attached. Simulated experiential learning provides a compelling alternative as long as it is supported by high quality facilitation and expert coaching interventions.
Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.
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