Experiential learning — Or how to teach old dogs new tricks

One of the problems with adults is that they think they know everything. Consequently, it’s tough to teach them new things.

Add in shorter attention spans and the job of a professional trainer becomes even more difficult.

People tend to get very bored very quickly these days and the last thing they want to do is spend time in a classroom being lectured about how to improve their performance at work.

Trainers will tell you it’s not unusual to talk all day to some people and they think they already know what they’re being told — until they actually go out and try it. “That’s when they get the ‘a-ha moment,’” says Peggy Grall, an independent team and management trainer.

This is why experiential training, and its raucous cousin action learning, have become so popular in the last few years. It’s a variation on the old model of simulation training and is premised on the same simple notion that adults learn better by doing things.

If you haven’t tried it out yourself you’ve probably heard of an organization that has. It’s commonly used for team-building, and often involves putting employees in extreme, or at least unusual circumstances, or presenting them with a task they have to complete with tight constraints and limited resources. There are lots of different models but they often have the flavour of an outward-bound challenge. Others are less strenuous — Grall has asked a team of engineers to build the Starship Enterprise from Lego – but, as abstract as such exercises may seem, they all have learning objectives that are aimed at improving employee performance at work.

After working together to attempt some task or other, the key is to sit down with staff and go conduct a thorough debriefing with the participants talking about their effort, says Joan Hill, president of the training and development firm, Core Consulting Inc.

Perhaps an organization didn’t assess the skills of the teammates for best fit, or they didn’t communicate as effectively as they needed to. Through the debriefing employees can gain insights into themselves and their teammates and what roles they are best suited for. Are they a thinker or a doer? Who takes charge and who falls back? Who might need a little extra help getting over certain kinds of barriers?

Hidden agendas are constantly at play in the workplace and subsequently create a particular climate of behaviours and actions. But when employees are brought together to build a bridge to overcome a common challenge, that climate disappears. “It’s a safe learning environment with no consequences, so if they lose as a team there are no implications,” says Hill.

The ultimate goal of the training exercise is to ensure that what is learned is transferred back to the workplace. There has to be accountability, with action plans to build on the strengths and develop the weaknesses that are revealed.

“If followup doesn’t exist, a shift in behaviour won’t happen,” says Hill.
Action learning sessions do tend to be time-consuming and a little more expensive then other forms of training because they are require more labour-intensive design and implementation, says training designer Dave Martin.

“Conceptually, they are very good,” he says “My experience is that anything depends on how well it’s put together. If they’re not good, you run the danger of employees having fun but being unclear of what they learned.”

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