Imagine an executive team stripped of their suits, ties, heels and pearls and reengineered as a group of emergency room (ER) staff; as crime-scene investigators; as members of a courtroom; working as an emergency-response team inside an ambulance; or rowing in a crew, complete with Olympian instructor.
In gowns, scrubs or rowing gear, they are pushed into entirely new professional environments where accuracy, teamwork and responsiveness are critical.
The methodology is known as experiential learning. Pioneered by US educational theorist David A. Kolb it is the process of making meaning from direct experience in different contexts.
The right experiential learning can strengthen leadership skills and effectiveness, enhance prioritisation and decision-making skills, improve communication, sharpen negotiation techniques and allow leaders to see their own business problems from fresh perspectives and connect the learnings to their workplace.
Through these immersive experiences, new skills can be developed that can be deployed in participants’ day jobs. It provides an opportunity to practise new (desired) behaviours that are needed in the business.
Cashed-up companies invest in immersive experiential learning in order to explore new behaviours and new ways of working and to see things from multiple perspectives.
If experiential learning is not done properly, if there aren’t clear business objectives and learning outcomes, this executive training is not much more than “parlour games on steroids,” says Cheryl Stokes executive director of the Learning Innovations Team at Duke CE.
It designs experiential learning experiences to be as authentic as possible – real lawyers, real race-car drivers. This enables participants to fully engage, “and lessens their natural tendency to dismiss the experience as ‘play’, allowing natural behaviours, bias and mindsets to emerge,” says Bradsher.
Know. Do. Believe.
MGSM’s executive director of executive education, Paul Kirkbride, has extensive experience developing experiential learning sessions for his clients. “It’s not good enough to just have cognitive knowledge. It needs to be translated into behaviour.”
“So much executive education is centred on the ‘know’ part, and not enough on the ‘do’ or ‘believe’,” says Dr Kirkbride.
As part of AGSM’s six-day $16,445 Accelerated Leadership program, eight executives learn how to be in sync with their colleagues in a very different office – a coxed eight rowboat with an Olympian rowing facilitator.
A banking executive will have to take on a challenge that an energy executive from the group is facing and vice versa.
According to Jayne Jennings, general manager of Open Programs and Learning and Practice at Melbourne Business School (MBS), participants generally enjoy the experience, but it is often what happens after the session that kickstarts the process of behavioural change.
“More profoundly, they have real ‘ah ha’ moments either during the activities or during a reflection phase,” she says.
MBS uses a range of experiential learning methods, including role drawing (not playing), impromptu theatre and excursions to sporting or cultural events, as well as immersion activities where participants visit other organisations and/or other countries.
Dr Kirkbride points out that there is very little teaching per se, in experiential learning situations. It is more about participants going through a process, then reflecting on that experience and relating it back to the future leadership behaviours they want to achieve.
One of the benefits of experiential learning is that it can be a very safe way to allow a company’s “undiscussables” to be addressed: the elephant in the room can be introduced to discussions in a less threatening way.
“Whereas if I simply said: ‘these are the undiscussables in your organisation’, everybody would keep their head down,” Dr Kirkbride says.
In AGSM’s custom programs, executives can take on a persona in an experiential session where they must play out the “dark side” of their personality.
Wesley Toms, client relationship manager at AGSM, says that experiential learning can help participants see how this behaviour impacts on staff and the business on a day-to-day basis.
For Bradsher, the business case for experiential learning is clear: “We would say that if your organisation is not providing any experiential learning in your work, then you are missing an opportunity to provide a better, more effective service to your clientele.”