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Learning by Experience

Making the most of experiential learning programs

By Laura Bickle

Earlier this year, Jodi Van Dam, the director of human resources for The Co-operators in Guelph, Ont., was charged with organizing the company’s annual conference of the best of the best employees. She wanted to give them an experience that “had a learning component, but was also fun.”

She approached Eagle’s Flight, also based in Guelph, which has provided team-based leadership training programs since 1988. After discussing the competencies she wanted to cover, they settled on Gold of the Desert Kings, a four-hour interactive learning program. It was appropriate not only because it focuses on decision making, time management and goal-setting, but the conference itself was held in the desert city of Indian Wells, California. So, on the day of the program, 56 employees and some executives gathered in a conference area and broke into seven groups. They were briefed on their mission: Collect as much gold as possible and return home safely. While the participants didn’t negotiate the actual desert, the conference room was decked out in the theme—there were even actual camels participants could ride. “It was really positive. People forget they are learning along the way but they are able to tie it all back to the day-to-day work environment.”

Hands-on interactive activities can be a memorable addition to a conference or meeting. And the philosophy makes sense: It’s based on the idea that we learn better by doing than by reading a book or attending a lecture. By incorporating challenges and problem solving, “experiential learning allows participants to hold up a mirror to themselves and make positive changes in their behaviour for themselves and business outcomes,” says Sandra Herriot, vice-president at Eagle’s Flight (

However, experiential learning has become so commonplace that it sometimes gets a bad wrap, being seen as frivolous and more about fun than function. That’s because if the program isn’t the right fit for the company and its needs, it misses the mark, says Doug Bolger, founder of Learn2 (, whose clients include American Express, the Canadian Government and General Electric. He says that the term experiential learning is dying, and that the proper term should be engagement learning because that is what most aptly describes why this type of approach is effective when done right. “Anytime a participant is engaged they learn dramatically more.” And if the techniques learned through a program translate into more engaged workers, that has a real impact on ROI: high engagement is associated with higher employee retention, fewer sick days and increased productivity.

How can you make sure your next experiential learning event delivers the most for your client? Read on:

Set goals
Know exactly what the client expects and needs out of the experience. You may need to talk to more than one stakeholder to make sure everyone is on the same page. Is the intent to improve leadership skills, adapt to change or build team cohesiveness? The more information you can give the training company, the better.

Know the team
Demographics and team dynamics have an impact on pro-gram selection. For example, if a younger group isn’t constantly engaged, you’ll lose them to their smartphones, says Bolger. “They demand a constant stream of attention.” Also, find out if anyone has done similar events. If there’s a particular secret to the activity, you don’t want it spilled. In such a case, those people can act as an observer, suggests Mark Thompson, president and CEO of McKinley Solutions ( which provides leadership development, team building and training services.

While many training companies have established programs, they can usually be customized for specific goals, themes, time allotments, audience size and needs.

Balance flash with substance
Certainly impressive staging and props can draw in an audience, but it’s worthless if it doesn’t get results. “Looking good is important, no question," says Bolger, "but less pretty methods can still push a company to an entirely new way of doing busi-ness.” He cites iLearn2’s popular Bridge the Gap program, whose most prominent props are index cards.

Target the trainer
Sure, you want a facilitator with lots of charisma and personality, but they need more than that, says Herriot. “They also need business experience.” And that includes familiarizing themselves with the client’s business and culture beforehand. Herriot says Eagle’s Flight facilitators are often mistaken as employees by participants because they know so much about the business. Thompson adds that trainers should be well versed in the principals of adult learning and be able to adjust the program on the fly as need be.

Sweat the details
Offsite training programs can actually put more stress on employees, particularly those who have to rearrange caregiving arrangements or need to travel long distances. It’s important to plan for those contingencies and be flexible.

Make the time
Once you know what you want to accomplish, make sure there’s time in the schedule to accommodate it. Bolger says that many planners look for programs that fit a hole in the agenda, whereas it’s better, if possible, to choose the most suitable program and then plan around it.

Don’t downplay the debrief
Thompson says his facilitators spend at least 30 minutes after an activity connecting what has been learned directly back to the workplace. And it should be customized to the company. “You can have fun, but it has to come back to ROI.”

Have a follow-up plan
Depending on budget and the nature of the program, follow-up e-mails, meetings or conference calls with the training company and participants can help ensure that the lessons learned continue to resonate.

While experiential learning can build group cohesion and skills, it isn’t a cure-all, says Mark Thompson of McKinley Solutions. “Training is not always the answer. Sometimes the problems are bigger than that, especially if you have the wrong people on the bus.” That’s why it’s important to look at the team characteristics and company goals from the outset of the process. Thompson says he has encountered situations where, after assessing the team, he has advised clients to reconsider their staffing before introducing a training program.

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