Wacky training: Do unconventional methods really work?

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BallsWhat can offbeat and experiential training methods add to the L&D mix? And what do organisations stand to lose if the trend towards more creative approaches goes into reverse, due to training budget cuts? Dawn Smith takes a look at the more unusual side of training.

For several years, organisations have been increasingly willing to try 'something different' in the training line. Everything from horse whispering to juggling, from acting to making music has got onto the agenda. Not just in team building exercises, but in a variety of training situations, from touch typing to leadership development.

"In previous years there was more emphasis on formal training, but now organisations are thinking more deeply about their approach," says Victoria Winkler, CIPD advisor. "There is a whole myriad of things going on, and they are not just gimmicks. They are a way to get people engaged. There is also a lot of merit in removing people from the workplace."

Sitting up and taking notice

Introducing something new can be effective because of the 'novelty factor', says Nicola Smith, director of Oddball Training, which designs interactive, multi-sensory accelerated learning workshops on topics ranging from sales skills to leadership development. "When something new is introduced in a learning context, the brain has to make new neural pathways and connections," she says. That means delegates have to pay more attention, and are therefore more likely to be interested and stimulated.

Photo of Graham O'Connell"Your creative approaches need to deliver worthwhile learning that sticks and makes a difference in the workplace. Just being wacky is pointless."
Graham O'Connell, National School of Government

A skilled facilitator takes delegates on "a roller-coaster type journey that constantly engages mind and body, whilst allowing adequate time for the mind to assimilate the new information," believes Nicola. Oddball has used its approach for a variety of training purposes, including practical skills. For example, it ran a typing workshop for managers at Baker Atlas, an oil industry services company employing highly qualified scientists who had never learned to type. "They were a group of quite sceptical men, but after the one day course, which involved going around the room pressing 'keys' on flip charts with music playing in the background, every one of them has started to touch type in the office."

Fun is also an important element in training, adds Nicola, so long as it's given context. "Fun for fun's sake isn't usually well received, so again that's where good design comes in." The point about good design is echoed by Graham O'Connell at the National School of Government. "If you resort to creative methods just to liven things up then the fundamentals of your design and delivery are not right," he says. "Your creative approaches need to deliver worthwhile learning that sticks and makes a difference in the workplace. Just being wacky is pointless."

Getting out of the comfort zone

Many offbeat training approaches are based on experiential learning, which is based on the idea that delegates learn more by 'doing' than by being told how to do something. Kasmin Cooney, managing director of experiential learning provider Righttrack, points out that "any experiential activity needs to be specifically written to produce the required outcomes - you can't just get delegates to do things to keep them awake or to ring the changes."

Unlike on-the-job training, experiential learning takes delegates away from the workplace and puts them in unfamiliar situations where their abilities are stretched, and where lessons can be learned about how they approach tasks.

For example, the horse whispering workshops provided by Spring Partnerships are designed to highlight the leadership pattern of delegates and how this can be improved, by asking delegates to persuade horses to do as they want, using only body language. "The horse doesn't care about pleasing you," explains Spring Partnerships director Gareth Chick. "The only way to get it to do what you want is to create true clarity of purpose and trust with the animal, and to see it from their point of view."

A delegate who tends to become aggressive at work when not getting what they want from their team may try those tactics on the horse, and get nowhere. An unassertive leader may try being nice. Their horse will probably just wander off for a snack. They will have to try a different leadership approach, which they can take back to the workplace. "They may already know that they need to listen more, or be more clear and assertive, from feedback they've had at work," says Gareth. "But there is a difference between knowing it and experiencing it."

Transfer to the workplace

However, there are various challenges and potential pitfalls with the experiential approach. David Pardey, senior manager, research and policy at the ILM (Institute of Leadership & Management) says: "What worries me is that I'm not sure the learning outcomes are always clear, or that they are transferred to the workplace. A lot of trainers are not familiar with learning transfer as a concept. There is an assumption that if a person can do something on a training course they can automatically do it back in the workplace. Well, no. Not necessarily."

Photo of David Pardey"Training always gets cut in a recession. I think that there will be a lot more emphasis on very task related training. People will want the quickest and easiest solution."
David Pardey, senior manager, ILM

Kasmin Cooney at Righttrack, explains that "a structured review process" has to be designed, which allows the faciltitator to "pull out the learning from the activity" and facilitate the connection between the activity and the learners' workplace behaviours. "From this the facilitator needs to encourage learners to consider how much better an outcome would have been if such or such a thing had been done and then to encourage the focus on action that can be taken in the workplace."

Different types of activity work better for certain outcomes, adds Kasmin. "For example, outdoor search and rescue type activities are good for leadership communication. Theatre-based learning activities are good for project management – planning skills and even negotiation. Whilst art and murder mystery type events are good for team work, communication, problem solving and even creative thinking."

Graham O'Connell takes a broader view: "Using Shakespeare for leadership or outdoor activities for team building can help reach the parts other methods cannot reach, but it is how well you do it that is important, not the method itself."

Turn of the tide?

Now that the 'recession' word is being bandied about, there is a question mark over whether the trend towards creative learning approaches will be halted. "Training always gets cut in a recession," comments David Pardey at the ILM. "I think that there will be a lot more emphasis on very task related training. People will want the quickest and easiest solution."

Gareth Chick at Spring Partnerships also expects companies to cut back on this type of training in the current climate - which is a shame, he says, because the type of skills being developed by creative and experiential training are just the ones that are likely to be important in a more challenging business environment. "Just when they're needed, companies cut back on them," he says.

Graham O'Connell believes that 'playing it safe' in training can keep an organisation stuck. "The very act of 'doing something different' can be liberating and, as a minimum, can act as a model for more flexible and innovative ways of working," he says. "After all, if you are not prepared to change your own working practices then what right have you got to ask your delegates to change what they do?"

Dawn Smith is a freelance writer of more than 15 years' standing. She also runs a copywriting, translation and web marketing company called The Final Word
For more information see the following websites:

ILM
Oddball Training Ltd
Righttrack
Spring Partnerships Ltd

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