How to get better return on your training spend with experiential learning

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Emma Sue Prince
Director
Unimenta
Columnist
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There will always be members of the team who think training is a waste of time - but it doesn't have to be. Providing experiential learning, with adequate time for reflection, will always produce better results. 

A client of mine was telling me about some recent conflict management training she attended and remarked that she resented taking time out of her complex and demanding job where she manages conflict daily, to do the training sessions.

The training, for her, was taking valuable time out of her schedule that she could ill-afford at a critical point in the project she is managing. I agreed that the training was a complete waste of time which I think surprised her.

So is training really a waste of time then?

Traditional training courses for project managers and leaders usually focus on team building, leadership, conflict management, problem-solving and similar kinds of soft skills.

Some also deal with managing stress, giving feedback and creativity and of course much more, and there are some really good programmes and trainers out there.

Many of them enable people to try stuff out, interact and develop awareness of strengths and weaknesses.

The better ones have well-facilitated exercises bound in sound methodology. The best ones include experiential learning followed by reflection yet these are few and far between.

So if you are looking to link this kind of training to a return on your investment then, yes, most of it is probably a waste of money as well as time.

If you take part in some role play on how to manage conflict using one of the many conflict management models out there - sure it's useful but it won't help you to manage conflict.

Why not? Because whatever you did in the role play you are unlikely to replicate in the midst of actual conflict. So what needs to happen in a training session is something that enables you to feel, taste and experience conflict in that moment.

Better for the trainer to join you in your day-to-day to enable you to build your awareness of how to handle conflict, reflect on what you're actually doing and find more effective ways to build your skills.

The reason why experiential learning has the highest impact on the chances of us doing that is because it allows us to be fully focused and in the moment and we can remember and recall the experience and relate it to our default reactions and responses much more effectively.

If you invest in this kind of hands-on training and it’s properly followed up and evaluated effectively then, yes, you’ll see huge returns.

Defining ‘soft skills’

When I ask people to define soft skills for me, they usually come out with things like working in a team, leadership, negotiation skills, communication styles, public speaking skills and many more.

Dig deeper and they start to pull out more specific competences such as being resilient, curious, taking risks, being adaptable and creative and many others.

Facilitating experiential learning exercises requires a high degree of skill.

These are not skills that are taught consistently or well in most mainstream education systems or in the workplace, yet they are the very skills that will allow us to get ahead, work well and enable organisations and individuals to thrive.

These are the skills that come from self-awareness and self-awareness comes from, among other things, experiential learning.

Facilitating experiential learning exercises requires a high degree of skill. Any exercise from a game to improvisation exercises to an outdoor problem-solving can be a vehicle for experiential learning as long as it is related to developing self-awareness in a key area.

Too often though, these activities do not build in sufficient time for reflection so the focus becomes on the activity itself rather than on the learning individuals may get from it.

What is experiential learning? 

Lots of people talk about experiential learning, but what is it? Isn’t all learning an experience?

In simple terms, it means learning by doing and then thinking about the experience and having a sense of how to apply that learning. So it’s about assimilating knowledge by trying something out. It’s a very hands-on way of developing knowledge and awareness. It builds confidence, a real understanding and insight of strengths and strategies for working on weaknesses. 

How does experiential learning work?

There are some key things that must happen for this to be successful. Learners have to feel good about what they’re doing, feel in control of the process and feel connected to the outcomes. The facilitator has to be very skilled at leading the session and at enabling learners to reflect effectively. Experiential learning requires a very high degree of expertise from the facilitator in terms of the reflection process and learner impact relies heavily on this.

Experiential learning is learning by doing and then thinking about the experience and having a sense of how to apply that learning.

The trouble is that most training does not include sufficient reflection time. The focus is often very much on the activity with some review. If you take a look at this interpretation of Kolb’s learning cycle taking part in the activity followed by the review is only half of the full cycle for understanding and implementation to take place.

Learners need to be able to not only interpret their behaviour and role in the exercise but they also need to think about it and have support in linking it to day-to-day experiences so that next time when they are in a situation where they need to apply a collaborative skill or a degree of adaptability they have something to draw on rather than resorting to default behaviour.

Interested in this topic? Read People development: Using experiential learning to create behavioural change.

About Emma Sue Prince

Emma Sue is author of The Advantage – the 7 key soft skills you need to get ahead published by Pearson Business. She has designed an experiential learning workshop based on these skills: adaptability, empathy, integrity, optimism, being proactive, critical thinking and resilience and is currently licensing trainers to deliver these. 

http://www.unimenta.com/The-Advantage-training/Licensed-trainer

Emma Sue provides consultancy in emerging economies and travels regularly to India, Bangladesh and Tanzania advising on a range of large funded projects. She runs a free membership site – Unimenta – for practitioners working in soft skills. When not working Emma Sue runs a local gospel choir in her home town of Godalming, Surrey and is an avid baker.

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09th Jun 2016 09:22

I think that training is definitely important, but only in the case where it has been accounted for. Obviously this is hard to do, especially for bigger organizations that have many concurrently running projects - we certainly cannot expect employees to drop what they are doing in order to just go for some course. But if it could somehow be worked into the schedule, it would definitely make a different to the way that certain departments are being run and managed. I would like to implement the same in my car finance company and I'm glad that at least our lead time isn't such that my employees would be penalised if they took a few hours off to learn something!

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20th Sep 2018 00:16

I think both are necessary really. To me experiential learning is something we should all be doing every day. Our entire lives is a school and at the end of the day, we should take some time to reflect on what went right, what went wrong, and what needs improvement. Training on the other hand is like a simulation. Sure, its not the same, but its like a basketball player shooting a thousand shots a day. Its not the same, but going through the motion is considered practice. So I think both play a critical role.

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