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Rock climbing, rappelling, white-water rafting, tent pitching, sliding down a cable at breakneck speed, leaping across a wall or walking blindfolded around a lake—sounds like the perfect trip for the adventurous. These days, however, it could well be a group of senior corporate executives trying to achieve serious workplace objectives by incorporating outbound experiential learning into their training.

Experiential learning is built around American theorist David Kolb’s four-stage learning model, comprising Concrete Experience (experiencing a situation), Reflective Observation (reflecting on the experience), Abstract Conceptualization (drawing insights through reflecting on the experience) and Active Experimentation (applying the insight or learning to new situations).

Experiential learning, as the name suggests, entails learning by doing, and at times encompasses engagements in a more rugged outdoor setting. Such workshops or training modules can help achieve wide-ranging goals like leadership, teamwork, communication, creativity, problem-solving, negotiation and conflict management, which is perhaps why companies go in for these activities.

The model at work

Atul Srivastava, chief executive officer, Effective People, a human resources consulting and training company in Mumbai, explains how they incorporated Kolb’s four-stage learning model in activity aimed at sensitizing a group to the importance of being customer-centric.

Each participant was given a piece of pipe—they were to hold it so that it formed a pipeline. They were then required to roll a ball down the pipeline, with the aim of dropping it into a bowl kept some distance away. The group had fun strategizing, balancing, coordinating and celebrating each time the ball dropped into the bowl, an exercise that gave them an understanding of real experience.

A debrief followed. What challenges were encountered in the activity? What worked and what did not? What could have been done differently to minimize the ball drop? What behaviours played out during the activity? The participants acknowledged some of the challenges: lack of coordination, multiple instructions from different quarters, blame game, and lack of clear leadership.

The participants were then asked to draw parallels between the game and the way things play out in the workplace. This was moving into the third stage, which is abstract conceptualization. They were then told to ask questions such as: How often do they drop balls in real life? If the pipes were representative of different departments, and getting the ball into the bowl akin to getting the product across to the customer, how would they evaluate the experience they were providing to customers?

The last stage, which is about active experimentation, was about the team’s insights into processes, inter-personal and inter-departmental relationships, and what kind of impact these have on the overall customer experience. What would they do differently going forward? Would they tweak a process, set up a new process, work to improve personal and departmental relationships?

“This introspection and brainstorming tied up into an action plan," says Srivastava

While Srivastava’s devised activity was experiential in nature, it was not outdoors. Nidhish Singh, assistant general manager, human resources, at L&T Realty, recalls an outbound activity. He was pushed, goaded and encouraged by his team and the facilitators to walk on a bed of burning coal—the “fire-walking" activity. He remembers taking the first step with great trepidation and scepticism, expecting the worst. But the experience turned out to be magical—he emerged from the activity full of belief in himself. The experience helped transform his frame of reference from “not possible" to “it is possible", with positive impacts on both professional and personal life.

Most outbound experiential programmes work on the premise that such training can be key in developing tight-knit, effective and high-performance teams in a company.

A few months ago, an 80-member pan-India team of trainers from HDFC Bank had gathered at Karjat, on the outskirts of Mumbai, for an outdoors experiential learning intervention with the threefold objective of encouraging greater communication among the three verticals within the team, engendering creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, and encouraging participants to expand their comfort zones.

When it reached the campsite, the team initially resented having to stay in dormitories and share bathrooms, but this actually catapulted them out of their comfort zones, until slowly, albeit reluctantly, they began to adapt and enjoy the experience, says Parag Shah, senior vice-president, learning and development, at HDFC Bank, Mumbai. And as they began communicating more, they began to understand each other better; it led to a sense of bonding and camaraderie. “Some of these insights were further reinforced during the debrief sessions that followed activities like Australian walk, rock climbing and rappelling," adds Shah.

Back at the workplace, as trainers, the members of this team are constantly called upon to encourage the inculcation of new skills and tweak behaviour and attitude to adapt to the constantly changing dynamics of the banking industry. Their experience helped them make these calls with greater conviction, says Shah.

Today, six months after the programme, there is a greater degree of bonhomie within the team, greater willingness to take on new and challenging assignments and greater acceptance of the new platform for training delivery.

Setting goals

There’s a constant debate about the efficacy of outbound experiential training, with cynics often tagging these as glorified picnics.

And they can be. “It is imperative to design an outbound experiential programme within the ADIE (analysis, design and development, implementation and evaluation) framework to ensure that the programme does not degenerate into mere recreation," says Anil Bhatt, senior vice-president at SBI Life Insurance Co. Ltd.

Prasad Deole, founder director of the Mumbai-based Z-Bac Adventure Institute Pvt. Ltd, who takes corporate teams on “expeditions", says goal-setting is important. “It is important to select the right mix of activities based on the goals, appetite for adventure and available time and budget." The ability of the facilitator in tailoring and orienting the debriefing session in the direction of the desired goals is crucial, he adds.

“Diagnostics is crucial. We ask three questions to validate requests for outbound experiential programmes: What is the objective? What are the current challenges that you seek to overcome through the proposed intervention? How will you define success post training? This helps clients articulate their goals better and define a clear agenda for the programme, and weed out trivial requests like ‘Could you organize an outbound experiential programme for our team as they badly need a break?’" says Shah.

It is important to remember, however, that adventure activities must be used in conjunction with tools like psychometric assessments and case studies.

Singh says that in addition to documenting well thought out post-training action plans, a mechanism for tracking and monitoring these is key.

Charu Sabnavis is a learning and organizational development facilitator and founder director of Delta Learning.

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