Forum on experiential learning

Our event for Responsible Business Week on April 1st focused on experiential learning based on social issues and community projects, as a way to promote the skills, behaviours and mind sets needed for responsible and sustainable business.Here is what we learnt.

1. Why are companies adopting this approach?

Leading companies are developing their people through real experiences that engage them in social issues and charity projects because:

  • It provides them with meaningful development and gives them an opportunity to act outside of their usual context and sometimes out of their comfort zones. It helps future leaders to get to grips with external social issues of relevance to the business. It gives them a broader, more strategic view of their business and the world around it.
  • Leaders need ‘soft’ skills like empathy and emotional intelligence more than ever before. This approach gives them an ideal learning ground for such skills.
  • It says a lot about company values. If future leaders are undertaking projects with charity partners, it means such activities are important.

They are not doing it to “give back” or be philanthropic!

2. What makes a great experience?

The best experiences:

  • take people out of their comfort zone
  • challenge their assumptions and change mind sets
  • provide a visceral experience – something that touches the heart as well as the head

We discussed examples such as working with school children on an internet child safety campaign, coaching deaf job-seekers to develop interview skills, supporting a homelessness charity to provide better employability advice for its young clients and running leadership workshops with ex-offenders.

Experiences can come in many forms and lengths – short, intensive projects (e.g. two days) to prolonged projects over weeks or months.

3. So what’s the impact on participants?

The combination of working outside of the usual corporate environment, working with people you wouldn’t usually work with (for example, school-children or ex-offenders) and working on a social topic can make this a “game-changing” experience.

Specific areas of impact include:

  • The ability to practise, apply and embed skills and behaviours such as team work, collaboration, coaching and inspiring others, networking and influencing without authority
  • Heightened self-awareness and awareness of impact on others
  • Deep insights into social issues of relevance to the company

The bottom line is that the experience is real and has an emotional as well as a rational impact on the participant. This makes the learning from the experience memorable and effective.

4. OK, so it’s all about the experience, right?

Not quite. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ is critical to get right. There should be an overall learning approach comprising:

i. Set-up/ preparation – assessment of individual learning needs, skills development modules

ii. The experience itself

iii. Reflection, review and learning from the experience

iv. Applying the learning by trying new things
Effective learning requires all four of Kolb’s learning stages, not just the concrete experience. Reflection is often neglected – but it’s critical. Beware these words:

“The skill of experiential learning in which people tend to be deficient is reflection.” (Boud, Keogh and Walker, 1984)

5. Who owns and drives the use of experiential learning then?

It depends. If the primary driver is learning & development, then it’s usually HR / Talent Development – but in some cases Sustainability / CR might make a financial contribution.

If it’s driven by a need to learn about social issues then Sustainability / CR might own it.

Either way, these two areas of the business need to be talking to each other so that a programme can be designed which supports their respective agendas.

Support and sponsorship comes from the ‘C-Suite’ whose business case – and resulting ROI – comes from developing high calibre, externally aware, values driven leadership, enhancing reputation and motivating and retaining top talent.

6. You mean it’s not just about learning & development?

Nope. Three Hands started running community-based learning & development modules some years ago – all driven by leadership development needs. But over time, sustainability learning has become an increasingly important ‘sub-plot’ of such programmes – to the point where it is sometimes the primary driver. For example, if you want to understand the needs of an ageing population, how better to learn than through a real project with a charity that supports older people?

More broadly, leading companies see experiential learning as a fast track means of immersing senior and potential senior leadership in:

  • global trends and influences
  • society’s changing expectations of the role and responsibility of companies in addressing the needs of a sustainable world
  • realities and needs of emerging markets
7. This all about deep impact for just a few people – but how can we achieve some scale?

Relatively small numbers of people go on leadership programmes and other types of community-based experiences, meaning the benefits to wider employee numbers might be limited. The key to tackling this challenge is to ensure that the people who’ve been on these programmes then have a positive impact on others in the business.

Let’s look at this from three different standpoints:

  1. Skills and behaviours – one leader might adopt new behaviours with her team of ten, for example – which spreads the positive impact significantly. This, after all, is what a leadership programme is designed to do.
  2. Sustainability learning – new learning about how to, for example, better serve customers with disabilities could be relevant to many colleagues, from product design to customer service.
  3. Community engagement – one in-depth community-based leadership project could lead to countless follow-on volunteering activities.
8. Last, but definitely not least, how do we ensure that we’re not simply using charities as suppliers of development experiences?

This is important. The programme must be designed with the principle of mutual benefit in mind – addressing the business objectives and charity needs in equal measures.

Charity partners should:

  • Have specific needs that the group of employees can address
  • Be engaged in issues of relevance to the business…
  • … and therefore have some subject matter expertise that will be of value to the business
  • Have the ‘capacity to receive’ so that the corporate engagement is a help, not a hindrance

Companies should be clear about what skills their people can bring. They need to avoid ‘one-off wonders’, and instead build long-term, strategic partnerships characterised by depth and mutual value.

Read more