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Bringing training to life

As digital technology transforms the way we work new skills will be needed. Can alternative training methods – from symphony orchestras to storytelling – offer a better outcome?

There’s a joke in training circles that the trainee’s job is to fall asleep during the session and the facilitator’s job is to stop them. And indeed we could all tell horror stories about dull PowerPoint presentations. They crop up often enough to suggest that traditional ‘chalk and talk’ training is held in low regard.

Yet as digital technology and AI disrupt traditional work, training (and re-training) will play an ever-more vital role in keeping employees equipped with the right skills – even if we don’t know what these will be yet.

That said, the World Economic Forum has identified one key skill: creativity. It’s the body’s assessment that within three years creativity will be the third most vital workplace skillset. They don’t mean the ability to compose a piano sonata or write a novel during lunch breaks. But rather to think fast, be innovative, analytical, solve problems, and apply new and different ways of thinking and working.

So can traditional training – or more damningly ‘vanilla training’ – deliver the kind of transformational learning required to meet the needs of the future? And if not what’s the alternative?

Alongside ‘chalk and talk’ methods, there are (and have been for a while) a multiplicity of training techniques that are as different from PowerPoint as a lecture room is from a concert hall. Indeed some of them take place in concert halls. From team drumming sessions to raft building, a quick Google search throws up myriad ‘alternative’ ways to build teams, explore new ways of working, solve sticky workplace issues, and coach leaders.

But how effective are they? And do they fulfil their goals better than desk-bound techniques?

The training providers spoken to for this piece all work with a plethora of major brand names – some delivering their courses across the globe. Many are tight-lipped about who they work with; not just for contractual reasons but because those brands see this training as a distinct competitive advantage.


One such trainer is Graham Singleton, who started Make Yourself 12 years ago. Storytelling is his training technique. He works with teams, often in small groups, to develop ways to condense complex stories into effective communications. His clients include leading global players in digital, broadcasting and media.

“I worked in advertising for many years [running the global Guinness account for Ogilvy & Mather] and there was always a strong focus on the story: what’s the story of the pitch and can we tell it quickly? I realised I used it a lot in presenting,” relates Singleton. The course grew from an hour slot to a half day, then a full day (they can now run for up to two days).

One thing Singleton is very clear about is the need to focus on business outcomes. “There is no point telling a story in business unless you spur people into action,” he says.

This is a theme echoed by others, including Andy Reid, founding director of The Genius Box. His company ‘designs and facilitates creative workshops for big business’, which could involve everything from a creative artist storyboarding a team’s ideas, to building a physical sculpture of the ‘problem’ and putting it in the reception area for all to see. Past and present clients include HSBC, Visa, and Coca-Cola.

Reid points to the danger of an activity itself becoming the focus, to the detriment of the message. “I can remember training involving motorbikes and jazz bands but I can’t remember the content,” he says. “In terms of creative design I think it’s brilliant to invent new ways to get the message across, but if I was to turn this into advice I’d really say ‘will the message land, or will they just remember the technique?’”

He does strongly believe that a creative option can make a significant difference though: “The creative choice for creativity’s sake alone? No. But if there is an opportunity to be creative about the delivery mechanism that is always worth investing in.”

For Reid training is a very physical activity, and one that should involve all the senses: “When I teach tools and techniques you’ll find me with masking tape on the floor and coloured paper on the walls. I move chairs around the room, I make tools that come off the page, building a big 3D environment that people have to become a part of – that they can physically hold.

“I’ve seen that work incredibly well… [People] remember the feel of the paper, where they stood in space and time, and the information that was told to them,” he says. “It stimulates all those senses, and the more we can make that happen the more the learning will be trapped.”

Sweet music

When it comes to stimulating senses, music has incredible power to move. So it comes as no surprise to find it also being used in corporate training. Musician, conductor and Music & Management founder and CEO Dominic Alldis has been using music in training for more than 20 years.

“I did a session talking for an hour or two with a piano at the Royal Academy of Music conference for HR leaders, about various aspects of being a musician: what it’s like playing in the jazz and classical environment, about harmony and elements of music,” he reports. “What was fascinating to me was that many of the things I was talking about related very closely to things they’d been talking about in their conference. It set me thinking that this is really something I can do.”

His sessions range from a solo piano to a string quartet right up to a full symphony orchestra. The analogies between running a business and conducting are remarkably apt, feels Alldis. “It is rather like a business plan where there is a clear objective. The conductor’s role is to support the orchestra in this process, to give them feedback on how they are sounding, to inspire, to energise, and motivate the players to perform well as a team.”

He also feels that music has a liberating effect, taking people outside their usual corporate world and way of thinking. “The object is to get people thinking outside

the box,” he says. “It seems a cliché but by using a different vocabulary, talking about practice, harmony, dissonance, listening, tempo and rhythm, it helps business managers to broaden their own vocabulary, and look at the world though a different lens – the lens of music, a jazz ensemble say – and create something new with that.”

Alldis also feels that by investing in creative training organisations can show they care: “Investing in your people in imaginative ways adds value.”

Sporting bests

Like music, sport draws people together and can bring concepts to life. So it follows that sports psychology has found a useful and practical home among the techniques being used in management training.

William Winstone is a director at Performance1, which uses sports psychology to coach executives and teams. “When we’re using sporting examples it’s very much as a metaphor, as a way of opening people’s eyes to the vivid pictures of performance and examples from high-performance sport, which are then visible and translatable in the more complex world of individual leaders,” he says.

Once again the need to link the technique to the desired outcome is stressed. “It needs to be combined with insight and action,” says Winstone. “The work in coaching is what people do after the workshop and between coaching sessions. Part of that is good facilitation and coaching; where you say ‘so what action are you going to take? What impact is this going to have on your client and other key people?’”

As well as encouraging people to work together to hold themselves and others accountable for the actions and changes they have agreed, Performance1 has a platform that allows participants and their line managers to track their progress against agreed targets, and prompt them daily, weekly or monthly. Thirty days is the critical post-coaching time period, Winstone adds.

“Sports psychology helps people to make practical changes that deliver results,” he continues. “In the world of sport if it doesn’t make a difference you just don’t do it. So it’s tangible, it’s trusted by many, and it can allow a depth that ‘vanilla coaching’ – if such a thing exists – may not give.”

So with the focus now on preparing employees for a very different working world, it’s understandable that the spotlight should fall on training to encourage people to be more innovative, flexible and creative. HR now has a range of options far beyond the classroom to consider. And if focused and well followed-up these can deliver surprising results, with lessons unlikely to be quickly forgotten.