Raft-building in the Lake District, team games in hotel meeting suites, theoretical business projects and business simulations in conference rooms. These activities are all promoted as experiential learning – the process of learning through doing and, critically, reflecting on the doing so that learning arises from it.
Educational theorist David Kolb's well-known model provides us with a simple yet valuable framework for this development experience. It shows that reviewing the experience and reflecting on it with the aim of trying new things is vital to the process. That's to say, it's not just about the experience, it's about what you do with it.
But what the model doesn't show is the type of activity that can count as experiential learning. The consensus is that it needs to be 'real'. But what counts as real?
The raft-building might take place by a real lake with real water, but if the raft sinks everyone will be fine and will have a drink in the pub later. And if the business simulation fails, nobody loses any money. The team building exercise is, well, just an exercise.
Experiential learning is effective when it takes people out of their usual frames of reference, altering their perspectives and mindsets. There should be a chance for a wake-up call, even an epiphany. For this to happen, the activity has to be real and has to matter.
This is where the link to CSR and sustainability comes in. Basing experiential learning activities on real community and social issues doesn't get much more real. For example, challenges such as how businesses better serve customers with disabilities, how charities respond to funding cuts and how a team can make a raised bed that is user-friendly for wheelchair users provide genuine benefits.
As a guide, experiential learning activities should have the following characteristics:
- Real: there is nothing simulated or theoretical about the activity – it matters.
- Relevant: not just to society, but to business too.
- Engaging: they appeal to the heart as well as to the head.
- Original: there's no chance of the 'been there, done that' complaint.
This is not about philanthropy or giving back, but about developing skills and behaviours in ways that provide memorable, emotionally engaging learning experiences, connect people in business to critical issues and make a positive impact on society.
Jan Levy is managing director of Three Hands, which links businesses and communities