Time to revisit experiential learning?

by Iain Hopkins12 Sep 2012

A popular fad of the mid-1980s, experiential learning, may be headed for a comeback in the corporate world.

Corporate learning in the mid to late 1980s had one shining jewel – at least initially. It was experiential learning, which became a popular tool and methodology for corporate development programs. Usually it involved taking a group of executives out to the wilderness, throwing them off cliffs or sending them down rivers without paddles. Somehow this was intended to turn these groups into high performing teams. Now it might be set to make a comeback – with some modern-day tweaks.

Dr Travis Kemp, leadership and talent director at Lee Hecht Harrison (and host of ABC2’s factual TV series ‘Do or Die’), told HC that by the time the mid-1990s rolled around, the fad died away. “It fell out of favour, which is unfortunate because the methodology lends itself nicely to creating some compelling change experiences for people. When it’s used effectively it can be quite transformational,” he said.

Experiential learning is making a slow but steady resurgence, particularly in the field of coaching and as a tool to improve worker relationships. “Coaching as a methodology is a very similar process and cycle to an experiential cycle – there’s an experience, a gathering of data, a processing of that experience through guided conversation, discovery and other methods, and then there’s some meaning made of that, followed by some forward planning as a result of that meaning,” Kemp said.

Using elements of neuroscience, experiential learning can be particularly effective in breaking down established patterns, habits and behaviours. “It disrupts those autonomous systems and dynamics, and it forces people who are embedded in their hierarchical roles to interact and behave with each other in different ways, in a very different environment. It’s a great leveler. Most of the time when you take people out of the office into a wilderness environment they are reduced to equals,” Kemp said.

The key is the methodology associated with adventure. What defines an adventure are two fundamental elements: going into an activity that has uncertain outcomes which makes it difficult to predict what will happen at the end of it; and a notion of risk – whether it’s physical, emotional or behavioural.

When you put those together it creates an environment where I’m forced to step outside of my comfort zone,” Kemp said.

“We’ll often take a group – a leader and direct reports – that is performing at an adequate level now but they want to move towards sustainable peak performance. We’ll put them in an environment where their behavior and interactions will emerge spontaneously. What normally happens when you put people out in the wilderness is they behave like they do at work. That brings to the surface a lot of behavior that works well - but it will also surface the behavior that’s not working well. That becomes the foundation for the focus, because the environment then offers a laboratory to try to find a different way of behaving and interacting.”

The experience will normally amplify whatever emotion already exists – and this can be everything from anger through to frustration, engagement and even hyper-engagement. “You get extremes of bahaviour. When it’s amplified then we can grab hold of it and start to unpack it,” Kemp said.

While it may not reach the dizzying levels of take-up seen in the past, Kemp is confident that experiential learning can be hugely beneficial and deserves a second chance. “Unfortunately a lot of people had ordinary experiences with it a long time ago but now we understand more about it, and when you get skilled and capable people working with you, it can be a very effective methodology for change and growth,” he said.


Travis Kemp is the host of ABC2’s factual TV series ‘Do or Die’ which pushes office workers to their physical and psychological limits by throwing them into wild and unpredictable environments. ‘Do or Die’ will air on Wednesday nights on ABC2 from September 12 at 8.30pm.


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