Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Power of X – Experiential Learning in Today’s World

It’s generally accepted that most of the learning that occurs within our organisations takes place outside formal training and learning events.

The majority of our learning comes from the new and different experiences we have in our daily work. Our learning also comes from practice and from conversations and from taking the opportunity to reflect on our experiences and on those of others.

Smart organisations look to exploit the fact that most learning comes through these four channels (experience, practice, conversation and reflection) by ensuring that managers create the right environments and provide learning opportunities for their team members on an ongoing basis in the workplace. Good managers do this in a number of ways. It may be by opening up new challenges, exposing their employees to new experiences and stretch assignments from which their employees can learn, by rotating members through various roles within their team, or through various other approaches such as job shadowing, informal coaching and mentoring, establishing professional and role-related networks for knowledge and experience sharing and so on.

Some telling research

A little while ago the Learning and Development Roundtable, one of the HR research and support practices within the Corporate Executive Board based in Washington DC, researched the 15 most important actions a manager can take to improve the performance of their team members and their teams overall.

Of the three actions that have most impact, two involve experiential learning. The other is brought about if managers simply tell their employees what they expect of them and how they will be measured against those expectations.

The table below shows the top three actions this research uncovered.

Manager Action

Average Performance Improvement


Explain performance standards: clearly explain to employees what is expected of them and how they will be measured against those expectations



Ensure Projects Provide Learning: Ensure each currently assigned project or assignment is a learning experience for employees. Discuss and reflect on objectives, progress and output



Provide Experiences that Develop: Help employees obtain the experience at work that will help them develop over time


Learning & Development Roundtable, 2005

Interestingly, two manager actions that came out near the bottom of the Learning & Development Roundtable’s impact list were:

  • Teach a new skill or procedure – which elicits an average performance improvement of 7.7%
  • Ensure necessary skills/knowledge – which elicits an average performance improvement of 6.7%

By providing experience that help their team members develop, and then working with them to ensure they learn from those experiences, managers are using two of the most powerful development levers available. It’s not rocket science. It is simply just good leadership and management practice to focus on experiential learning.

What can L&D professionals do?

What then can learning and development professionals do as part of their role to leverage experiential learning?

The answer to that question, first and foremost, must be for them to stem the flow of content-heavy courses and re-focus on what they can do to replace content with experiences or, at least, replace a large amount of the content with more opportunities for experience.

The vast majority of courses and other formal learning is content-heavy and interaction-poor. If we count the number of interactions in a formal classroom session (including both teacher-learner and learner-learner interactions), or in a piece of eLearning, then we are likely to find a number in the tens rather than the hundreds. Research has shown that this is the case. The average number of interactions, per group, is often as low as 20. That’s per group, not per individual learner!

On the other hand if we consider the level of interaction in, for example, the computer game HALO (the world’s best-selling entertainment property which sold over $200 million on its first day of release) you will find more than one million interactions. That’s correct, one million interactions! Now, computer ‘shooter’ games may not be your idea of a useful way to spend your time or learn, but L&D professionals need to think about the ways they can transform the learning content they develop into real learning experiences with the emphasis on ‘experiences’ and not on transmitting content.

It is even better if L&D professionals can step outside the model of courses, curricula and formal learning and start to think about what they can do to facilitate and encourage individual contributors and management in their organisation to develop opportunities for learning through experiences. Provide some new challenges, ensure support is in place, build tools to facilitate network-building and the opportunity to discuss with others and to reflect. Think experience, practice and sharing rather than content, content, content.

The Importance of X

This experience component is vital. Experiential learning is a very powerful tool, especially when it is coupled with the smart use of technology. There are some excellent experiential learning models and tools available for training and development professionals to apply as part of their role in supporting managers to build employee and organisational capability.

But to use experiential learning approaches effectively, learning leaders need to step away from exclusive focus on knowledge and skills. Knowledge and skills are ingredients in the output that is excellent performance, but their importance is overrated. Building knowledge in heads and skills in heads and hands is no guarantee for improved performance. Building employee capability is more complex than that.

The main difference between experiential learning and more traditional classroom-based and eLearning approaches is that experiential learning is focused exclusively on action rather than on information. The underlying principle of experiential learning is that we learn through ‘doing’ and that our contribution in our job role is based on our ability to do rather than to know.

The 21st Century experiential learning view is that the place to store vast amounts of information and knowledge is in libraries, not in heads, and that now and in the future these libraries will be increasingly virtual, easy to access, and usually available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen.

Knowledge versus experience

Focusing on knowledge and ‘knowledge transfer’ (whatever that is supposed to mean) as the way to build employee capability will almost inevitably lead to less-than-effective performance. Workforce readiness depends on more than filling heads with knowledge. It depends on developing agile thinking and the ability to ‘find’ and ‘do’ rather than the ability to know. And the development of these capabilities requires experience, practice, conversations and reflection.

Experiential learning and technology

Outside of opportunities for workplace learning experiences, there are some state-of-the-art experiential virtual world learning solutions emerging that offer an “apprenticeship” for employees seeking real-world experience without the risk of severe implications or errors. As learners gain practical skills in an authentic and safe learning environment, organisations can focus on helping them develop their core competencies and avoid the distractions of having to spend so much time focusing on complex experiential learning development and delivery.

One such solution that we rolled out in Reuters, where I was the chief learning officer, was the Toolwire live labs environment which we used for our technical employees and software developers, many of whom were both young (without extensive experience) and geographically distributed (some being located in the USA and Europe, others – an increasing number – being in a number of countries in Asia.

The Toolwire live labs and interactive virtual worlds system offers access to suites of (real) servers and routers for technical training. Along with scenario-based assignments, this hardware can be configured and tested by learners remotely through their laptops or PCs. If errors are made, the hardware can be automatically reconfigured to initial state for further attempts. This experiential learning environment replicates the type of environment found in many classrooms and on training servers but, by using the Internet cloud and some smart reconfiguration technology, overcomes some of the problems inherent in standard classroom experiential learning environments.

Other experiential learning environments are also emerging. I was recently given a tour of a Language Lab in Second Life where there is a lot of language learning activity. The British Council is very active in teaching English in Second Life to children aged between 13 and 17. They have a dedicated safe area for teenagers, called British Council Isle.

Apart from first generation virtual technologies such as Second Life, other environments such as those developed by Forterra Systems are starting to be implemented in organisations outside the military (where they have traditionally been in use for some time) for experiential learning use.

A call to action

In summary, learning and development, training and performance professionals ignore the power of experiential learning at their peril. Without constant focus on identifying new ways to utilise and exploit experiences, practice, conversations and reflection any learning solutions produced will be very much poorer.

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