The Evolution of Experiential Learning

Training & Development, March 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Evolution of Experiential Learning

Just as every species in the plant and animal kingdoms gradually undergoes a change, so, too, do man-made systems. Last year, we reported on how far experiential learning has come in less than three decades-evolving in usage from an ephemeral feel-good bonding around a campfire to a sophisticated training tool.

Good experiential learning must provide an experience that is applicable to life in the organization. Any knowledge, insights, or skills gained from the experience must be linked to a company's mission and specific business challenges. And the experience should be conducted in such a way that it helps accelerate a person's learning curve.

In interviewing the participating companies for this year's special section on experiential learning, it seems that one more step forward has been taken in building professionalism, in evolving the activity-based methods companies may use to help their clients link-back these learning experiences to the real-world, and in facilitating longer-term change.

Raising the bar

A clear signpost on the road to a profession's evolution is the formation of self-patrolled membership organizations. In 1998 at the Association for Experiential Education's annual conference, a small group of experiential learning companies met to talk about creating an alliance of providers to evolve practices and better serve client organizations. Although many considered themselves competitors, they shared a desire to develop and promote best practices in the field and to educate prospective users on selection of experiential training and development services from any provider.

Subsequently, the Experiential Training and Development Alliance (ETDA) was incorporated as a not for profit trade association that currently consists of 19 U.S. and Canadian companies. Pat Costello, a board member of ETDA, says that the alliance was born partly out of the shared desire to "differentiate experiential approaches that are more consultative and transformational over time from point-in-time events that focus more on shorter-term outcomes.

The Alliance provides members with a forum for the exchange of creative design and delivery methods, a database of instructional materials and collaboration--as needed--on client projects. EDTA requires member organizations to define their capabilities in delivering options in each of the three areas of practice: relationship development, performance enhancement, and consultation and intervention. "For years now," Costello says, "providers have offered their services in, say, leadership development, but have relied solely on an emotional adventure experience and debriefing to deliver on the assumed promise of skills enhancement. We believe it serves organizations well to provide definitions for experiential practices and outcome criteria that they will find helpful when considering these approaches in their training efforts."

Up until now, part of the challenge of educating the public has been the reality of many small experiential firms scattered across the U.S. and Canada with no organized communication's process to tell the world what they are up to. A major benefit that ETDA provides a potential client is help in pinpointing their needs and making a match. "Too often a firm contracts with an experiential firm whose primary expertise, for example, is relationship development work but what the client really needs is a company that understands consultation and intervention. We will help them find the right fit." To this end, ETDA's developing Web site will walk a prospect through this right-fit process-from client outcomes to geographic location to depth of expertise and experience needed by the client.

Climbing deeper

Mobile Team Challenge sells professional, portable ropes courses and offers training and development programming to enhance individual and team excellence. MTC's cofounder Cheri Torres reports there's been an increased demand for their portable courses, which enable a client to offer ongoing, onsite, and affordable programs.

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