By Rommin Adl
Learners, especially in the corporate world, cringe at the thought of sitting through yet another boring class, trying not to doze off while listening to a less-than-thrilling, list-like dictation of information: a lecture. Dating back to the 15th century, the lecture is one of the oldest forms of education. However, the efficacy of this traditional teaching method is being challenged by a more powerful approach: experiential learning.
Experiential learning, which debuted in the early 20th century, and was not widely used until after the 1960s, has evolved from an exploratory technique to a common practice, and its rapid growth makes a lot of sense. People are naturally inclined to learn through experience. As life-long learners and students of our own experiences, we spend our lives exploring, practicing and learning from our mistakes.
Now used in a variety of settings, from the classroom, to the workplace, to even the golf course, experiential learning has become the bridge that connects knowledge with application. Through this interactive, discovery-based method, people become more engaged in the learning process and are empowered to assess situations and react appropriately.
In his book See and Feel the Inside, Move the Outside, PGA Master Professional Michael Hebron says that there’s little an expert can do by way of teaching students the particular motions of the swing. Instead, learning has to be experiential and feedback-based – the student has to practice the swing, adjusting based on expert coaching and then practicing again. This is true, he says, of all kinds of learning. “It’s about learning, not about golf.”
Where Traditional Approaches Fall Short
In 2012, National Public Radio broadcast a piece that provided compelling evidence of how experiential learning can significantly improve people’s understanding. In a Harvard study surveyed by NPR and which tested tens of thousands of students around the world, NPR found that traditional lecture-based physics courses produced limited changes in most students’ comprehension of fundamental concepts. In fact, these classes were only effective for about 10 percent of students, and evidence suggested that these students would have learned even without the instructor.1 The message is clear: listening to someone talk is not an effective way to learn any subject.
However, active, engaging teaching techniques have proven to increase student learning tremendously. Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur provides evidence of this strategy. More than two decades ago, Mazur changed his teaching methods to include simulations, small group discussions, peer instruction, and large group debriefs. In doing so, he witnessed some incredible results. “What we found, now over close to 20 years of using this approach, is that the learning gains at the end of the semester nearly triple,” he says.2
To date, Harvard continues to endorse experiential learning as an invaluable instructional method for its students. HILT, Harvard’s Initiative for Learning and Teaching, is heavily anchored in experiential learning; students have the opportunity to engage and experiment while working in one of the program’s innovations, SciBox, HILT’s laboratory for creative thinking. In SciBox, students are encouraged to take chances and make mistakes, and the center is designed to be an experimental space for increased learning. The value of experiential learning is so great that Harvard has continued to invest in programs that promote this type of learning.
Research from National Training Laboratories also underscores the importance of this learning model. Findings show that lectures drive only five percent retention, while “practice by doing” accounts for 80 to 90 percent retention. The case for experiential learning is compelling. As a result of these findings, Harvard Business School is introducing its biggest curriculum change in nearly 90 years, shifting from case study analysis to practice-oriented activities.
The Case for Bringing Experiential Learning into the Business World
The value of experiential learning is not limited to academic settings. Leading organizations are increasingly adopting cutting-edge experiential learning methodologies to effectively align leaders to strategy and develop the skills and capabilities they need to execute on it.
Ultimately, experiential learning creates meaningful opportunities for individuals to practice new skills: pilots will make test flights in simulators before flying the skies, and Special Forces teams will practice combat missions in reconstructed compounds before going out into the field. But this type of experiential learning, where an individual gets to practice their skills in a lifelike environment, unfortunately is something that corporations have historically shied away from.
Yet experiential learning is critical in business; traditional teaching methods such as lectures, books, or PowerPoint presentations are not enough in today’s hypercompetitive world. To truly evoke changes in behavior, businesses need to invest in the tools and techniques that will make it happen. This means employing methodology that allows employees to fully understand and immerse themselves in the experience of strategic change.
Dan Parisi, Executive Vice President at BTS, speaks to the change that is occurring around employee training and strategy alignment. “Corporations need to think differently around how they prepare people, and we’re here to convince them that experiential learning will deliver greater returns,” he says. Parisi underscores the financial viability of implementing experiential learning, but says it is also important to note that this style of learning has the capability to improve the organization in numerous other ways, namely through cultural and behavioral shifts that alter leadership structures within the organization and ultimately carve pathways to long-term success.
To communicate new strategies and motivate performance, executives typically rely on leadership off-sites and town hall meetings, which are heavily lecture-based. In these situations, people listen to executives – if they’re lucky and it’s not just another “death by PowerPoint” situation – and then return to their busy jobs with little time to focus on what has just been communicated. “That type of tell-them-what-to-do messaging often makes leaders feel like they have done their part in communicating to their team, but the approach doesn’t have the deep, visceral impact needed to motivate employees to execute the strategy,” says Rommin Adl, Executive Vice President at BTS. As a result, people in an organization often go back to their jobs without understanding or having the confidence to do things differently. It ends up being business as usual.
In today’s hypercompetitive world, business as usual simply is not good enough. Yet it’s a common status quo, as a large number of firms don’t effectively communicate and align their entire workforce to their strategy.
A study conducted in by the Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by BTS, titled Mindsets: Gaining Buy-in to Strategy, demonstrated that buy-in to strategy significantly dropped off below the C-suite and executive leadership level. This was especially true for companies with below average profitability, but was consistent across firms. Companies who were market leaders in profitability ranged from 89 percent buy-in at the highest level of leadership to 56 percent for line employees; for companies with below average profitability, the commitment to company strategy was 75 percent at the top and a mere 13 percent at the bottom.
These metrics are indicative of both the importance of strategy alignment throughout the organization and the challenge, even among top performing organizations, to fully align all employees to the company’s goals. It takes every member of teams at all levels throughout a company to achieve business success, and getting halfway there is not an option – particularly when it’s the mid-level and front-line leaders who are critical for strategy execution. A company’s worst nightmare is a well thought-out strategy that sounds good in principle, but once implemented crumbles because a misaligned team starts moving in various directions.
The solution for aligning and engaging employees is to place them in a dynamic learning environment. A dynamic learning environment provides a lifelike setting in which employees have the ability to practice their skills. It promotes a better understanding of strategic priorities, accelerating development of the essential skills and capabilities for execution.
In business, the best dynamic learning environments take the form of business simulations—experiential-based learning processes that provide real-time feedback and boast the most frequent success rates. As stated in James Bolt’s book The Future of Executive Development, the beauty of a business simulation is that “just like a pilot in a flight simulator, an executive can fail, go bankrupt, and live to fly another day with no lasting consequences to people and resources.”
Business simulations encompass a variety of models that range from multistage algorithms to decision-tree structures that take learners down paths with different end results. In a simulated experience, participants immerse themselves in situations where they are forced to perform, obtain feedback, and adjust their behavior. Leveraging this comprehensive methodology better enables participants to replicate new behaviors and skills in the real-world business environment.
Experiential learning through simulations is the key for great business alignment, strategy execution, skills development, and success – and the benefits of simulations only continue to increase when the situations are highly tailored for individual business and strategic goals.