One of the best definitions that has resonated with me isn’t from a psychologist or educational theorist but the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who once said: ‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand’. Experiential learning is all about achieving behavioural change. Naturally, we have particular objectives and concepts that we are trying to teach in any leadership program, but we clearly need to create an ‘A-ha!’ moment, and an experiential activity, in most cases, will achieve those light bulb moments. Instead of responding to a concept prescribed by an organisation, we are more likely as an employee to be personally committed to it because we’ve experienced it in ‘real life’.
Thus, successful organisations must rely on workforce collaboration and cooperation – and this couldn’t be more true of local government where working in partnerships and across boundaries is paramount to the success of delivering public services and working in complex integrated systems. It’s this collaboration and cooperation which is precisely the aim of most experiential learning programs – to generate new ideas, services and technological applications.
But if it were as universally simple and effective as Confucius suggested, why don’t more organisations invest in this experiential learning? And why does this concept seemingly feature less on our corporate leadership development offers than the traditional classroom (now virtual classroom) environment?
As HR and OD practitioners we often have to debate with critics of experiential learning – perhaps because they are viewed as ‘expensive days out of the office’? Perhaps the reason behind critics’ raised voices is experiential programs are by and large aimed at developing soft skills – teamwork, leadership and group problem solving – which, at best, are extremely difficult to measure and, at worst, don’t sit well with those seeking more instant corporate gratification.
It is arguable experiential learning may not deliver a more cohesive team immediately, but I would argue the payoff is down the road – it will impact behavioural change. Authentic learning journeys are a key part of development, and we should be taking any opportunities we can to provide these.
Richard Wills, a director at RW Training Associates – and creator of the new public sector Tri-Sector Challenge – comments: ‘Whether you’re a believer of the theories connected to learning styles or not, one thing is for sure, we can all recall moments in life where we learned bucketloads because we were suddenly asked to ‘step up’ and face a situation we were previously inexperienced at. These are moments such as jumping into the deep end of the pool and swimming like crazy so as not to go under, and peddling like mad once the stabilisers on your bike had been removed.
‘These examples are clearly pulled from childhood memory, but it still happens to us today. Look at the last few years for instance and what you achieved during the global pandemic. You were quite literally thrown in at the deep end again and asked to swim like crazy, learning on the job and developing so quickly while in the heat of the battle.
‘I am a huge believer that we learn best when in environments where we are asked to step out of our comfort zones and try things that don’t come naturally to us. That’s why I created the Tri-Sector Challenge, a real life and fast paced public sector management simulation event, that gives our aspiring senior managers of the future an opportunity to have a go and running an organisation for the day.
‘Many of the delegates who have attended one of our live simulation events over the years, still credit the challenge as being the single most important piece of personal development that helped them to evolve their careers. Developing your talent so that they are equipped and hungry for the next challenge could well be your biggest test at the moment.’
The Tri-Sector Challenge is certainly an opportunity not to be missed. West Midlands Employers are advocates of it and will be supporting public sector organisations in the West Midlands region to participate in the event on 10 November – not only as aspiring leaders as part of their talent development strategies but also to encourage senior leaders to participate as volunteers to help grow our future talent and help make the experience as authentic as possible. One thing we do know in local government is that the challenges don’t stop and our request for our senior managers to ‘step up’ is something we know we are good at.
The Challenge offers a fantastic opportunity for aspiring leaders to gain exposure to issues outside of their normal work giving them a taste of what senior management is really like.
They’ll have to identify which areas to prioritise, deal with politically sensitive issues and maintain customer focus when determining how to provide the public with the best services possible despite limited resource. In a post pandemic world – we can all relate to how important simulation experiences can be to help prepare todays aspiring leaders for tomorrow’s unpredictable future.
Manny Sandhu is a director at West Midlands Employers
● The West Midlands Tri-Sector Challenge is held on 10 November 2022, Birmingham. For more information visit https://trisectorchallenge.com/ or email email@example.com