Back at Work After Outdoor Training – What Do We Do Now?

Over the weekend I attended a wedding reception in St Kilda and on introducing myself to one of the guests as a management consultant geared towards outward bound training and team building he stated that he had just been on a similar course under a month ago. His company, a well established pillar in the banking world in Australia, had just taken a group of employees on an outward bound training course. When I asked him what it is he learned while on the course, he seemed bemused and stated ‘nothing, we had a good time but we could have achieved the same result by going out for a drink at the pub’. This statement did not surprise me as much as I thought it would. This response to experiential learning, outward bound training or team building courses is far too common. Nevertheless companies still seem to be keen to go on these courses.

The Melbourne news towards the end of 2009 highlighted a team building course on the Yarra River gone completely wrong where some employees were left stranded. Whilst sympathizing with the participants I was happy to see that companies are continuing to invest significant proportions of money in employees’ training and development. Despite the negative vibes out there it is also important to state that research has demonstrated both cases for and against the effectiveness of outward bound training. It is difficult to measure the effects of such training and if done it is most often qualitative rather than quantitative. If a CEO were to ask HR ‘what is the ROI for this team building course?’, how does one answer? Typical answers may be improved communication, team cohesion, conflict resolution, etc. Of course the problem being these cannot be quantified directly or related to profits. When employees begin to speak about team building courses negatively it often states the truth irrespective of what OBT instructors stated or HR’s attitude towards the training. These patterns seem to be similar in the US, UK, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, etc.

After conducting a focus group and master’s thesis on the subject, it became apparent to me that the mixed nature in perception towards outward bound training courses is that some courses seem to include some elements which contributed to the success of the course whilst others that excluded these elements seemed to lack the desired results.

These elements could be broken down into three succinct phases in the training. The first is organization analysis. This phase very simply answers the question – why are we going on this training course? This phase explores the commitment to the training from the very top of the organization. Outward bound training is designed to bring about a change. This change needs to be managed. Change management is most often a failure unless it is driven by a committed senior managerial team. This phase also puts the organization on the dentist’s seat whilst examining its strengths, weaknesses and potential cavities that require filling.

The second phase focuses on the training course itself. Does the HR Function select the training course or do the OBT instructors? Which course will be most appropriate for your staff? How do we organize the teams during the course? How do we record key learning points on the course? Are the OBT instructors simply outdoor enthusiasts or do they have business administration acumen.

The third phase involves being a ‘reflective practitioner’. It encompasses cycles of review of the recorded key learning points, reflection and learning. It encourages the forming of groups to drive forth change and the leadership of senior management. It focuses on the learning being etched in the memory of the participants until such time as the somewhat robotic reflection of the learning becomes the norm. It encourages the development of neural pathways within each individual that embraces the change.

Each phase on its own is found lacking in effectiveness. Most companies only administer the second phase. When all 3 phases come together is the point at which learning is actually transferred from outward bound courses back to your company.

The implementation of a clear strategy in outward bound training courses is key to ensuring that when employees do return to the company they are not able to question the ‘back at work, what now?’ scenario.

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