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The outdoors provides an extremely powerful medium for training managers in new skills or helping them to improve old ones. This is largely because outdoor learning is experiential in nature. It therefore makes sense to spend some time examining experiential theory and its application in the outdoors:


Experiential training has evolved to provide more effective means for people to continue to learn and develop throughout life. We all learn from experience. By burning ourselves we learn to avoid heated objects, by testing our parents' (or bosses!) patience we learn about acceptable standards of behaviour and the consequences of transgressing. Every day we have experiences from which we  learn; education has even been defined as changes in behaviour caused by experience. Some things simply cannot be learned from books or lectures. Examples range from riding a bicycle to falling in love. So experiential learning is a natural and constant life process on which all development training, particularly Management Development Outdoors aims to capitalize.

Experiential learning can be seen as a four-stage cycle:

1.         concrete, personal experiences followed by,

2.         observation of and reflection upon one's experiences, which leads to:

3.         the formation of generalisations and abstract concepts, leading to:

4.         hypotheses to be tested by future actions, which in turn lead to new experiences.

Experiential learning is based on three assumptions and provides further clues to the design of a successful programme:

■          People learn best when personally involved in the learning experience;

■          Knowledge, to be truly meaningful, has to be discovered by the individual;

■          People are more committed to learning when they are free to identify and pursue their own goals.

In experiential training the responsibility for learning lies with the trainee, who therefore needs to be active and assertive in the learning role, whilst trainers should limit their role to providing effective design, and a focus for reflection and the drawing of conclusions by the trainee. For example if delegates wished to learn about leadership they could take part in a programme designed to focus on that issue, reflecting on seen and experienced behaviour to decide for themselves what were the important lessons learnt and how best to apply them in the future.

In a well-designed experiential learning programme people will be encouraged to experiment, try new behaviours and draw their own conclusions. Theories appropriate to the situation may then be presented to help them develop frameworks to fit their own unique requirements and environment.

Despite the criticism of some formal training methods, theory still has its place in experiential learning. Delegates often place greater confidence in their own learning when they discover that formal input supports it and appropriate models can aid understanding and retention. There is little room for the set lesson in experiential training. There is, however, much to be said for inputting theory that supports the delegates' own findings.


MDO shares, but often increases, the benefits of experiential training.

Indeed, many 'outdoor' exercises can be run indoors, given enough space and imagination. It is a sad fact that to some, 'outdoors' means mountain ranges and untamed moorland. We have found that a car park, hotel garden or even city park can be perfectly adequate places to run outdoor activities.



Indoor experiential learning is often built around role-playing or business simulations, with participants acting within some situation. This can be done in outdoor exercises, but need not be, as it is easier in the outdoors to set real problems with real consequences and real constraints.

A team building a raft suffers a very real penalty if they do it badly. In effect the task, although unusual, is real. Such a task encourages and produces interpersonal processes and behaviour typical of the way the team operates. Participants are dealing with real people in genuine situations, and therefore find themselves dealing with real issues. If someone feels underused or not appreciated, it is real and often corresponds to behaviour in the workplace. The difference is that on a course, observation and review of such processes can be




Any programme or exercise conducted in the outdoors has huge potential for strong memories: of the experience; the environment; the weather; the learning. This is important. Anything that can assist the notoriously fallible human memory is immensely valuable to the trainer. In Management Development Outdoors, recall of events facilitates recall of learning. There are potentially more opportunities for memorable events in the outdoors than in any other area of management development. This is especially so if the exercises include such high-profile outdoor activities as abseiling or cave-exploration, although even simple activities in the company car park contain the potential for long-term recall.


Reduced barriers to learning

To most managers the outdoors is an unusual environment. Very few have outdoor skills; even those, such as ex-soldiers, who have some skills, should find they are of only limited value on a well-designed outdoor programme. So essentially all participants start off on an equal footing. Because seniority and expertise at the workplace are neutralized, behaviourial skills and process awareness become more important. Everyone has something to learn and the outdoors gives them the opportunity to do so. Even physical fitness should not be a problem. Properly designed exercises should have elements in them which allow everyone to contribute, regardless of health, age or fitness. Even disabled people have attented outdoor programmes and have contributed fully, have learned and have helped others learn too.


Shared experience

Because the outdoor experience is so unusual and absorbing, many delegates - even from disparate backgrounds - build very close bonds of companionship which far outlast the course itself. If the delegates are from the same company or workplace, the bond will be even stronger and more likely to continue. Early reinforce ment of the bonding mechanism by regular and relevant follow-up

greatly enhances the process. This is one reason why outdoor programmes are so popular for team-building. It helps people to appreciate each other more, and to understand the value of diversity in teams. If the shared experiences are very memorable, the bonding process can be continually reinforced by recalling the activity, and also by identifying similar situations at work - 'This is just like when we...' People will not always return from a programme loving each other. They may simply understand each other better.



It is commonly believed that all MDO programmes are highly physical and demanding. Some are, including some very good ones. However, if this medium is as powerful as we believe it to be, it should be as universally accessible as possible. Therefore the best programmes will have roles and opportunities for the manager who is overweight, disabled, of a weak disposition or just afraid of heights. These conditions, after all, do not usually prevent them performing in the workplace, so should not on the programme, which is intended to be, at least in part, a metaphor for work.

The programme should be designed in such a way that an appropriate role can be given to all participants depending upon their physical fitness.

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