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Consider Experiential Learning to Align Behavior with Workplace Goals

A map of a pirate island with a compass and a compass.

How can you improve how an employee runs a meeting, gives a presentation, or performs in a way that supports a specific strategic goal? Consider using experiential learning. It's a way for people to develop knowledge, skills and values through experiences that are outside of a traditional academic setting, according to the University of Colorado's Experiential Learning Center.

David A. Kolb, a professor of experiential learning, developed a learning model in the 1980s that gives the learner a concrete experience and allows the learner to reflect on that experience, form abstract concepts about it and test those concepts in new situations. His work in the field has earned him numerous accolades; in 2008 he received the Educational Pioneers of the Year Award from the National Society of Experiential Education.

Experiential learning for students, for example, could involve internships, undergraduate research or study abroad. In the workplace, it might involve participating in a game that instills knowledge, skills, or values relevant to an employee's job and employer.

Phil Geldart, founder and CEO of Eagle's Flight—a developer and provider of experiential learning programs headquartered in Guelph, Ontario, Canada—described experiential learning as a "visual metaphor" for the skills and behaviors employees need on the job.

He gave the example of a game in which participants look for treasure and have to collaborate, plan, and make the best use of the resources they are provided for the task.

Such an experience "is deliberately themed to mask any connection to [the person's] day-to-day activity," Geldart said in a news release. But the game can be used to teach specific skills or encourage behaviors that support organizational goals in an environment where participants feel safe to make mistakes and learn from them.

Experiential learning offers the following opportunities for participants, according to the center's web site:

  • To take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • To engage intellectually, creatively, emotionally, socially or physically.
  • To reflect and critically analyze the experience they had.  
  • To learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.

University of Maryland researchers noted in a 2013 paper that "it is the reflection process which turns experience into experiential education."

They wrote that while traditional training methods are useful, incorporating formal, informal and nonformal training efforts on the job "can help training and development professionals align workplace learning with the overall strategic goals of the organization and the changing needs of the workplace learner."

Formal learning can take the form of online courses or an instructor-led session. Informal learning happens during day-to-day job performance, such as when interacting with another person. Nonformal learning often involves some guidance, such as from a mentor, manager or experienced co-worker.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]

Experiential learning must be linked to the real world and have relevance to the workplace, Geldart said in a recent webinar. It's important to build in retention strategies following an experiential learning activity by creating opportunities for participants to apply what they've learned, he said. Additionally, show that the activity "has direct application to improving the results of the business," he advised.

"If we cannot show that results will improve with changed behavior, we have wasted time and money," he said.

Putting learning into practice makes learning fun, creates immersive involvement for participants and provides real-time opportunities for participants to use what they've learned, he added.

"The experience, in a very short time, has reflected reality ... and allows the facilitator to build on that."

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