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Experiential learning is more than a team activity.

Many corporate retreats and annual meetings include “Team activity” intended to foster team-building. While the motives for incorporating these types of activities might be well-founded, the results often fall short of training objectives. A “Team activity” typically weighs heavily on the game element and less on the training, leaving participants with a few minutes or hours of fun and perhaps some good memories but not much that they can apply to their daily work.

In contrast, Experiential learning is less about playing a game and more about creating an immersive experience that fully engages participants. The experience serves as a metaphor for the real world and includes fun and engaging tactics to promote involvement and build enthusiasm, all while teaching valuable skills and behaviour. While experiential learning is certainly fun and engaging, it is distinct from “training games” in that it provides the real results expected to come out of employee training.

It all starts with the Experience

There is no doubt that experiential learning often employs problem-solving and game-like tactics, but the key differentiation is that it must mimic a challenge or situation that the participants commonly face at work. The experience itself allows participants to become immersed in a totally different scenario, like a murder mystery or the Wild West, while learning and practising new skills that can be applied on the job. In many cases, trainees are not even aware that they are learning something new, because they are having so much fun trying to solve the presented challenge. Meanwhile, they are safely testing effective new behaviour that contributes to better communication, closer teamwork, and other factors that contribute to improved performance.

The debrief drives it home

The other critical component of Experiential learning that is typically overlooked with “team activity” is a facilitated debrief. Of course, the quality of the debrief is dependent on the quality of the experience. There is only so much that can be said about the lessons learned when using spoons to pass an egg.

However, even the lessons delivered in the best Experiential learning session can be lost on participants without a good debrief. The debrief is a guided discussion that gives individuals the opportunity to link their new knowledge to the challenges they face every day. It is the facilitator’s role to spur conversations that highlight the behaviour that led to success or failure in the experience and then tie them to similar situations in the workplace. To do this, they need to be intimately familiar with the business and the dynamics of the team participating in the training. Without linking the training concepts to the job, you won’t get the most from experiential learning.

For your next conference or annual meeting, think about the “team activity” you are planning to incorporate and consider whether or not they will have a meaningful, lasting impact on both participants and the company as a whole. If you can’t clearly define how the game will improve performance on the job, it’s time to explore experiential learning.

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