Published in Spring 2023

Traditional learning and development (L&D) in the workplace can be broken down into two overarching categories — hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are the technical competencies that directly related to the job function, while soft skills are the interpersonal proficiencies related to a person’s relational and/or transactional capacities to work within a group or team.

It’s not uncommon that these two aspects of L&D are viewed as separate and are given their own distinct programs — think leadership development workshops versus technical training courses. The point being, why are we building training programs that are isolated when it is the intersection of both the hard and soft skills together (aka the application) in practice that achieves our business goals?

In the outdoor education (OE) sphere, programs are developed to push a group or team into situations that not only stretch their personal skills but also their teamwork, leadership and decision-making skills. For instance, whitewater rafting or a high-ropes course — the purpose is to force teams through the stages of team development while also learning a new skill (and if done correctly, also having a fun and engaging experience).

Although outdoor education techniques are commonly thought of as only being applicable at things like ropes courses, rock walls, or high adventure treks, the principles can be applied anywhere, even the office. Think about what the structure of OE provides: a self-paced environment where participants sharpen and explore their communication/interpersonal proficiencies while also learning new outdoors skills in the process. Said differently, the standard outdoor education format creates a setting that develops both hard skills and soft skills together.

Of course, building a ropes course right outside the office or traveling to a remote location for every training session isn’t realistic, nor is that likely interrelated with your business and training goals, but we can still take inspiration from the outdoor education ideals and look deeper at the underlying principles of the experiential learning cycle to adapt our own programs.

The Experiential Learning Cycle

The experiential learning cycle has four stages: experience, reflect, generalize and apply.

    • Experience: The cycle starts with an experience; a participant encounters a task or situation that challenges the individual to step outside their comfort zone to practice new skills, communicate and make decisions to complete an objective.
    • Reflect: After the experience is over, whether the objective was achieved or not, the individual reviews the challenge and examines the aspects of the encounter, finding the inconsistencies between their knowledge and understanding.
    • Generalize: The participant compares the experience to other challenges or objectives and then generalizes this relation between efforts and skills to a desired outcome.
    • Apply: Finally, the participant applies the concepts uncovered from the generalization(s) to experiment, putting into practice what has been learned.

Utilizing experiential learning in the workplace provides the potential for three major benefits:

    • Time efficiency: Training and practice sessions become dual-purpose (for both interpersonal and technical skills).
    • Instantaneous feedback: Participants learn by trying; experiencing firsthand allows for real-time feedback via communal, social learning.
    • Content retention: By playing an active role and engaging directly, a participant not only retains the learning objectives more effectively but also has more fun!

Here is an example of the experiential learning cycle in practice:

A customer service organization that handles technical customer problems is looking to create training programs that cover the technical information and interpersonal proficiencies to relay to customers. Using the experiential learning model, the organization creates a workshop series that splits employees into small groups and tasks each to set up the technical product they support as if they were the end user. Through the process, they struggle and make small mistakes, but are quick to adjust to complete the setup. Through reflection, the group is able to recap what was easy or hard, what went well or not so well, what they learned from or taught one another, etc., for both technical and interpersonal skills and competencies.

Taking all these points, the group generalizes and predicts how what they learned may impact their potential next challenge (e.g., working with this technical product again or working within a team to communicate and make decisions). With all this information post-experience, reflection and generalization, the members of the group are more confident and prepared to apply these skills when working with their customers.

In this example, the organization provides a training environment that efficiently presents an opportunity for a participant to:

    • Develop both hard and soft skills simultaneously.
    • Learn at a rapid pace by receiving real-time feedback through trial.
    • Better retain training objectives by actively playing a role and being challenged through the session.

As amazing and impactful as experiential training tactics can be, crafting these experiences is not a simple feat. Curating opportunities that effectively draw on the experiential learning model and that are strategic and in line with business and training objectives can be more complicated than a simple presentation or online learning module.

Best Practices to Consider

To effectively implement experiential learning opportunities into your program, here are some tips to consider:

Create small additions: It is near impossible to take a full previous training program and adapt the entirety of the material into strictly experiential sessions. However, it is possible to amend and adapt portions of a program or create supplemental sessions. To expect to completely reinvent a current program into an experiential opportunity is unrealistic. Instead, take the time to assess what gaps your training plans currently have to find opportunities to connect. For example, maybe you have a wonderful leadership development program and a robust technical learning series. Perhaps it would be beneficial to create an experiential workshop that can combine the practice of these skills to reinforce the topics discussed in those sessions and foster employee fellowship.

Keep it simple and practice facilitating: Providing these opportunities can be fun and a great way to have a “change of pace” within your L&D initiatives. Keep in mind that facilitating experiential programs can become extremely complex very quickly. One of the benefits of an experiential opportunity, of course, is having flexible and organic sessions. With that come scenarios and reflections that take unexpected turns. The spontaneity of the program can easily get out of hand: The challenge might be approached in ways that are out of the facilitators’ wheelhouse — or a debrief question during the reflection can open the door for answers that the facilitator is now unsure how to connect back to the objectives. Starting with small groups and small objectives, building confidence with facilitation and expanding slowly as facilitation skills increase is the fool-proof way to get your feet wet.

Design opportunities in sequence: As participants move from experience to experience, the objectives (and the necessary skills) should be tiered appropriately. We never want to set our participants up for failure; however, we do want them to be challenged. Matching challenges and objectives to groups and the individuals within each group appropriately, we can create opportunities that build off what the group already knows while still allowing them to learn more. Opportunities with challenges that are too advanced or too simplistic will frustrate or bore the participants. To engage learners and allow them to struggle, it’s crucial to find challenges that have components that they have and have not quite yet mastered. Think of this as pushing a participant or group out of their comfort zone but not pushing them too far into their danger zone. Look for the right challenge for the right person.

Synchronous formatting: Experiential learning cannot be done without experience. Trying to create a canned or pre-recorded experience is not the same as doing it live. Just as we know the difference between going to a concert in-person versus watching the recording afterward, much of the impact comes from the synchronous, in-person nature of the experience. To be adaptable and to meet the needs of the participants’ circumstances, facilitation should be live. This takes time and availability — things that many training departments are struggling to find.

Experiential learning is a wonderful framework to combine hard and soft skills practice into one program, exercising the intersection of these two focuses. Within our traditional L&D programs, experiential opportunities are best used in conjunction with other training as an ideal option for reinforcing and tweaking both technical and interpersonal skills. Facilitating and guiding participants through dynamic learning challenges is not a simple skill, but over time and with practice, it can result in teams that are more confident and better able to address our strategic business needs.