NZIM EXECUTIVE LEARNING : Experiential Learning

Aristotle reportedly once said that: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” As executive summaries go, that probably encapsulates experiential learning as succinctly as any.
David Kolb, the American educational theorist who made his name by articulating and describing the process, believed that experience is critical to learning. The term experiential learning differentiates the process from learning by rote or other cognitive learning processes. As Nike says: “Just do it”, and then learn through reflecting on what has been done, what worked and what didn’t. In other words, experience it.
Henry Mintzberg, John Cleghorn professor of management studies at McGill University in Montreal, and one of the world’s most provocative and stimulating management thinkers, advocates what he calls “management by reflection” in his latest book Managing. He makes profoundly strong case for his new take on what is, I suggest, just refinement of experiential learning which, if you think about it, is as old as time itself. Consider the case of cro magnon man around the campfire analysing the cock-ups made at the day’s mammoth hunt, which resulted in them eating squirrel for dinner instead.
Mintzberg is currently re-defining the experiential process by talking about more self-directed learning. His idea of class without instructors is based on grounding the class in on-the-spot problem solving with participants working on “real-world cases” that they bring to class. He calls it “natural development”.
He recently told Strategy+Business magazine that he and his colleagues were putting managers at round tables where they can “reflect on their own work and others’ experiences”. They did this to contrast with the traditional say, MBA approach of “studying other [unknown] people’s experiences”.
But, however the gurus explain and refine it, experiential learning already underpins the way in which the New Zealand Institute of Management, for example, delivers its key learning programmes. The approach, says NZIM Northern chief executive Kevin Gaunt, “enables participants to apply their theoretical learning on the programme and then have their understanding and application of the learning assessed”.
“What we find,” says Gaunt, “is that our customers are looking more and more for visible demonstration that the participant can apply their learning and add value to their organisation by going on our course.
“Our key point of differentiation is that our learning programmes are delivered by experienced management practitioners. They then become the facilitators of the shared learning experiences.”
According to Gaunt, the approach is rooted in the organisation’s history. “NZIM was established by managers after the Second World War to help returning servicemen to gain management experience for new life on civvy street. Practising managers were the teachers. This has continued to be our differentiator. But irrespective of the history, there is still growing demand for this approach, and particularly among today’s X and Y generations.”
Experiential learning, according to the experts, doesn’t really need teacher because it relates to reflection and contextual consideration of the individual’s direct experience. The process can, however, be facilitated.
Kolb, for example, believed that knowledge is continuously gained through both personal and environmental experiences. But to gain genuine knowledge from an experience, certain abilities were required. The learner needed to:
• be actively involved in the experience
• reflect on the experience
• possess and use analytical skills to conceptualise the experience
• possess decision-making and problem-solving skills to use the new ideas gained from the experience.
Talking about his new book, Mintzberg says the best way to learn is by reflecting and learning from your own experience. “When competency issue comes up in classroom of practising managers, one of the most powerful things we can do is stop everything and say, okay – there are 30 managers in this classroom. They have got an average of 15 years of managerial experience each and you ask the group: ‘What have you done when you have encountered this issue?’”, he told S+B magazine.
“Then you get people saying; ‘Well, I had that exact issue. I dealt with it this way; it didn’t work. But another time, I dealt with it that way, and it did work.’ That kind of competency sharing can cut across all kinds of managerial issues that would never get discussed in traditional classroom.”
However it is implemented and deployed, prevailing evidence suggests that experiential learning is highly effective learning method. It works because the learner is engaged at personal level and the reflection and solution is tailored to address the individual’s needs. But to work it requires self-initiative and self-evaluation by the participant.
The literature, however, also suggests that to be truly effective, experiential learning should employ the whole learning approach from goal setting to experimenting, observing, reviewing, and action planning. Using the complete process teaches new skills, attitudes and even entirely new ways of thinking.
According to Gaunt, NZIM also takes the experiential learning experience outside of the classroom. “We have partnered with the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre to provide its outdoor Executive Leadership courses. For example, team of managers will go to Great Barrier Island for three or four days and work together to experience range of physical and mental challenges. OPC’s underpinning philosophy is based on experiential learning and their instructors are able to help the groups review their experiences to maximise their learning and then re-apply it in the workplace.”
The relevance of experiential learning in today’s world is obvious. Many of the situations managers and leaders now face are completely new and the solutions to problems will, more often than not, be untried. New technologies, economic priorities, global externalities, trade relationships and environmental pressures are creating new challenges and opportunities. Old experiences may not provide relevant solutions in tomorrow’s world so, aged case studies will be less effective than ever.
Shared, real-time experiences are the grist of tomorrow’s learning mill.

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