Experiential learning for staff engagement

January 14, 2013
Author: Hannah

Sue Hill, Learning Director on Eden Project’s business leadership programme, explains how creating experiential learning opportunities for staff is a vital part of employee engagement. Read her tips on how to make this happen where you work.

What is experiential learning and why bother?

At Eden we like to describe it as learning about how to do things, not just about things.

Experiential learning often involves multisensory activities which take the participant out of their normal frame of context to engage them emotionally and personally. They are more likely to understand and remember what they’ve learnt, as well as contribute to others’ learning.

When we first set up the Eden Project as a public visitor attraction it was essentially an experiment in how people learn.

We found that, no matter how beautifully we created our exhibits and made our points about social and environmental issues, the bit that stood out for the public was when they’d contributed to the story in some way, for example by planting a bulb or contributing a recipe to a book.

Business delegate making a hand print on a globe

What’s it got to do with business?

It’s a great way to engage employees, because the activities involve hearts, hands and minds, giving them a memorable and stimulating experience that will enrich and change the way they approach their daily work.

Organisations use experiential learning for:

  • Helping employees ‘get’ sustainability by inviting them to reconnect with the issues on a visceral level.
  • Engaging staff in the purpose of the organisation.
  • Generating innovative ideas for a sustainability strategy, for example.
  • Motivating individuals in their roles, by demonstrating that their opinions matter and their sphere of influence is greater than they may have imagined.
  • Reconnecting staff with each other, through group work and breaking down hierarchies.

Experiential learning can include:

  • Group exercises – often visual or physical activities
  • Away days where staff can ‘take off their professional hats’
  • Unusual spaces that stimulate fresh thinking
  • Pair work, either within the company or beyond, to help staff see with fresh eyes
Business delegates outside at the Eden Project, Cornwall


How to introduce experiential learning into your organisation

Some of these activities and ideas will be useful as a way of incorporating experiential learning techniques into your business as a one-off, for example through an away day. You may find they also help you introduce more of a culture of learning into your organisation, where staff are engaged in the business purpose as well as able to contribute new ideas.

1. Surprise people
Whatever the occasion, make sure people are jolted out of thinking ‘oh, it’s just another day with a flipchart’.

This could involve putting in a little bit of effort to dress the space. The Eden team is a great fan of creating interesting places to hold conversations, whether it’s for our staff away day or for an external community planning event – where bunting, photos, maps, props (and of course tea and cake) all invite people to respond in a new way to this unusual environment. Music works too.

If you don’t have the luxury of transforming the room, why not invite people to bring in an object as a provocation? In one of our facilitated sessions for local businesses a lady brought in pots of jam to represent her conserve making company and another guy came along with a massive chainsaw because he was in the arboriculture business. Objects can make a big impact – and of course we didn’t forget the jam because we all got to taste it!

Eden staff members with a cocoa pod, inside the Rainforest Biome, Eden Project, Cornwall

2. Take off your professional hats
It’s important that people are present as human beings, not ‘on behalf of the company’, so that they’re ready to engage all their senses and emotions.

Physical games are a good way of drawing people out of themselves, because it changes the energy in the room. Our ‘sphere of influence’ ice breaker – designed for departmental sessions – gets the group using strands of wool to make a physical connection to people they already work with, and also to people they’d like to work with.

This simple prop helps people visualise their own sphere of influence, recognising its extent and also understanding that it is possible to reach out and work with others to make a difference. They’re encouraged to take their intentions forward after the session in the form of a pledge.

We use ‘play’ activities like this one, or group work such as storytelling and fire making, to get people working together quickly. Helping individuals laugh also starts to open them up to new experiences.

Participants taking part in a sphere of influence activity with pieces of wool at the Eden Project, Cornwall

3. Enable collective learning
Learning with others, in a group and out loud, can be much more effective than ‘private study’. That’s why we love using our ‘coffee exercise’ as an introduction to sustainability.

It basically gets people working in small groups to map the social, economic and environmental impacts of the cup of coffee that they’ve just enjoyed during the break. The teams use big felt tip pens to draw everything that has gone into it – the coffee beans, the sugar, the hot water, the milk, the cup… – where these have come from, and how they were produced.

Whether people have already focussed on these issues before or are completely new to them, we’ve seen mixed groups genuinely learning from each other, unpacking all sorts of stories behind the coffee, such as waste, carbon, peak oil etc. The side competition for the funniest drawing of a cow goes down well too!

Boots UK, which took part in one of our leadership programmes, has found this exercise really useful as a starting point for looking at the footprint of some of their products.

Participants drawing the journey of a cup of coffee on a table

4. Don’t just tell; invite exploration
Whether you’re using a professional facilitator for your session or are running it yourself, make sure that you’re creating a learning experience for people which allows them to find things out for themselves, rather than simply telling them something. It’s this process of discovery and comprehension which helps people remember and access their learning afterwards.

Even if the main aim of the activity is to help people engage more fully with the business purpose, simply telling people what that is will not be as effective as allowing them to explore it and contribute.

For example, while Eden’s leadership programmes aim to send business participants away with fresh ideas on how to instigate change and tackle sustainability back in their place of work, we avoid trying to tell people the answers. Instead, we focus on enabling participants to become problem solvers themselves, by working alongside other business participants in collaborative exercises.

Sometimes exercises you set up might not appear to have a visible outcome, but remember that you can’t plan ‘teachable moments’; you need to accept some messiness in the process!

Staff delegates drawing on a large piece of paper

5. Consolidate the experience
There is nothing worse than sending an employee on a course to tick a box – for example to become a ‘sustainability champion’ – if you aren’t going to help them consolidate the experience. Coming back to an office where senior managers are not engaged in the process too can be a lonely, uphill struggle.

Why not think about schemes which buddy employees up with colleagues or external contacts? Other ways to help people consolidate their learning include giving them a platform to share it, such as a staff blog, or having open lines of communication for staff to put forward their views throughout the year.

Table with pledges written on

On our Green Foundation programme we’ve helped participants continue their journey by pairing them up on a business exchange. Armed with their learning from the programme, these ‘critical friends’ visit each other’s place of work for a day and help them see their own practice through a new pair of eyes. We encourage them to get excited about exploring sustainability, like a CSI investigator!

Find out more about taking part in Eden’s business leadership programme – either at the Eden Project or in your own place of work – on our Green Foundation website. We can arrange bespoke business experiential learning sessions for individuals, teams and departments.

1 comment
Business, Green Foundation

One response to Experiential learning for staff engagement

  1. Lex McKee says:

    What an excellent introduction to "Experiential Learning" - plenty of inspiration for action.

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