Smart Moves: When staff training becomes a soap opera

Rachel Spence finds imagination in the business world
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The Independent Online
As the pressure of working in a fast-moving business environment taxes the ingenuity of traditional- ly structured companies, executives are being encouraged to use their imagination to find the answers.

"Once upon a time there was an enchanted city. There was only one gate into this city, however, and one day a giant sat down right in front of it. Even the king was frightened to approach and yet all his subjects depended on him..."

No, it's not a story aimed at infants. It's an analogy being told to senior managers from a major UK oil company by Sue Hollingsworth, who is a partner in the consultancy firm Storytelling in Organisations. Her motive? Assisting the group in exploring the problem of fear at work. After listening to a series of individual accounts, Hollingsworth wove an archetypal fairy- tale - one that ends with the giant shrinking as the king approaches - to show that the best way to tackle issues is head-on. Hardly a ground- breaking observation, but the unusual methodology aims to communicate the message more effectively than traditional management-speak.

In fact, the success of Hollingsworth's firm - which boasts the National Police Training College and NatWest among its clients - shows how today's companies are increasingly coming to realise that imagination has been neglected in the workplace for far too long. Indeed, human development programmes that include storytelling, drama, mime, mask work, art and model-making are becoming ever more popular in the business world.

Roy Harrison of the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) ex-plains the value of this unconventional training: "Corporate culture is in a state of shock, thanks to the abundance of privatisations, mergers and downsizes. These can feel like an assault course for traditional businesses and they bring up all sorts of hidden feelings in people who have worked in a certain way for years. Using drama, mask work and stories is an excellent way to explore new, unfamiliar feelings in a safe environment."

LAMDA Business Performance (LBP), a subsidiary of LAMDA, the London music and drama school, has run workshops since January this year. Sara Allen, LBP's business development manager, says: "We evolved a soap-opera format to show companies that change management is fun. We create believable characters and the action takes place at home as well as in the office, so that the audience can see the effect work problems have on all areas of life. Sometimes the characters will turn to the spectators and say, `I don't know how to deal with this. What do you think?' And that way a dialogue starts."

After a recent expansion which saw their 2,000-strong workforce nearly double in size, the Liverpool Victoria Insurance Group called in LBP to help resolve issues such as communication of new corporate values thrown up by radical change. "Drama works because it's fun," explains Julie Fisher, training and development officer at Liverpool Victoria. "People don't realise they're learning; they don't have hand-outs to take away but they definitely retain what they have learnt. People say it's brought the values to life and teamwork has noticeably improved."

The technique is not without its cynics, however. Martin Whitehill, chairman of the Strategic Planning Society, is currently working with a government department using drama and narrative techniques to predict trends. "Left-brained people - analytical, accountant types - find it much harder to suspend disbelief," he notes. "They tend to ask where the statistics are."

In addition, the companies themselves are often reluctant to face the emotions unleashed when staff participate in such courses. Theresa Murray is a consultant who runs workshops for businesses to promote imaginative skills. She asks participants to draw pictures or make models to act as metaphors for their company. "I show the pictures to managers and say, `This is how your staff feel'," she says. "Often the image jolts them into change, but sometimes they simply refuse to believe it."

There are personal risks, too, in embarking on an imaginative journey. "You're playing with fire here, in the form of people's emotions, and it can backfire if you don't have experienced facilitators," explains Roy Harrison. "They must be supportive of human interaction, and well-briefed on the specifics of the company."

Nevertheless, if managed by experts and with adequate preparation, this type of training can clearly be a useful tool in ensuring that corporate culture moves away from the "profit first, people second" legacy of the Thatcherite era towards a more people-friendly environment. "Companies now realise their most important asset is their employees," says Whitehill. "They're keen to protect their intellectual capital.''