Going all out to win

MANAGEMENT TRAINING The great outdoors is increasingly seen as a useful tool for honing staff skills. Stephen Pritchard explains
OF ALL the management development techniques available, outdoor training must be the most controversial.

Images of military-style slogs across wet hillsides are reinforced by some training organisations, which emphasise brawn over brain. But used carefully, outdoor training can be an effective tool for staff development.

This is supported by the fact that most large companies use outdoor programmes for at least some of their training.

Typically, outdoor training has been seen as a team-building exercise, for example to bond together a group of new employees. But increasingly companies are also turning to it as a method to help staff come to terms with organisational change, or to develop particular skills; project management is frequently taught through outdoor programmes. Also, as firms move away from rigid training structures to more individually orientated programmes, outdoor or activity-based courses are seen as a valuable way for staff to take stock of their personal development.

In fact, businesses rarely use outdoor training to impart specific knowledge to their staff. The emphasis is instead on developing skills, and it is here, trainers say, that the outdoor environment comes into its own.

"It is not about increasing knowledge, but about what you should be doing to be more effective," says Simon Wagstaff, a senior manager at Impact, a training company based at Windermere in Cumbria.

There is, of course, no reason why leadership skills cannot be developed in a classroom environment, and there are training organisations which do just that. But the advocates of outdoor training, both providers and their clients, believe that it has a number of unique advantages.

Trainers believe that much of the power of outdoor courses comes from the way they take delegates out of their usual working environments. Staff cannot fall back on the standard support systems, such as turning to senior colleagues for advice. The unfamiliar environment also ensures that everybody is free of the normal company hierarchy.

"You can put people on a level playing-field," explains Chris Batten, business development executive at the training and development company Brathay, also based in the Lake District.

"Half the exercises are ridiculous, but it doesn't matter if you fall off a plank half-way across the lawn," he says. "What matters is how people interact."

Building structures of planks and barrels in hotel grounds is not the substance of a usual executive day. Yet, although the tasks might seem little short of daft, they have a serious purpose. Making the task itself meaningless allows trainees to focus on problem-solving and personal skills.

"The outdoors gives delegates unfamiliar things to solve, where they are not able to rely on their technical expertise," Simon Wagstaff explains.

In fact, outdoor training is something of a misnomer. By no means all the activities on the courses that such firms as Impact or Brathay provide take place outdoors. Even where courses are held in the open air, it is not all abseiling, canoeing or hill-walking, although these can be a useful training tool in their own right. A substantial part of any course will be in the rather more comfortable setting of hotel grounds.

Leading training companies stress that they hire staff who are management development tutors - albeit with an interest in outdoor pursuits - rather than train outdoor specialists in management. Some of the most important elements of a course are taught in small group discussions, back at the hotel. It is here that delegates, crucially, learn how to apply new skills to the workplace.

Large clients may want to integrate outdoor training into their overall management development programmes, or they may use it for a specific training need, for example as part of a total quality management process. Clients find that outdoor programmes bring a personal focus to management theories staff have learned in the classroom, Mr Wagstaff says.

One of Impact's clients is British Telecom. There, the director of development and training supply, David Thomas, stresses that outdoor training is not a solution to all development needs, nor is it something the company avoids.

Between 70 and 80 people a year from BT attend courses at Impact. "We feel it develops team-working and team-building," Mr Thomas says. "We use it to develop team skills when a mixed team is coming together from different parts of the business."

Bob Bell, senior management development adviser at Abbey National, chooses from four outside training organisations, depending on his exact needs. He has recently completed a programme for 30 managers with Brathay. "It is useful to go outdoors when you have people from around the group," he says, "as everyone starts at the same base."

Candidates for outdoor training courses often fear they will be asked to perform physical tasks, or be made to look foolish in front of their peers. Trainers say a good management development programme should have an approach quite the opposite, with the emphasis far more on mental agility.

Sometimes, trainers have to restrain the over-enthusiastic outdoor types, and steer them towards the activities which will benefit them most. A keen mountaineer, for example, would be advised to try a canoeing exercise, as this makes him or her rely on personal skills rather than prior sports experience.

Outdoor training can be tough, but often the hardest part is the lesson that people learn about their personal strengths and weaknesses.

"People should leave feeling the course wasn't a load of company propaganda, nor a holiday in the Lake District," suggests Simon Wagstaff. "It should be something for them, but focused in a way that can be used back on the ranch."