Management Training: Risk in the great outdoors: Tragedy has put a question mark over the value of development courses

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The Independent Online
THE DEATH of a car sales manager in the Brecon Beacons is believed to be the first such tragedy on an outdoor management training course. Described by his wife as a 'fairly fit' Sunday walker, he was climbing with four colleagues when he suffered a heart attack.

The personal tragedy has wide implications for this type of management development. Companies, business schools and the providers of this sort of outdoor training must now justify the risks and demonstrate that the value of the learning is important enough to absorb such an incident. None of this will be easy to do.

Last month, a television documentary showed adventurer John Ridgway in the wilds of Scotland putting managers through an outdoor course that seemed to jeopardise their lives.

Managers from an international engineering company were shown shivering and near exhaustion after marching across rough terrain, sleeping in cramped tents and climbing a mountain in gale-force winds. Their exercise in group dynamics aboard a sailing boat ended in a mutiny.

Good TV maybe, but what was missing was the managerial learning. It all seemed as mindless as a bungee jump.

Outdoor courses for managers are a form of development in which sports and other physical activities that require skill are used as a vehicle for 'experiential learning' - not as an end in themselves.

There is intense planning and debriefing of the event - both task and process - to mine the experiences and draw out lessons that are lasting and can be applied in the office. The lessons may be about leadership, teamwork, communications, personal development, problem-solving, managing change, coping with stress, or managerial burn-out.

As a spin-off, most managers on outdoor courses conduct their own personal audit about health and fitness, usually comparing their performance with memories of outdoor experiences in their youth, or contrasting their fitness against that of their tutors on the course. Many go back to their normal activities with a resolve to lose weight, take exercise, stop smoking and reduce drinking.

The experiential learning that results when it is done right is indelible, relevant and worth an element of risk. Most of this risk is more an illusion than real danger. For example, crossing a chasm a hundred feet wide and just as deep looks dangerous, but is not when qualified staff are on hand to instruct the managers in how to construct and operate a Tyrolean traverse.

Best practice can diminish the marginal risk in the outdoor programmes. The Development Trainers User Trust has published A Guide To Development Training in the Outdoors, which includes these recommendations for safety:

1) Technical support staff must be qualified in the particular activities which they are using.

2) They should have direct responsibility for health and safety on the course, and by raising the importance of safety early, they will help dispel any fears the participants may have about risk to life and limb.

3) A health and safety policy needs to embrace all buildings used and equipment employed.

Course organisers must also have knowledge of individual and group behaviour, because development training causes participants to explore their behaviour and to reflect on their relationships with the other participants.

Ideally, organisers should have professional education in such subjects as psychology and organisational behaviour. They should have direct experience of dealing with individuals and groups both in ordinary situations and in the challenging activities of training.

As Adrian Owen, a former training manager at Dewhurst and an advocate of outdoor development, said: 'You look very hard at safety. You go out of your way to make people conscious of safety because you want them to relate it to work as good working practice.'

John Bank is a lecturer in human resources at Cranfield School of Management. His book, 'Outdoor Development for Managers', is published by Gower. Copies of the DTUT guide to best practice are available from him at Cranfield at pounds 4 each.

(Photograph omitted)