Put to the outdoor test

Philip Schofield dispels some of the myths about activity training courses for managers
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THREE top training priorities for managers are managing change, team building and customer service. This is not surprising considering the changes taking place in the workplace.

Layers of management are being been stripped out, decision making pushed down the line, and an increasing proportion of the work is now carried out by "project teams" formed to accomplish a specific objective and then dissolved.

Managers who survive "downsizing" are having to cope with unfamiliar situations. They increasingly find themselves on temporary teams put together on the basis of the skills and knowledge needed. Individuals move between projects, working on some as leader, on others as a team member. Promotion is replaced by horizontal moves to broaden knowledge and experience. Jobs are replaced by short-term contracts, and there is growing movement between companies.

The emphasis is on developing a portfolio of skills that can be transferred. Managers have to think in terms of portability rather than stability.

Outdoor training has been used for many years for team building and development, and for the management of change. The client lists of the main providers read like a Who's Who of leading employers. Unfortunately recent events have clouded the view.

After last year's television documentary on the courses run by the John Ridgeway School of Adventure in north-west Scotland, outdoor training earned a reputation for rigour akin to that of a commando school. The programme failed to explain that Ridgeway differs from any other training provider and is unique in its rigour. Soon after, a television soap showed a middle-aged man collapse on an outdoor course. Moreover, the Lyme Bay tragedy in Dorset cast doubts on the safety of less well-run courses.

The Dove Nest Group runs outdoor management development courses at two centres in the Lake District. Rudy Pengers, its marketing manager, says there is a definition problem. "The outdoor industry encompasses everyone from outdoor activity centres for school children to sophisticated management development organisations with a large list of blue-chip organisations."

What do outdoor management training centres (as apposed to adventure schools and outdoor activity centres) actually provide? Is the training effective? How important is physical prowess? Are people coerced into undertaking risky activities? Above all, are they safe?

Traditional programmes incorporate some or all of the following: job experience, theory, project work, case studies and business games and other simulations.

These programmes can be effective, but they suffer from two weaknesses: they lack immediacy and the outcomes have only theoretical consequences.

In the day-to-day situation, the time taken to identify a problem, make and implement any changes, and obtain feedback on the results of those changes, tends to be very long. Moreover, in the intervening period many other unrelated tasks have to be dealt with. Thus the lessons learnt tend to lose their immediacy, and the learning process is relatively slow and uncertain.

The use of simulations, such as business games or Lego building exercises, can teach valuable lessons. However, the end result has no direct consequences for the participants and so remains theoretical and unreal.

The contribution that outdoor activities can make, as a supplement to traditional methods, is that participants are given direct experience of tackling unfamiliar problems. They do so without distractions and obtain almost immediate feedback on their decisions. The tasks are real, and failure or success bring real consequences.

Mr Pengers says modern outdoor management development courses have three basic characteristics. "The courses have a clear focus on business issues, they are delivered by training professionals with a background in industry or commerce, and the activity content is purpose designed and just as likely to set intellectual problems as physical problems." He says that tasks never depend on physical prowess and that people are "never coerced or put under peer group pressure to undertake something they don't wish to".

Many people were once sent on outdoor courses for "personal development", but this seems to be declining. The typical course is now for a group from a single employer, whether a project team, or a layer of management. There are usually detailed discussions between the employer and the training provider beforehand, and the course will be tailored accordingly.

A typical course will start with a number of short practical projects to help the team gel and become familiar with the type of exercises and feedback that they will get later. The projects then become increasingly complex and focus more on identified training needs. The course is likely to finish with a large project involving a number of tasks to be carried out in parallel.

Although personal development is no longer the objective, it is important that participants who work in a fast-changing world can face new tasks with confidence. There are usually opportunities to experience the unfamiliar, such as abseiling, canoeing or rock climbing - and to learn that we are all capable of more than we think.

Course providers are extremely health and safety concious as the physical elements of the courses are usually designed for sedentary, middle-aged people who are not very fit.

Even so, organisers often provide health questionnaires for each participant and usually guarantee that this information is for safety only and is not made available to an employer. The trainers are supported by a team of qualified outdoor pursuits instructors whose prime concern is safety.

It is often said that learning should be fun. Outdoors training often has an unmatched vividness and can be most enjoyable.