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Interactive and experiential learning to increase Business Performance

by Mark Mortimer

May 21 2004 - Recent research by Capgemini's illustrates that the consulting industry continues to undergo considerable change with clients perceiving a decrease in consulting talent below the senior level. This, coupled with the industry moving back towards the double-digit growth figures of the late 1990s, suggests an impending war for consultancy talent. To meet this demand there is an urgent need to identify and develop potential high performing individuals.

However, the Return on Investment case for formal training is not good. In a recent study, it was found that 83% of the learning is lost within the first month back in the workplace. These findings suggest that traditional methods are severely limited. In contrast, interactive, experiential techniques have great potential to achieve sustainable and tangible business benefits.

Professor Seymour Epstein at the University of Massachusetts has a ground-breaking theory of intelligence called Cognitive Experiential Self Theory (CEST), which suggests that we have an experiential mind and a rational mind. Our experiential mind learns directly, thinks quickly, pays attention to the outcome, and forgets slowly. Our rational mind learns indirectly, thinks deliberately, pays attention to the process, and forgets rapidly. Epstein's contention is that you need both your minds. Simulation and interactive role playing appeal directly to the experiential mind. When combined with debriefing discussions, they provide a powerfully balanced approach to whole-brain learning.

Simulation is a tried and tested method of performance improvement in other fields. In sport, simulation seeks to train all parts of your brain and body by helping you to physically perform the skills being trained under a physical environment that recreates all the stresses and distractions of competition. This helps you to develop the mental skills that stop you 'choking under pressure'. It enables you to actually feel that you have been in a novel situation before.

Military training uses simulation in exactly the same way to teach soldiers to handle the intense psychological stresses of combat.

In the business environment, Kerobi Performance Management has adopted this, balanced 'learning by experience', approach to executive development. Following the two mind theory - experiential and rational - first create a learning experience by modelling the target work environment or role; then give constructive feedback and monitor ongoing performance.

Aspects of Simulation

You can recreate a combination of workplace scenarios, into a business simulation session, to make it as realistic as possible, including:

Unexpected interruptions
Telling the client bad news
Cold calling
Debt collection
Dealing with under performing staff
Difficult negations
Competitive sales meeting
Motivating disgruntled staff
Upward reporting
Strategic thinking
Recruitment interview
Managing finance
Presenting and closing

True learning takes place only when you move outside your normal modus operandi. Then you will have the following advantages:

* Confidence that you can handle anything thrown at you
* Well practiced skills to handle the stresses and distractions of performance
* The feeling of 'I have been there before', I know what to do

We have trained over 4000 executives using this method and our conclusions, on the critical factors, in creating a memorable learning experience and on achieving lasting performance improvement are:


There are normally a number of pivotal executive roles, they represent the 'engine room' of the company .Selecting, developing and retaining these key individuals will have a considerable effect on the bottom line.

Modelling seeks to make your business simulation as similar to the real working environment as possible by actually recreating the stresses under which you will perform. This can be achieved by creating scenarios that go a step beyond what is normally encountered on a day to day basis. Competencies are determined by modeling the behaviors of the best and average performers in the given role. The idea is to create an environment where optimal, average and weak performance can clearly be observed. This will allow participants to experience performing outside their comfort zones, which aids the learning process, as suggested in the quote:

"You cannot succeed big or sustain energy simply doing things that feel comfortable. High performing people achieve great things others do not for this reason. They are willing to take actions others fear or avoid precisely because they are not easy or comfortable."


A precursor to any change in behavior and performance is self awareness i.e. The quality of your output is determined by the quality of your input or feedback. In our experience debriefing or feedback sessions are not undertaken properly after the event. The point about feedback is that is needs to make the participant aware that certain behaviors are inhibiting performance. Buy in and ownership is essential before action is taken to rectify the problem. This is achieved through a combination of constructive feedback, personal reflection and self assessment.

Behavioural flexibility

The best performing managers are chameleon like in their approach to business problems. They can adjust their behavior to suite the context of the situation, rather than falling back on learned or past experience; behaving in an inappropriate way, in an unfamiliar business scenario can have an adverse impact on performance. These rigid traits are unseen by the executive but can be unearthed and rectified as part of the simulation and development process.


Through training simulations which model real life situations and feedback captured in an action plan, participants should understand areas for development, which are typically in one of twelve management competencies:

Time Management and Prioritising
Planning and Scheduling Work
Identifying and Solving Problems
Disciplining and Counseling
Listening and Organising
Training Coaching and Delegating
Setting Goals and Standards
Appraising People and Performance
Giving Clear Information
Making Decisions, Weighing Risk
Getting Unbiased Information
Thinking Clearly and Analytically

Practicing should be done in 'safe' training environment where the participant is encouraged to experiment with new skills and behaviors. Again, practice means actually doing the activity in an observed environment with non judgmental feedback.


Understanding what works and what doesn't and having the self belief and confidence to take what you have learnt out in to the real world. This is where the rubber hits the road and personal transformation take place. Having dealt with difficult and stressful situation in the practice simulations, dealing with it in real life becomes the norm.


In today's changing market place, consultancy firms will live or die on the quality of their people, at all levels. In most cases, in house development programmes, either don't deliver business benefits, or are non existent. There maybe a war to recruit the best talent to satisfy growth expectations but there is also a need for existing managers and consultants to acquire new skills and behaviors in order to satisfy a more discerning client. In essence, consultants will need highly developed interpersonal skills to work in a collaborative manor, manage client expectations and to deliver bespoke quality solutions.

In my view, this can't be achieved using traditional methods. If changing behavior and increasing business performance is the goal, then interactive and experiential learning is the most effective way.

To quote the well known Chinese proverb:

"Tell me and I forget, show me and I may remember and involve me and I understand".

Mark Mortimer
Kerobi Performance Management Ltd
Swallow House,
2 Church Street,
Walton Surrey, KT12 2QS
Tel: 01932 250955
Mobile: 07966 784153



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