Experiential learning: What’s missing in most change programs

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Successful transformations demand new capabilities. To build them, experiential learning leverages the intimate link between knowledge and experience.

So much wisdom is and has been out there, only slowly to be rediscovered with great amazement… This time it is the old Confucian saying “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand” that McKinsey have rediscovered for the context of change programmes. Indeed. Most change programmes seek to achieve a shift in values and behaviours. We do not adjust our values, beliefs and perhaps not even behaviours just because someone says so (even if it is the boss). We change values and behavious because we understand why it is important, and hopefully beneficial. This is, by the way, why each year the last meeting of Innovators Anonymous has been titled ‘Innovation Leadership Experienced’, embracing this particular piece of Confucian wisdom.

McKinsey research reveals that two-thirds of business transformations do not adequately meet their objectives.1 Only one in ten companies actually sustains cost improvements beyond four years. Programs are sometimes mismatched with needs or poorly executed, but in most instances the broken link in the chain has been capabilities. Successful programs are by and large those that create needed capabilities. Transformational aspirations must be adequately supported by a skilled workforce, ready to achieve the change mission.

Cognitive scientists and educational philosophers have long grappled with the concepts inherent in these issues, as they sought to discover how people learn. In the 20th century, insightful educators such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget closely explored a concept known even to the Greeks—that knowledge and experience are intimately linked. They came to recognize that approaches to education must respect this connection and in their writings especially emphasized the importance of experience-based learning.

Experiential learning immerses participants in an active and shared learning environment. Practitioners follow a variety of methods that may differ in the details but foster similar experiences and outcomes. Participants explore and analyze content along with their peers in a shared experience, and then individually reflect upon the experience. Conclusions are then reached and the lessons applied in context.

The approach thus integrates shared contextual exploration with reflective thought processes—a dynamic combination that amplifies individual and group comprehension. It has been shown to be the most effective method of adult learning, as evidenced in our research and the research and experience of many scholars and educators.2 A typical staged process in experiential learning can be described as follows:

  • experiencing and exploring: doing
  • sharing and reflecting: what happened?
  • processing and analyzing: what’s important?
  • generalizing: so what?
  • applying: what works for me?

Experiential learning to build capabilities is one of the most important elements of a successful company transformation. Our experience has taught us that to ensure success in any industry or functional area, leaders must put a few things in place: resources sufficient to gain momentum and achieve rapid progress, clearly defined pivotal roles and responsibilities, and fully engaged employees and leaders. Employees need to be drawn in with clear and open lines of communication. Leaders must take an active role in designing the changes and modeling results in their own conduct. Change is challenging, but successful companies know how to achieve it. So can you.

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