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Sticky Experiential Learning and the Slimy Snot-Fish

12/02/2014 11:27 GMT | Updated 13/04/2014 10:59 BST

I was fascinated to read about the unknown species of giant jellyfish, cutely dubbed the snot-fish, which washed up in Tasmania last week.

Looking at pictures of the poor, stranded thing I wondered whether, in feeling pity for it, I was guilty of anthropomorphosis . A quick inspection reveals that jellyfish have no evident internal organs. Nor do they have a brain. Are they then, completely insensible? Well apparently not. Many come equipped with eyespots, or light detecting cells, and most are able to detect and respond to touch. But does this amount to experience? Well for John Dewey, one of the fathers of experiential learning, it did. In the preface to his second edition of Experience and Nature (1929), Dewey defined one level of experience as the faculty possessed by non-human animals to react "merely to physical contacts." (xiii) It is still unclear whether that implies the capacity for pain and distress, but either literally or metaphorically, this jellyfish was certainly way out of its comfort zone.

Getting out of the comfort zone is also a feature, though hopefully less drastically so, of many experiential packages sold to corporates. You know the sort of thing: participants swap the charms of the office for the challenges of an outward-bound environment, or, more commonly these days, for the chance to support a third sector organisation. Frequently the former come with somewhat airy promises of enhanced team work and leadership skills, while the latter sit on a continuum, with, at one end, "giving something back," for example, by painting a fence or helping children develop their literacy; at the other, deploying participants' professional knowledge and skills to build the non-profit's organisational and employee capacity. It is this capacity building approach which steers us into the slightly murky waters of skills-based volunteering (SBV). Why murky? Because there is some confusion about whose skills are being developed. On its website the US Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) defines SBV as a means

"of leveraging the specialized skills and talents of individuals to strengthen the infrastructure of nonprofits, helping them build and sustain their capacity to successfully achieve their missions."

In other words, it is all about the transmission of skills and capacity from the corporate to the third sector organisation. However, in Skills Based Volunteerism: A New Generation of Service, a document CNCS produced in partnership with the HandsOn Network, we are told of the opportunities for corporate participants to enhance their

"organizational, leadership, communication and decision making skills."

This flow of value back to the corporate is more precisely articulated by Susan E Wedge, an IBM executive quoted by Alice Korngold in a 2012 blog. Wedge had been involved in a pro bono project with the Romanian public sector:

"When you are working with people who speak a different language and live in a different culture than you do, your sensitivity to communication is heightened in new ways ... .... That is a learning experience that you bring back to your own more familiar work environment. It changes you."

Not a straightforward transmissive process then, but a transactional one; not just giving, but learning in return.

Even in these economically straitened times over 80% of UK companies are said to participate in employee volunteering. You might imagine they would want to wring every last drop of value from the relationship. This certainly seems consistent with the recommendation in Deloitte's 2011 Volunteer Impact Survey:

"there is an opportunity for companies to incorporate skilled volunteerism into their training and development programs. Skilled volunteer engagements could provide valuable experiential learning opportunities that respond to millennials' voracious appetite for professional development, leadership roles and stimulating and rewarding work."

But how many corporates are acting on this advice? In a recently published series of infographics , which purport to show the benefits of SBV to the US, "skills gain" is associated with 56% of participant employees. It is not stated whether that gain is demonstrated or self-reported. Nor is there any breakdown of the specific skills involved. This lack of precision is far from unusual and is distinct from the rigour shown by the more authentically motivated corporates in their engagement with third sector partners, where collaboration around intended outcomes and metrics is increasingly regarded as a matter of standard practice. Insofar as developing employees' skills and insights is claimed as part of the process, there is widespread reversion to altogether woolier thinking. It is hard not to attribute this to a disjuncture between those responsible for corporate responsibility and those with the remit for learning and development. The latter realise that experience alone does not reliably yield sticky learning. They know the importance of needs analyses; that experiential learning requires reflection and re-application, and that these are steps not best left to chance. In short, they know that for every Susan E Wedge who casually takes her learning back into the workplace, there are many times more who fail to reapply their learning to the benefit of themselves and their businesses. It will be odd if corporates that promote their successes in partnering third sector organisations, fail to achieve effective collaboration between their own CR and L&D teams to arrive at shared understanding about this.

Lamentably there was no happy ending for the giant snot-fish. But there can be a happy ending for companies and their employees. Dewey contrasted the limited ability to react to physical contact to the richer human capacity to use experience intelligently, "as a means of disclosing the realities" and inspiring "the mind with courage and vitality to create new ideals and values in the face of the perplexities of a new world."

By implementing formally structured experiential learning programmes, the combined forces of CR and L&D could maximize the value of experiences, enabling colleagues to return to the workplace with fresh self-awareness, insight and focus. It's an opportunity not to be sniffed at.