An edited extract from Powerful Learning Experiences in Management Learning and Development (pp 274-8) that brings out the power of the storyline in both outdoor and indoor management development, and questions whether the actual experience is an essential feature of the OMD learning process.

Images and stereotypes

Most of the stories in the questionnaires and most of the stories in the interviews concerned events in the outdoors. The variety of stories within these data is considerable. Despite this richness of potential experiences and stories, there appear to be a number of persisting popular images or stereotypes that dominate how outdoor management development (OMD) is generally perceived.

'Indoor' Outdoor Management Development

One interesting phenomenon is 'Indoor OMD'. A common example is the use of team decision-making exercises which require a group to rank order items of survival equipment following an accident in the wilderness. These exercises were first based on survival situations on the moon (The N.A.S.A. Moon Game), in the desert (Desert Survival), and in the Scottish Highlands (Highland Survival). One training resources company is now offering a whole range of outdoor scenarios (for using indoors) from which to choose: being stranded on an island, capsizing on a lake, marooned in the Arctic wilderness, stuck in a jungle or trying to survive in the Caribbean. The brochure advertising these products reads:"Enhance realism with a set of 20 slides that will make your participants glad they're warm and dry.""Tropical Rain Forest audiocassette helps set the mood for the exercise. Reward survivors with 'I escaped from the jungle' badges!" [These badges now read 'We escaped from the jungle' to reinforce the teamwork message.]

'Outdoor' Outdoor Management Development

There is a contrasting phenomenon within 'Outdoor OMD', which is to pepper the whole experience with 'links to work': the top of a mountain becomes a cashpoint, tents become offices, canoes become taxis, and ropes become telephone cables. While indoor trainers may try to liven up their sessions by bringing the 'excitement' of the outdoors into the training room, many outdoor trainers take excitement for granted and seem to be more concerned with relevance - in their efforts to design ready-made links-to-work into their outdoor exercises.

The similarities between 'indoor' and 'outdoor' OMD

These differences between training exercises in the (real) outdoors and those which simulate the outdoors may be worth further investigation, but for the purposes of this thesis, it is the similarities which are of greater interest. The similarities indicate some key features of the outdoors (in the form of images and storylines) which appear to retain some of their power and usefulness in exclusively indoor training settings. I have outlined below the features which appear to be common to both 'indoor' OMD and 'outdoor' OMD:

The (real) outdoors and the simulated outdoors both evoke powerful images which relate to management development in metaphorical ways (e.g. surviving in the jungle) and literally (e.g. working as a team).

Real or simulated outdoor scenarios provide a neutral setting in which all participants are likely to be equally disadvantaged: the outdoors is seen as a leveller.

Without sophisticated technology to assist or blame, the demands and issues tend to be simple, basic and inescapable. Excuses and pretensions tend not to survive for long in 'survival' situations (whether real or imagined), thus making way for greater honesty and straightforwardness in facing up to issues.

The novelty of an outdoor scenario (real or simulated) instantly places managers in the role of learner. This willingness to appear before peers as a 'learner' seems more likely in an outdoor setting than in a setting which more obviously resembles work, and in which a manager is already supposed to be reasonably competent. This applies even if the management skills and experience required in each setting are very similar.

To bridge the gap between outdoor and work settings generally requires a wider span of relevance than bridging the gap between two work settings. Practice in making connections across wide gaps increases the range of experiences that managers can bring to bear on any one problem.

Where learners do succeed in making connections between two very different settings, they tend to be at more profound levels. It is important to distinguish here between the relatively superficial connections which are designed into exercises, and the more profound connections made by individual managers when flashes of insight jump across the gap between 'outdoors' and 'work'.

Managers can more readily test, discover and demonstrate their potential and versatility (an important asset for managers facing change) in settings or simulations which are most different from their everyday work.

Both approaches claim to make the training experience more realistic, but what could be further from reality than imagining that a neatly trimmed lawn is an alligator swamp, or that a mountain top is a cashpoint (both outdoor training exercises), or imagining that an air-conditioned training room is a jungle or an Arctic wilderness (both indoor training exercises)? These would all be triumphs of the imagination over reality! What is surely meant by "realism" in these contexts is more intense involvement - whatever the balance of fact and fiction, and however similar or different to work the experience may be.

The benefits of indoor OMD

Proponents of working in the (real) outdoors would probably claim that all of these advantages are more likely and more intense in a real outdoor setting than in a simulated one - but the main point here has been to illustrate how indoor exercises based on outdoor themes do seem to be able to provide some of the benefits of OMD without the expense, discomfort, risk and time involved in actually being outdoors.

Other powerful storylines

The indoor exercises mentioned above are all based on one particular theme: that your chances of survival (or achievement) depend on your group's ability to work together as a team. There are many other powerful storylines from OMD which could be transformed into indoor training exercises.

Learning from simulated experience?

What this outline comparison of 'indoor' and 'outdoor' OMD has indicated is that outdoor 'storylines' appear to have a training value which can be exploited without the support of real outdoor 'experience'. The actual experience may not be an essential feature of the OMD learning process!

Metaphorical connections are not one way streets!

If OMD providers can simulate work experience using outdoor training exercises, it follows that indoor training providers should be able to simulate outdoor experiences using indoor training exercises.

Feedback on the above article from joe@hayley77.freeserve.co.uk

"It is true to a degree, but if the indoor environment is familiar the exercise has less impact. I have found it best as a late night exercise to bring people in from the cold, they tend to give it more concentration than if they are still in their 'comfort zone'. I am doing a thesis on OMD as part of the Institute of Personnel and Development exams. If anybody has any inputs or ideas, I'd be glad to hear them."
joe@hayley77.freeserve.co.uk October 99

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