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Our learning from ATD23, and why it might signal a mass-adoption of experiential methodologies

Our learning from ATD23, and why it might signal a mass-adoption of experiential methodologies

My last blog was about how the RSVP Design team were heading for the ATD23 Conference in San Diego and what I anticipated the conversations at our booth would be all about. We’re back now after a very successful and sociable conference, and I thought it would be worth continuing the theme by checking whether things went as I anticipated.

Did Graham wear his kilt and sporran - oh yes he did and it caused the usual series of “Bonnie Scotland” conversations and photo requests.

Did we follow up with the “Where do you work?” conversation? Not so much - it seems that the pandemic years have created a much greater acceptance of ideas and interventions for wider cultures and geographies.

Did we get the questions about “How do I know that these tools will work in my part of the world?” Again not so much - and there’s a very specific reason for that so I’m going to use the rest of this blog to talk about what seems to be happening in the world of experiential learning.

What I’m seeing is a rapidly growing understanding of experiential learning as a thing, and a corresponding acceptance of it’s efficacy. Suddenly (it seems) we are not being asked what experiential learning is, what it relies on, how it works etc? People seem to have researched learning methodologies in some depth and are approaching us as educated consumers / potential consumers of experiential tools. The conversations we’re having seem to start at a point which has been, for many years, the end point of many of our sales and marketing conversations. We’ve long believed that we at RSVP Design are ahead of the curve in terms of our belief in, and commitment to, experiential approaches, so it’s extremely heartening to see and hear the signs that the market seems to be much more ready to adopt our thinking.

The ATD conference is a unique gathering, it’s truly global and very much the place where the learning and development world gathers. For this reason we’re inclined to believe that it’s not just the N. American market who have begun to embrace experiential. Our conversations ranged across the world - the USA certainly, but also the Far East, S. America and the Middle East were well represented. We were well prepared to answer questions about how our tools could be integrated into learning interventions in different languages and across different cultures, but those conversations were few and far between. When you’re talking to an educated market the very basic questions seem to be no longer essential.

Another feature of ATD23 that made it a happy journey home for us was the seniority of the attendees. We were told by a very experienced ‘industry observer’ that organisations were no longer sending junior staff to give them exposure and education, they were reserving the places for their more experienced employees. This meant that many of our conversations were with decision makers, the people who made the calls about the direction of their L+D practices and the destinations of their L+D spend. These are bright people so it was a very quick journey from “Tell me how this tool works” to them being able to fully envisage how it could support the achievement of specific behavioural change in their organisations. The middle-ground of us helping them with understanding how the tool should be rolled-out and deployed wasn’t necessary - they got that bit without us needing to offer any support.

So what has changed? 

I’d suggest that it’s many things - there will be graduate degree papers written in years to come describing the cause and effect of what we’re seeing happening right now; but if I could offer one observation that might fuel the conversation it would be this: I don’t know whether it is cause or effect, but organisations seem to have shifted their L+D recruitment policies - and, from a supplier perspective the result seems to be a very positive trend. 

This might be a controversial thing to say but over the past 30 years I think that the practical competence of people charged with delivering L+D content has become narrower and less dynamic.

My perception over that time has been of a great many trainers with poor facilitation skills, who are comfortable delivering content that was created elsewhere but reluctant (unsupported?) in moving away from a script and timetable. People for whom experiential methods were attractive on paper but rarely stretched beyond the  ‘safe engagement’ of mini-quizzes and controlled group discussion / feedback. People who considered the devolvement of power to the learners inherent in ‘real’ experiential tools as too risky. To a very large extent I had put this worrying trend down to L+D functions recruiting direct from College / University which meant that their recruits had little or no experience of education outside of formal institutions using predominantly didactic approaches supported by independent study. Learning to facilitate well is a long process and isn’t something that can quickly be developed ‘on the job’.

This is why it was refreshing to be part of the conversations in San Diego that involved people who had been recruited from education by corporate organisations. In particular we were visited by more than a handful of people who had experience of working in classroom settings with pre-teens. These were people who really understood how to facilitate experiential sessions - because that was what their prior experience has all been about. The idea that you bring in somebody who understands business and try to teach them to facilitate has been stood on its head. Corporations now see that the preferred, and simplest, path of entry is to recruit experienced facilitators and teach them about business - and the results of this change is going to be part of what will power the movement towards mass-adoption of experiential methodologies over the coming years.

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