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Patrick Dunn

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Arts-based training comes of age


Arts-based training provides organisations with a range of appraoches to tackle issues such as organisational creativity and inniovation. Patrick Dunn provides an update of the latest developments.

If your organisation needs to train its people to use a new expenses system, or deal with customers more effectively, or conform to new legislation, there are, thankfully, well-proven training methods available. Conventional learning methods – courses, workshops, e-learning, workbooks and so on – are ideally suited to these conventional learning challenges.

But increasingly, organisational experts are suggesting that the difference between business success and failure often doesn’t depend on resolving conventional learning challenges like these. What matters most in today’s environment is organisational creativity and innovation, quality of engagement and motivation, leadership in complex situations, and so on. And there is increasing evidence that conventional training methods aren’t up to the job when it comes to tackling these types of issues.

Professor Giovanni Schiuma, of Università degli Studi della Basilicata, is one of a number of academics who has looked at a range of somewhat unconventional, arts-based training approaches and has suggested that these may be better suited to address exactly the kinds of learning challenge that more conventional methods struggle with.

This isn’t entirely surprising given that the work of professional artists requires them to manage uncertainty, generate ideas, communicate and collaborate creatively, motivate themselves and, most important of all, look at the world differently.

This may explain what appears to be something of a trend towards the use of arts-based training in organisations. The use of "artists" in training – musicians, painters, poets, actors and others – has been an intermittent feature of training for many years, typically in one of two quite different situations: large-scale motivational and teambuilding activities, which usually involve drumming and/or singing; management training in small groups, usually using an artist to help develop group performance or presentation skills.

"Arts-based training is being used at higher levels within organisations, using a broader range of arts, and tackling a wider range of performance issues."

But what appears to be happening currently is that arts are being used to help organisations tackle some of the most pressing issues they face – their critical learning challenges.

Major professional services firms are employing jazz musicians to run executive workshops on leadership, heavyweight business publications such as The Journal of Business Strategy are publishing special issues containing numerous case studies of arts-based training, and top international business schools such as Ashridge and Wharton are planning or already offer workshops and conferences in this area. Arts-based training is being used at higher levels in organisations, using a broader range of arts, and tackling a wider range of performance issues.

As training and development professionals, we need to be absolutely clear about the benefits of this activity, as with any other. So what does it deliver? For Alex Steele, organisational management expert and jazz pianist, music provides a unique and powerful means of conveying some of the more complex messages about relationships between team members and leaders, intuitive responsiveness to others and flexibility in rapidly changing situations.

Live music

Of course, these messages can be conveyed in other ways, but the immediacy and impact of using live – and usually very high profile – jazz musicians adds a critical new ingredient. Ben Hines, who runs Moving Performance, also uses music in a range of learning and development situations. But instead of a jazz ensemble he uses, among other things, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, no less. His Know the Score programme uses the orchestra to create a powerful metaphor which provides a platform for strategic thinking about delegates’ own performances, and those of their organisations.

As organisations and their learning issues become ever more complex, arts-based training is being used to help people perceive their organisation and themselves in different ways, and communicate their new understandings.

Consultant Steve Marshall has developed an approach called Photo-Dialogue which uses photography to create more meaningful, constructive conversations in organisations, thereby accelerating change and innovation. Painter Louis Parsons has used painting at the highest levels in organisations to help executives find new ways of articulating their uniqueness and their leadership style. 

Tom Morley and Dawn Ellis, of InstantTeamwork use storytelling to develop common means of expression among groups and improve knowledge sharing. In all of these cases, arts are being used to help grapple with tough organisational communication issues, not because they are novel or alternative, but because they are the best way of solving the business problems.

Unsurprisingly, the most widespread use of arts-based training is in the area of developing creativity and innovation skills and mindsets. According to Linda Naiman, arts-based training expert, "We cannot find answers to our problems in the world of the rational, logical and scientific. We need to bring other competencies into the equation: creative, artistic, imaginative . . ."

This view is reflected in many arts-based training offerings, such as Neil Mallarkey’s improvised comedy, Grounded Creativity’s musical collaborations and the visually led work of The Art of Business.

One of the more ambitious enterprises aimed at immersing business people in creative work is The Silk Mill, based in Somerset. In their workshops, participants are immersed in large-scale creative activities ranging from kinetic sculpture, to musical composition, to creative writing, to portraiture. With access to a wide range of artists from the local community, participants learn to think like an artist by becoming one.

If you are interested in looking further at this area, here are my five tips to help you on your way:

  • Be crystal clear about the business or organisational rationale behind choosing arts-based training. State your objectives and be clear about how arts-based training will achieve them. Most critically, be clear about whether you are looking for entertainment, motivation or long-term learning and change.
  • Use your rationale to identify the most appropriate art form(s) to meet your learning challenge. Use a specialist to help you make these decisions.
  • Involve a facilitator who is experienced in this area and in working with artists (although artist and facilitator may be the same person). Don’t assume that an effective artist makes a great facilitator!
  • Integrate the arts-based activity into a wider blend including preparation, follow-up, coaching and so on. A one-off “warm bath” is less likely to be effective.
  • Think strategically and long-term. Be clear about where arts-based training fits into your organisation’s longer-term learning and performance challenges.

Patrick Dunn has been designing training, education and learning technology for more than twenty years. He has an MBA from Warwick Business School, an MSc in Networked Learning, and a music degree from Oxford University. Patrick has worked for leading training and e-learning companies in the US and UK, including DigitalThink and LINE Communications, and for major consultancies including PricewaterhouseCoopers as well as creative agencies including Landor Associates, major branding agencies such as Sterling Brands, and on UK government projects such Creativity Incubator (funded by HEFCE). Patrick can be contacted on



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