No Image Available


Read more from TrainingZone

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Interview of the month: Richard Emerson, MD, Interaction


The concept of experiential learning is that direct experience is often the best way of taking on board what is learned. Taking inspiration from behavioural and developmental psychology, and being formed into more concrete theories by the likes of Kolb and Honey and Mumford, experiential learning forms a cycle of observation and reflection, the formation of abstract concepts and trying things out in a new situation.

Bristol-based Interaction Development and Learning Consultancy Ltd's work is rooted firmly in the theory of experiential learning. We spoke to Managing Director Richard Emerson, who co-founded the company in 1993, about what's involved with developing individuals using this approach.Richard Emerson

TrainingZONE: First of all, could you briefly define experiential learning for those that may not be aware of the concept?

Richard Emerson: There are different perceptions of what it's about - many people think it's outdoor training. My view is that it's about creating exercises and activities from which people can learn rather than standing up in front of them giving a lecture - it's far less controlled.

TrainingZONE: Do you think there's a general lack of understanding as to how and why experiential learning works?

Richard Emerson: It's unfair to say there's a general lack of understanding - as a model it's been around for a long time. One area where there's a lack of understanding is that it's not a good medium for imparting knowledge - some people do use it as a jazzy way of doing this. It's valuable in helping people to look at their own behaviour, attitudes and emotions, but it's a misuse if you use it for imparting knowledge. The Lego-tower type of exercise (using short exercises to illustrate a simple point) over-simplifies things - real experiential learning goes deeper.

TrainingZONE: Experiential learning obviously involves, as it suggests, the learner experiencing things for themselves. It seems quite labour-intensive - is more tutor input required than for standard classroom-based training?

Richard Emerson: Yes - ratios of one-to-six are common, compared with around one-in-twelve for most types of classroom-based training. Part of the real value of experiential learning is in having a good facilitator - working with six people over two-to-three days, for example, they will be more able to engage with people and help them move along behaviourally. The company's aim is to replicate the power of the outdoor experiential world without actually being in the mountains. We design courses to fit, making use of actors and exercises - for example, we're about to run a five day business simulation in a conference centre just outside of London. Our main work is with middle managers, junior managers and graduate training schemes - we tend to work with more senior management in a facilitation role.

TrainingZONE: Experiential learning seems a common-sense approach - to take on a new concept or behaviour, experiencing it and its consequences in a 'safe' environment presumably makes people more confident in trying out new actions and behaviours for themselves.

Richard Emerson: True, in my experience. In a programme you have to have enough opportunities for people to try something out, to experience its impact out and have the chance to modify their approach. You need to be able to go around the learning cycle several times in a session - programmes that have more activity than review reduce the scope for people to learn.

TrainingZONE: The use of actors seems to be really helpful in getting people to look at the consequences of their behaviour, but are there any ethical issues which arise as a result of these sorts of sessions?

Richard Emerson: There are no more ethical issues using actors than there would be with training outdoors or classroom training. The issues are about manipulation, because you create a manufactured environment. The accusation could be made by participants that you are manipulating them. Our test is, can we explain why we're doing it - if not, it's manipulation. We always involve the actors in design and facilitation, and get participants involved in feedback so that they work with the actor as well as the facilitator. The actors are carefully briefed - sometimes we get them to go into the work environment first, so that participants know that they are trying to replicate their reality.

The great thing about using actors - and it only works for interpersonal skills - is that going through the learning cycle in a short space of time can be very exciting. Actors can stop a situation and review in the moment - if someone says, let's go back three minutes and try something different, they can - there's a really quick reaction to feedback. Our actors take their corporate work very seriously - it makes up 70 to 80% of their work, rather than being something they do when they're not acting in productions.

In the last year, we've run three-day courses with around 100 managers and the feedback has been fantastic - people have gone away with clear action plans, ideas to change their relationships at work, and second-hand feedback from those working with participants has been very powerful. In a way, what managers are experiencing from experiential learning is similar to what they were experiencing with outdoor training ten years ago.

TrainingZONE: How does experiential learning fit into qualification frameworks? It seems you could draw some parallels with the NVQ route.

Richard Emerson: There's a contradiction between experiential learning and qualifications framework - experiential learning is by its nature open-ended, and qualifications obviously require formal assessment. That said, a lot of experiential learning programmes will help provide people with the knowledge they need for qualifications, but it's not enough on its own - qualifications curricula are much broader.

TrainingZONE: How does the research done on learning styles influence thinking on experiential learning? Should we look at grouping learners with the same learning styles together for the purposes of training sessions?

Richard Emerson: The danger with taking the work on learning styles simplistically is that it suggests there's only one way for an individual learner to learn. That misses the point, because good learners need to be good at all parts of the learning cycle. It's known that some people will prefer one way of learning to another, but you need to pay attention to the aspect that people are having difficulties with - e.g. are they having problems putting the learning into action, are they having problems with the theory...

TrainingZONE: Can everyone get something out of experiential learning?

Richard Emerson: Whether people get something out of a session depends on how well they've been briefed, whether they understand why they're there etc...this is a problem with all forms of training.

TrainingZONE: What's the relationship between experiential learning and action learning - they appear to be based on similar concepts?

Richard Emerson: There are some parallels between action and experiential learning - they're based on the same model. Action learning tends to be more focussed on business problems. The thing about action learning is that it takes place over a longer period of time - where we've been involved with action learning programmes we've found keeping people's commitment is the biggest challenge. I think this is probably why action learning hasn't taken off more, even though intuitively I feel it should have done.

TrainingZONE: How can you combine experiential learning with e-learning techniques?

Richard Emerson: E-learning is a fantastic way of transmitting knowledge far and wide, but I don't believe people will learn a great deal about interpersonal skills through e-learning. The link with experiential learning will come through background knowledge, through disseminating theory and learning models. I don't think many people will change their behaviour as a result of e-learning, no matter how well it's designed - there's great scope there but at the end of the day, interacting with a person is different to interacting with a computer.

E-learning is still a new market - it will make great claims for what it can do, but will then shake itself out to do what it's good at. Outdoor training and experiential learning did the same ten years ago. If you want to create a programme for, for example, induction or financial understanding e-learning is fantastic.

TrainingZONE: How can the classroom trainer incorporate some of the ideas from experiential learning into their sessions?

Richard Emerson: I think the answer is in the question - the implication is that there's a fixed set of information to get across. We're talking about the difference between training and facilitation - with facilitation, you can't know exactly where a session is going - you will have objectives of course, but you can't know what the right answer's going to be. It's about thinking differently, letting go of your 'expert position', being prepared to follow the action - helping them to see what they can learn. You don't have to be outdoors to work experientially - you can do it in a hotel room.

TrainingZONE: Does Experiential Learning work for open courses?

Richard Emerson: Open courses are offered by some providers, e.g. the Leadership Trust. Our business tends to be ongoing over a number of years - we work with the company to constantly adapt the programme.

TrainingZONE: A few questions about outdoor training events:

It could be said that outdoor training isn't for everyone - some people don't appear keen on being 'thrown together' with those they work with out of an office environment. What would you say to those who are unsure about attending such a session?

Richard Emerson: In a different environment people are bound to have concerns. By and large, when people understand what they're doing and why, they're fine. We don't actually do many sessions in the mountains, but if people are really resistant to the outdoor elements, it needs to be listened to. I do wonder though whether the same debate would take place if someone said they hated being in a lecture room...

TrainingZONE: Why has outdoor training got a reputation among some for being a 'bit of a jolly'? Some people seem to struggle with relating its effect to the 'bottom line'.

Richard Emerson: In terms of being thought of as a 'jolly', if people leave an experiential event with a stronger memory of the event than the learning they've undertaken, then it's failed. The event itself is not important - it's a vehicle for that learning. There are 'jollies' which are intended as such - our sister company Jolly Serious offers them. It's really about clarity of purpose - people call things teambuilding when they're actually going out to do something which is fun - it's down to expectation.

TrainingZONE: In this week's online workshop some participants said the trips to the pub were the most useful part of teambuilding events they'd attended...

Richard Emerson: It could be the case that having done something physical together, they were more open with each other in the pub, or it could simply be that the event was poorly delivered.

Relating the effect of a session to the bottom line is difficult for any type of 'soft skills' development - it's a problem for a lot of our clients. Making the link is so complicated it's almost worthless trying to do it - there are so many factors involved. What you have to ensure is that there's clarity of purpose. It depends on outcomes: the difference between training (can't do something - can do something) and development (a less visible transition) - development is where Experiential learning fits in.

TrainingZONE: How did you get involved with experiential learning personally?

Richard Emerson: I trained as a teacher but it was an unusual degree, focussing on personal and social education for children, for example using the outdoors. In the early 1980s there was a move towards more structured knowledge in education with the introduction of the National Curriculum, which was a move away from where my knowledge and skills lay. I moved to work as a technician for an outdoor management development centre with responsibility for logistics, and realised that what I had been trained to do was development for managers in a different context. I met my current business partner Mike Taylor at the Celmi Outdoor Management Centre.

<img src="/sites/default/files/siftmedia-photolib-logo_interaction.gif" border=0 alt="Interaction"
For more information about Interaction and sister company Jolly Serious Events, e-mail or visit the website at


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!