Beyond the Sage on the Stage

Many learning and development organizations are no longer relying solely on subject matter experts and are incorporating active and immersive learning, which engage participants and better position offerings to enable success.

As employees progress to more senior positions in an organization, they typically encounter a variety of professional development programs to help them succeed. These offerings may build critical knowledge and skills for new roles and assist with transitions from one career trajectory to another.

Whatever the intent, by the time executives become senior leaders, they often have grown weary of traditional classroom-based instruction, which can become an obstacle to continued learning precisely when it is most important. Increased job complexities further distract executives from development offerings and create a challenge for learning leaders — how to avoid a scenario where increased seniority equals a decreased priority on learning.

The Escapist Response

To recapture senior leaders’ attention, many learning and development organizations no longer rely solely on subject matter experts — the sage on the stage approach — and now incorporate more active and immersive learning modules to make development options more compelling. Such modules are memorable because they allow the participant to “escape” everyday contexts and experience something out of the ordinary. These escapist offerings have been a piece of the corporate learning arsenal since the early 1970s, when forms of experiential learning known as “ropes courses” and other outdoor adventure activities came into vogue.

These activities promoted team-building and personal development via physical challenges such as using ropes to scale obstacles. Many proponents thought the learning process was actually more important than associated behavioral outcomes, so these courses often became detached from the business context.

Over time, learning leaders began to question the value of these activities as they looked to justify learning investments. Amplified by globalization and other economic challenges in the 21st century, leaders were prompted to find more credible learning experiences, and since the 1990s, escapism has waned in popularity.

An Eduscapist Revival

Recognizing the potential for escapist programs to make the learning experience more compelling, leaders have restored the educational foundation to these offerings and embraced more compelling aspects of the escapist realm. The key is to design and develop escapist experiences grounded in explicitly defined behavioral, intellectual and motivational outcomes. In many cases, these outcomes contribute to specifically identified capabilities in need of development for business success. In every case, educational and escapist elements are combined to create what can best be described as eduscapist.

The growing number of market tours and field research excursions being undertaken by companies in an effort to understand the cultures in which they hope to operate are representative of these types of eduscapist experiences. For example, global information services and media product provider United Business Media (UBM) explored eduscapist learning to help its leaders develop new business models for emerging markets. They needed perspective on the various cultural definitions of community to develop skills to identify untapped dimensions of value-creation for customers and to understand geographies in a way that wasn’t just cognitive. To do this, UBM immersed its executives in Indian culture via the home-cooked lunch delivery system of Tiffin Box Carriers. UBM leaders shadowed Tiffin’s dabawallahs, or bicycle delivery agents, who deliver more than 200,000 lunches daily with an error rate of just one in 6 million transactions.

“We lived a day in the life of the dabawallahs, following them on their routes to customers’ homes,” said Jennifer Duvalier, group people and culture director, UBM. “We hurried up flights of stairs and were often spontaneously invited inside homes for a cup of tea and conversation since they were curious about the people following their dabawallah. We took the lunches aboard trains where the astounding sorting process happened in crowded cars. We watched as the dabawallahs delivered lunches flawlessly to offices around Mumbai and then collected empty boxes.

“Dialogue with the dabawallah organizer about the structure, principles and values that make the community work helped participants unearth common threads for UBM. It was extremely powerful in the moment,” Duvalier said. “Months later, participants still use the insights they gained around Indian culture, business models for specific communities, and the implications for serving professional communities in other fast-growing markets.”

The learning value of the experience came from explicitly using a different context to gain knowledge and learn new skills with clearly understood business outcomes. Participants could reflect on the experience and align learning with business decisions or issues.

Steve Newman, program director for executive development at Ericsson, said eduscapist experiences do accelerate learning. He has structured experiences where participants can learn from people and organizations outside the traditional realms of business in the company’s Global Perspectives Program. Next generation Ericsson executives are immersed in world cultures — this year in London, Mumbai and Boston — via guided walks that help them explore places with fresh eyes and interact with a variety of people including educators, students, designers and local NGO leaders.

“The business rationale is based in curiosity, which is a dominant leadership capability for a fast-changing world,” Newman said. “When you work in a big company you tend to see things with the paradigms you inherit. You have to break away and get fresh ideas. The constant struggle is to be curious and connect the dots; when you connect the dots you get innovative solutions to your challenges.”

Global Perspectives Program participants apply curious thinking against some of Ericsson’s key business challenges in the final program module, the Thought Leadership Workshop, with the CEO. “When the CEO meets this group, he expects something that he doesn’t get from the rest of Ericsson,” Newman said.

In the current economic climate, rising fuel prices and limited travel budgets may prevent organizations from pursuing the aforementioned types of learning experiences. But there are other forms of eduscapism available that are not location-dependent where participants can be immersed in new worlds to learn valuable managerial lessons.

For example, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) needs leaders who can scan market intelligence for subtle but significant trends, evaluate potential risks and rewards, and collaborate across boundaries to take action for the benefit of the economy. The bank was compelled to operate in that manner during the financial crisis of 2008, and wants to be intentional and proactive to ensure it sustains those behaviors.

Rather than pursue a purely academic route, the FRBNY created a practice field for the desired behaviors in an environment that differs from day-to-day FRBNY circumstances yet is relevant enough to provoke learning. As part of this eduscapist scenario, participants assume roles as EPA agents who must collaborate to create policy and render decisions acceptable to numerous constituents such as lobbyists, legislators and citizens whose interests aren’t always aligned.

“We’ve tried to make a compelling case for learning new skills that has a more personal impact by creating a bit of discomfort, having people engage in the words and behaviors of collaboration versus discussing it as an intellectual exercise,” said Louis Scenti, FRBNY’s vice president of talent management and development. “The discomfort gets people out of their heads and puts them into the realm of behaviors. We’re giving them the opportunity to intentionally bring the needed skills to bear in our practice field so those behaviors can be sustained over time.”

Eduscapist approaches available today include sailing, orienteering, theater-based improvisation, drumming, racing and more. The abundance of these nontraditional offerings indicates interest in immersive learning is in a full swing. But learning leaders will want to ensure these events are not just a return to the ropes courses of yesteryear in more glorified form.

Going Beyond Eduscapism

Seasoned educators realize that keeping any executive’s attention requires insightful content, stimulating conversations and a bit of entertainment. Further, learners must be engaged in the overall experience in which the educational task is subsumed.

The Experience Economy by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore offers a framework to understand what it takes to engage participants in a learning experience — the four E’s: educational, entertainment, escapist and esthetic. Educationally, the best teachers do not drown their students with endless data; instead they impart wisdom. Entertainingly, lectures are not dry and boring, they are sprinkled with humor and wit, and hook participants’ interest with a lively conversation around the why of a given subject. Esthetically, students are captivated by the instructor; just being in the same room has value.

Understanding and integrating these four realms holds the key to designing engaging learning offerings, and getting out of the classroom can open up possibilities for better experiences. Purely escapist activities such as ropes courses miss the mark by only focusing on one experiential realm. Eduscapist offerings combine educational and escapist elements, which can produce better learning outcomes.

Don’t stop there. There are six different dimensions to compelling experiences, which can be combined to create more interesting eduscapist experiences as well as “edutainment,” which combines educational and entertainment realms.

To ensure learning offerings engage and deliver value, focus on the inherent purpose of each of the six dimensions as outlined here:

• The reason for the edutainment dimension (educational plus entertainment) from instructors, videos and tour guides is to hold participants’ attention so they can learn.

• The purpose of the eduscapist dimension (educational plus escapist) is to change the context to create an environment conducive to learning objectives.

• The value of the edusthetic dimension (educational plus esthetic) is similar to when one beholds an object in a museum – to foster an appreciation for the experience and its objective.

• The purpose of the escasthetic dimension (escapist plus esthetic) is to alter the state of mind, body and spirit to open participants up to new possibilities.

• The entersthetic dimension (entertainment plus esthetic) points to the need for instructors and facilitators, as well as individuals and groups, to have a presence before one another.

• The purpose of the escatainment dimension (escapist plus entertainment) is to create an emotional catharsis, to help sustain learning over time.

These six dimensions provide the CLO with plenty of ideas to explore how best to pursue learning experiences that educate and engage participants.

James H. Gilmore is author of The Experience Economy. Cheryl D. Stokes is executive director of the learning innovations team at Duke Corporate Education.They can be reached at