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Experiential Business Learning – without Nellie by Jeremy Thorn

Jeremy Thorn

Jeremy Thorn

I can’t be alone, can I? When I first graduated, I naively thought there wasn’t any job I couldn’t do – if only someone would just tell me what to do and how…
Oh, the innocent folly of youth!

But I did recognise that my own worst nightmare could be to join any graduate-development programme that might involve ‘sitting with Nellie’; doing absolutely nothing, watching others and impatiently waiting to have a chance to have a go myself.

So I studiously avoided ‘Nellie’ and I was slowly but surely allowed to undertake ‘proper jobs’. The more I took on new responsibilities, the more I realised how little I knew. And the more I found that out, the more I learned.

Without knowing it at the time, I discovered the power of ‘experiential learning’…

How do we learn?
If we all knew how we might each learn *best*, wouldn’t life be so much easier! Of course we all learn in many different ways, most commonly according to our innate rather than acquired preferences. But surely, the more ways we can ‘learn to learn’, the better?

Did you know there are at least 70 different theories of how we learn? – all of which seem to have their critics, not the least because they can ‘pigeon-hole’ and constrain us.

Maybe what really matters is what works best!

For example, you may know about the powerful work by Honey and Mumford on different ‘Learning Styles’, as in:
– ‘Theorists’, building on under-pinning theory, academic knowledge and logic, through careful analysis and synthesis;
– ‘Reflectors’, needing time to stand back and think about available data and how that might mesh with our own observations;
– ‘Pragmatists’, more interested to see if ideas and theories actually work in practice, through experimentation for example rather than abstract discussion;
– ‘Activists’, open-minded and without bias, willing to give any new thought a go, at least once.
While we may all recognise our own learning preferences above, the real trick is to apply all of them, as best we can.

Others may prefer to explore their preferred routes to adult learning through other formal frameworks of understanding, such as Carl Jung (and Myers-Briggs in particular), DISC, Anthony Gregorc (based on concrete or abstract qualities, ordered randomly or sequentially), the ‘VARK Model’ (Visual, Aural and Kinesthetic learning – based on an expanded version of Neuro-linguistic programming, often coupled with Reading/writing, and widely used in American schools); and many more.

Experiential Learning
So much for the theories. But how are they to be applied?

For example, the ‘Kolb Learning Cycle’ (an iterative cycle of experience, reflection, generalisation and testing) along with ‘double-loop learning’, is widely used in designing management development programmes.

And then, there is Adventure learning, Action-learning, Co-operative learning, Distance learning (once inaccurately described to me by an educational cynic as ‘what we used to call reading books’), E-learning, Free-choice learning, Peer group learning, Service learning (typically community-based) – take your pick!

But the essence of ‘Experiential Learning’ for my money is, whatever the theory and its boundaries of academic nomenclature, and whatever our personal preferences of learning styles, that it can allow us – the learner – to learn as we may best, whatever we need to learn most.

Examples might include all manner of different activities, from coaching and mentoring, secondment, structured project-work, writing articles, making presentations, or any of the activities above – including Action Learning and Peer Group Learning.

But whatever the name of the process or activity, the key requirements of ‘Experiential Learning’ are:

  • willing involvement; to obtain active, practical and relevant experience;
  • an opportunity to reflect on that experience, and even share others’ experiences;
  • the ability to analyse that experience and conceptualise it, with or without others’ help;
  • problem-solving skills and decision-making powers, to act upon the new experiences, ideas and suggestions gained in practice;
  • the desire to learn from them.
  • As long as these key requirements are met, who needs the theory of why Experiential Learning works so well?

    Last Thoughts
    Some twenty years after I graduated and naively thought I could do anything (if only someone would tell me what to do and how), I decided to write a book on ‘Developing Your Career in Management’ for new and aspiring managers.

    To research this, I conducted an informal survey of several hundred graduates in their first few years out of college, working in a wide range of business sectors across the country.

    I was horrified to learn that the vast majority of new trainees still reported being bored, under-used and demotivated.

    Learning by ‘sitting with Nellie’ can’t possibly work well. It meets none of the above criteria!

    So if you want to develop your colleagues to achieve their full potential, as well as yourself, do engage the full raft of all the active development opportunities that may be available?

    Jeremy Thorn’s passion is for developing successful organisations and their senior managers to achieve their full potential. Having been the Managing Director of a large international engineering company, he set up and developed his own successful nationwide consultancy which he has recently sold to its management.
    An experienced executive coach and author of several prize-winning experiential management books, he is a frequent workshop facilitator, speaker and writer for the Academy for Chief Executives and many others. He is also a long-standing Non-Executive Director and Board Advisor of a number of successful high-growth companies, both large and small. You can contact him at – or see his website

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