5 ways experiential learning can develop top talent

| February 3, 2015

Do you want the talent in your business to become more resilient, adapt to changes faster and become more innovative? Wes Sonnenreich highlights how introducing experiential learning into training and development can lead to productive, happy employees and great business outcomes.

Your business is changing to take advantage of new opportunities and to keep up with competition. Is your talent getting left behind? What can you do to help them develop their skills and capabilities in “real time” so that they can personally succeed and help your business grow at the same time?

One answer is “experiential learning” – an increasingly preferred approach to education that blends theory with practice in a real world setting. Experiential programs encourage trial and error, unlike traditional classes where theory is memorised, tested and “getting it wrong” is bad.

Experiential programs make learning more personally relevant and often create emotional reactions, which have been shown to boost comprehension, retention and satisfaction with the learning process.

Many skill-based vocations, such as medicine, law and engineering all include substantial experiential components in their training through apprenticeships and practicums. However this approach historically was less often used in management education. That is now changing, because it turns out that there are many types of essential business skills that can be learned better when taught experientially. Teamwork, leadership, innovation, project management and even new concepts like design thinking and cybersecurity naturally lead themselves to experiential methods of learning.

The great thing about experiential learning is that you can bring its benefits into your organisation today. Here are five ways in which experiential education can help your employees grow their capabilities and meet the needs of your changing business:

1. Brings the latest management theories into practice

Reading the latest management book always leaves me excited to try something new, but then frustrated when there’s no easy way to apply it to my business. Experiential programs use techniques like simulations and carefully selected business problems to give learners the chance to practice the theory hands-on. They can then see the real-world implications of the decisions they make, without risking it on their own business or career.

2. Builds emotional intelligence through heightened mindfulness and conscientiousness

Reflection is a cornerstone of experiential learning. Through learning how to reflect on the connection between experience, outcome and emotional response, learners develop a sense of awareness and mindfulness. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is rapidly being recognised as a key differentiator shared among great leaders and top performers.

3. Improves capacity to cope with change

An experiential learning program can go hand-in-hand with change management, helping employees experience the new process or structure and working through the challenges before having to do it “for real.” It can also help their managers understand situational triggers to avoid during the change process, as well as identify reward/recognition strategies that are likely to be successful.

4. Develops innovation and collaboration capabilities

We’ve worked with several companies that have used experiential learning as part of “accelerators”, giving innovators practical experience where they can see exactly how an idea becomes reality. They can also learn how to cope with and learn from the common and frequent challenges and failures during the innovation process. Most importantly, experiential programs help people who don’t think they’re innovators understand how they can play an essential role in an innovative team.

5. Provides a safe place to learn from failure

Great experiential programs give learners a safe environment to try different approaches and learn from their failures. This is different from traditional “learn on the job” approaches where failure comes with steep consequences. There are excellent, and safe, experiential programs offered as part of Masters, MBA and EMBA programs at several leading universities. Some companies are also developing experiential programs as part of in-house corporate training. These have a benefit of being able to specifically align outcomes to strategic priorities for the company.

So why aren’t all training and education programs “experiential”? The challenge with creating great experiential learning programs is that they require a specialised approach to instructional design. It takes more than just cobbling some youtube/lynda/coursera videos together with a few workshops to get a great outcome. This is because each learner goes through several “cycles” of learning at their own pace; the learner acts, reflects, draws conclusions, plans a new approach and acts again. These cycles can often get “stuck” and require timely intervention to prevent frustration and ensure the learner gets the most out of the experience.

Good instructional design, coupled with emerging experiential learning software can help educators monitor and support learners as they go through the experiential learning journey.

A good design will challenge learners to step outside of their comfort zone, try new things and potentially fail. Then, “just-in-time” support will help them learn from their failures and work towards success. Smart collaboration technology with analytics can spot the need for intervention and enable efficient, high-touch support for larger cohorts of learners (20+). A new generation of education platforms, such as Practera (developed by my company), are making it easier to ensure quality and outcomes for experiential learning.

Wes Sonnenreich is the CEO of education technology company Intersective. It’s Practera platform is an experiential education tool to help educators and employers deliver and manage work integrated learning from internships to complex, large scale programs. Wes believes great innovators can be made with great education. Prior to founding intersective, he was national Director of Deliotte’s Innovation program and GM of Science and Technology at Sirius Minerals.  A serial intra/entrepreneur, Wes has founded and led several other Information Technology and Consulting companies in Boston and New York. Wes is a graduate of M.I.T and of Harvard Business School’s executive MBA program and is a widely published author, university lecturer and corporate speaker.



  1. Avatar

    Paul SIjpkes

    March 1, 2015 at 1:43 am

    Some sound ideas here, Wes.
    Some sound ideas here, Wes. In your conclusion you discuss the idea of learners getting stuck at some point in their learning cycle. I think its crucial at this stage that they have mentors or supervisors that can help them identify this stage and also help them through it. In my experience in developing and supporting a digital portfolio system for experiential learning in allied health, the problem often lies in the support that students get from their mentors and supervisors, who are sometimes too busy or just unwilling to give them quality feedback. I think any technology that aims to tackle experiential learning will require some way of supporting and guiding the mentor as well as the student. It also needs to be highly adaptable and flexible to the context of the business it is applied to. I really like your point on EQ too, this is too often overlooked by learning technologists!

    • Avatar

      Wes Sonnenreich

      March 6, 2015 at 1:55 am

      Hi Paul, thanks for
      Hi Paul, thanks for commenting. Your point about mentors is spot on. Mentors need support as well; from both the educator and from others industry participants. Well supported mentors will deliver better student outcomes as well as get more out of the experience themselves. In fact, we believe mentors have as much to learn in experiential programs as the “students”. Mentors can learn about leadership, teamwork, providing feedback, project management and how to look at problems/solutions from a more senior perspective.

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    Chris Bilsland

    February 7, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    Great points and as a work
    Great points and as a work integrated learning contractor I especially like point 2 about mindfulness and conscientiousness. Young interns starting out with no work experience can be so keen on learning skills and “getting” experience they miss out on learning from the process itself unless it’s brought to their attention by their intern work supervisors.

    • Avatar

      Wes Sonnenreich

      March 6, 2015 at 2:00 am

      I agree Chris – there’s a
      I agree Chris – there’s a huge amount of learning that happens “beneath the surface” in well structured experiential programs. This is why regular reflection is so critical to the process – it helps learners identify some of these deeper lessons.

      I also often see interns who don’t actually know why they are doing an internship. They think it’s about ticking a box, getting a credential, impressing future employers. They are told they will develop “skills” but don’t actually understand how. What they miss is that future employers will only value an internship if the potential employee can articulate what they learned as well as explaining what they did.