Close article 14th February 2014

Experiential Learning Aims to Close Gap Between Big Business and Social Good

Can working in the Mumbai slums or with Mexican litter pickers provide leaders with epiphany moments about responsible business, or is it simply ‘poverty porn’?

One dictionary definition of epiphany is “the sudden realisation about the nature or meaning of something”. It continues, “an epiphany can often come about due to some experience that may trigger the sudden realisation”.

The sustainability business world’s most oft-recited epiphany moment is that of Ray Anderson, the founder of carpet manufacturer Interface. Finding himself unable to answer some of the environmental questions being fired at him, he read Paul Hawken’s the Ecology of Commerce: “It was a point of a spear in my chest … it became an epiphanal experience, a total change of mindset for myself”, he recalled in Joel Bakan’s 2004 book the Corporation.

For me it was spending three weeks in rural Malawi, where only 7% of Malawians have access to electricity according to the World Bank, and in rural areas many travel several miles to get water and meat is a luxury afforded only a handful of times a year. The experience triggered a sudden deep personal realisation about the finite resources of the planet.

But what is the power of epiphany and the real impact of immersive experiential learning on business leaders’ attitudes towards sustainability? Will a day in the Mumbai slums or working alongside litter pickers in Mexico City be the catalyst moment that kick-starts the consciousness of business leaders to help embed responsible business practice and innovation?

Organisers and participants of these learning programmes certainly think so. They describe powerful epiphany moments and the subsequent impact of personal transformational on organisational transformation. Like the BP refinery manager who went back after a week’s Cambridge Programme for Sustainable Leadership course on global issues and built a windfarm to power his refinery.

The unconvinced, meanwhile, claim that learning journeys have no lasting impact – that it’s “corporate tourism” at best and “poverty porn” at worst. Either way, “powering epiphanies” is becoming big business. Leaders’ Quest is a social enterprise that has taken over 3000 leaders on quests in the past 10 years. They claim to deliver programmes that participants find transformational and also lead to business change and innovation. One big supporter of quests is Ninan Chacko, CEO of PR Newswire, a $300m electronic content distribution business, who has been on four. He says that business leaders are trained not to get emotional. “The quests help break through to your emotional core and help you realise your responsibility as a leader of a global business.”

Partly this is done through skilful convening, meeting inspiring locals and entrepreneurs such as the Brazilian banker who set up an internet cafe business in a favela. Chacko’s most memorable moment was meeting the founder of Jaipur Foot, an NGO in Jaipur, India which makes state-of-the-art prosthetics and treats every individual for free. He says, “It taught me what true ‘customer centricity’ looked like”.

Unilever’s global vice president of HR, Geoff McDonald, has seen the value in immersion to help build employee engagement around sustainability issues. He says, “People work in different ways. For some, seeing, understanding and analysing data can be a catalyst for behaviour change, but others need to experience a situation for themselves before they can become advocates for change … immersion helps to bring to life the role we can play – for example, by visiting remote villages in India where there is open defecation, and seeing the disease that this brings to communities, we can both understand the situation and truly engage in the need to bring sanitation to people’s lives and look at what we can do.”

One person who understands the power of experiential learning is Mandar Apte, who works as a GameChanger at Shell International, identifying and incubating “early stage” social innovations that aim to create shared value. For the past two years, he has designed and delivered an experiential learning programme focused on nourishing innovation culture using meditation practices.

During this period, over 1,000 people signed up for a lunchtime taster session and nearly 450 subsequently completed a deeper two-day learning workshop. He says, “True sustainability is where both heart and head are involved in decision-making”.

The grand-daddy of all immersion programmes is the Prince’s Seeing is Believing programme, set up by Business in the Community 24 years ago. The visits are led by a CEO who has already committed to an issue such as homelessness or inner city unemployment. CEOs of National Grid, Fujitsu, Barclays, Thames Water have all lead SIBs.

BITC say that the design of the programme, which involves a passionate leader bringing together a small group of peers, combined with insights from community partners, creates the perfect environment for fostering collaboration. They are now pushing immersion further with a Business Connectors programme which will take middle managers to work inside communities for six months to a year whilst still on the company payroll.

Whether it’s through epiphany moments, immersive or not, we need our business leaders to want to be powerful forces for social good.

This article was originally published in The Guardian.

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