Close article 27th July 2015

Making Sustainability Personal: The Value of Experiential Learning

Zoë Arden, Director in SustainAbility’s London office, recently completed her Masters at the Cambridge University Institute for Sustainability Leadership. 

For her dissertation, she conducted a year-long research project into the impact of experiential learning programmes on business leaders’ attitudes to sustainability.


Many businesses struggle to embed sustainability and only a few brave, oft-quoted companies seem to be successful. Whilst some leaders of multinationals accept and embrace their role in contributing to a sustainable future, embedding sustainability into leadership thinking – not to mention culture, strategy and practices – is not easy. It can be difficult to build an understanding of the need for radically different models of business through traditional organisational learning and formal education.

There is a growing school of thought that leaders need to experience environmental and social challenges first-hand to emotionally connect to and understand them. One way to do that is through experiential learning programmes (ELPs). ELPs are full day or multi-day immersions ‘in the field’, designed to give business leaders first-hand insight into key global social and environmental issues. Businesses such as Alliance Boots, Barclays, Google and Bain are working with experiential learning providers like Leaders’ Quest or participating in programmes like Business in the Community’s (BITC) Seeing Is Believing to do just that.

Experiential learning can give business leaders a personal connection to sustainability issues. It takes them out of their normal context: their day-to-day ‘ivory towers’ operating environment with its norms and habitual ways of behaving and into a space where they get to confront their preconceptions and beliefs, and meet individuals who they would rarely encounter as equals. Many business leaders find this experience challenging and it can cause them to reflect on their role as a leader and to engage more deeply with how their organisation is approaching its social responsibilities.

For example, Leaders’ Quest programmes frequently take place in emerging markets and are designed to give leaders first-hand experience of issues like extreme poverty, lack of sanitation and impacts of conflict on communities. They get participants thinking about how their businesses can respond through deeper market and customer knowledge, product innovation or using local suppliers. As Leaders’ Quest’s Richard Roberts observes, “We all understand sustainability challenges at an intellectual level but we don’t necessarily understand them at a deeper emotional level. That only comes through experiential engagement with those issues.” Similarly, BITC organise visits to prisons, social enterprises and homeless shelters, often in the businesses’ ‘back yard’.

The individuals that leaders meet are often charismatic and highly motivated to tell their story. They will have been carefully selected by the organisers in many instances to counterbalance what they know may be preconceived stereotypes among business leaders. There is a ‘hierarchical levelling’ that can take place that means leaders and participants are equal. What often happens is that leaders reframe sustainability issues in the context of individuals they meet. For example, suddenly an issue like getting ex-offenders back into the work place or the impact of deforestation can have a name and a face attached to it. This identification also expands their understanding of personal leadership and changes their attitude about what is possible in their organisation.

So when does experiential learning work best? Firstly, where there are clear business goals for the programme – such as the leading consumer goods company that took a team to Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya to experience water scarcity first hand because they wanted to accelerate innovation of a washing detergent that used less water. Secondly, where expectations are set that people will take action when they return, which was the case when a bunch of businesses went to talk to ex-offenders who couldn’t get jobs and then subsequently changed their hiring policies. It is often the case that the experiential learning objectives will be set by the CEO or a board director. This then gives people within the business the license to address the issue, as is the case with Barclays’ CEO using experiential learning to help drive culture change.

There is definitely evidence that experiential learning can help participants build an emotional connection to societal issues that can accelerate the organisation’s sustainability goals. Leading businesses are incorporating experiential learning programmes or characteristics of them into their mainstream training programmes as they recognise the benefits. There is also evidence to suggest that they have an impact on individuals and their values. This experiential approach is not without its critics: Do people need to travel half way round the world to have an epiphany? Is this just poverty tourism? And even if participants have some kind of realisation, it does not always translate into lasting change or actions that influence the business with regard to sustainability. However, whilst not the silver bullet for embedding sustainability, I would argue that it is still a very important tool in the box.


My Personal Journey

In August 2013, I spent three weeks with a small charity in rural Malawi. I saw first-hand the devastating effects of sustainability challenges faced by one of the poorest countries in the world: malnutrition, disease, water and energy shortages, deforestation, urbanisation, lack of infrastructure and resources. Returning to London, I was also shocked by the over-consumption, systems strain and pollution. Despite being halfway through a Masters in Sustainability Leadership, it was seeing the challenges first-hand that deepened my understanding of the problems the world faced. I was curious as to how could we expect business leaders to fully understand sustainability challenges if they have not experienced them? I went on to conduct a year-long research project into the impact of experiential learning programmes on business leaders’ attitudes to sustainability.


Originally posted on Radar, Issue 7

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