It is not uncommon for clients and business managers to be swept away by the novelty of outdoor experiential training and development programs. This often leads to misuse, failed expectations, and worse yet, training that is left in the training room. The problem says Nancy Gansneder–University of Virginia professor and board member of the National Society for Experiential Education (NSEE)–is that “people who have a much shorter view tend to want that one-day romp in the park to affect how a team is going to work together. That’s not going to happen. We have to invest an awful lot of time in it, and the payoff is down the road.” (Schetter, 2002). Research conducted by Priest and Lesperance support these finding and suggest that any team improvements made by an OTD program may be lost after six months without support in the form of follow-up procedures including team meetings, socialization events, coaching sub-teams, refresher training, and self-facilitation (1994).

As many providers will tell you, educating the customer is the first step to helping create any training that involves an outdoor component. Utilizing outdoor experiential training effectively requires being an informed cuonsumer, practicing good instructional design, and knowing how to select an appropriate provider.

Being an Informed Customer

Many of the common misuses of Outdoor Training and Development stem from misinformation provided by vendors and a lack of an educated consumer base. Information regarding the benefits, theory and methodology surrounding the field are often overshadowed by glossy color photos of novel acts that at best project an eschewed portrait of the nature and benefits of the learning vehicles.

What is Outdoor Experiential Training and Development

Outdoor Experiential Training and Development can be defined as the purposeful use of outdoor-based active learning opportunities to enhance organizational change through personnel learning (Current Terminology & Methodology). Such programs can be found under a variety of different headings depending on the location of the program.

Common Names for Outdoor Training and Development Programs

United States

  • Experience-based Training and Development (EBTD), (Miner, 1991)
  • Outdoor Experiential Training, (Laabs, 1991; Tarullo, 1992, Barker, 1995; White, 1995)
  • Outdoor Based Experiential Training, (Wagner and Campbell, 1994)
  • Outdoor Development, (Burnett and James, 1994)
  • Outdoor Management Development, (Holden, 1994; Ibbetson and Newell, 1999)
  • Adventure Education, (Miles and Priest, 1993)
  • Adventure-Based Learning, (Callard and Thompson, 1992)
  • Executive Challenge, (Tarullo, 1992)
  • Outdoor Challenge Training, (Baldwin, Wagner, & Rolland, 1991)
  • Adventure Education, Adventure Challenge, Corporate Challenge Programs, (web references)

New Zealand, United Kingdom

  • Outdoor Management Development (OMD), (Ibbetson and Newell, 1999)

Australia and Canada

  • Corporate Adventure Training (CAT), (Priest and Lesperance, 1994)

Building off the Gass, Goldman, and Priest model of EBTD (closely related to OTD), and as referenced by the Project Challenge website (http://www.projectchallenge.com/training.htm, 2004), OTD (EBTD) has six components that separate it from traditional learning.

  1. OTD is experiential: while working under hands-on conditions, people learn best by doing.
  2. OTD is dramatic: the excitement and emotional aspect of these activities focus attention and sharpen minds. People remember what they learn.
  3. OTD is novel: because of the unique context and uncertainty of outcome for these activities, no one is considered to be an expert. Adventures tend to equalize people and break the hierarchical barriers and apprehensions that often exist in large organizations.
  4. OTD is consequential: errors have potential ramifications in adventures (getting wet in a canoe or falling of a rope), unlike in a classroom simulation (where play money is lost). Furthermore, success and failure is supported by those who really matter (coworkers and oneself).
  5. OTD is metaphoric: adventures are a microcosm of the requirements needed for and changes taking place in the work world. Behaviors demonstrated by individuals and groups during these activities are parallel representations of the way they act and what happens in the office. As such, new learning (skills, coping strategies, and bonding among personnel) can be analogously applied toward future efforts on the job.
  6. OTD is transferable: testimonials by past participants support the utility of experience-based training, and limited research studies substantiate that new learning does show up in the workplace. People refer back to their experiences and approach their tasks from a fresh perspective.

Although OTD is based around these unitary concepts, the vehicles and approaches implemented can be quite diverse. Whereas most OTD programs are carried on outdoors (there has been a recent trend to create artificial outdoor environments indoors), the level of instruction, type of activity, level of risk, and achievable outcomes will vary according to the type of program undertaken. Richard Wagner and Christopher Roland, authors of “How Effective is Outdoor Training?” suggest that OTD programs can be broken into two categories:

  1. Low-impact programs generally use initiatives with limited physical risk. Activities tend to involve an entire work group.
  2. High impact programs use initiatives that have a relatively high level of perceived risk. They can involve individuals as the focus of the activity.

This model seems incomplete given the heterogeneous nature of OTD vehicles and their impacted focus on work groups or individuals. Although Agran, Garvey, Miner and Priest suggest a more detailed model of activities and purposes, their model too seems incomplete. A more comprehensive model serving to combine the two is provided below.

Activities and Purposes of OTD

Socialization Games

  • Examples: Name Game, Group Juggle, Human Knot, Lap Sits, Circle The Circle, Yurt Circle
  • Description: Games or activities designed with the aim of familiarizing work groups and individuals with other members of the group, inciting excitement, establishing group tones, and reducing individuals’ inhibitions.
  • Outcomes: Fun, Familiarization, Socialization, Excitement

Group Initiatives

  • Examples: Prouty’s Landing, Croc Pit, Spider Web, Group Wall
  • Descriptions: Problems involving real and imaginary ground-based obstacles (either natural or constructed) that challenge a group to pool their resources and work together to find solutions. Successful solutions require the participation of all group members working in concert (Brassfield, Sandweiss, and Smith, 2004).
  • Outcomes: Team Work Strategies, Strategic Planning, Effective Communication, Decision Making, Leadership, Personality Types, Conflict Resolution, Allocation Of Resources, Creative Problem Solving, Trust And Support.

Low Ropes Courses

  • Examples: Mohawk Walk, Wild Woozy, Dangle Dou
  • Descriptions: Often consist of individual elements or a series of elements based a few feet off the ground. Similar to high rope elements, these activities are not dependent on mechanical or physical belay systems, but rather, aggressive participant spotting. Generally require a degree of athleticism, supported by other group members, and a willingness to take risks. Involve a higher degree of actual risk.
  • Outcomes: Individual And Group Achievement, Team Work Strategies, Personal Growth, Risk -Taking, Trust, Communication

High Ropes Courses

  • Examples: Pamper Pole, Mulit-Vine Traverse, Burma Bridge, Postman’s Walk
  • Description: Refer to any number of elements based high off the ground where a belay system of some sort is utilized to manage risk. Courses present tests of physical strength, stamina, agility, balance, and flexibility, and they invite participants to confront such emotional issues as the fear of heights, the fear of failure, and the fear of losing control. They require participants to draw upon reserves of courage and strength and to re-examine assumptions about their physical and emotional limitations. Conducted within a context of group encouragement and support, these programs often lead participants to a heightened awareness of self and to an increase of confidence and self-esteem (Brassfield et al., 2004).
  • Outcomes: Risk-Taking, Confronting Fears, Re-Assess Assumptions About Physical And Emotional Limitations, Generate Excitement, Build Confidence, Foster Support and Encouragement.

Activity- Based Outdoor Pursuits

  • Examples: Climbing, Kayaking, Caving, Rafting, Mountain Biking
  • Description: Refer to outdoor adventures where rock climbing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, or some other vehicle are used to metaphorically tackle problems. The level of activity, impact and risk depend on the environment, qualifications of the guide, nature of the program, and vehicle utilized.
  • Outcomes: Confidence, Coping With Change And Uncertainty, Leadership, Conflict Resolution, And Judgment.

Wilderness-Based Outdoor Pursuits

  • Examples: Expedition-Style Backpacking, Canoeing, and Rafting
  • Description: Refer to extended or multi-day wilderness adventures where food and supplies are carried along with the group.
  • Outcomes: Leadership Development, Judgment, Conflict Resolution, Examination Of Group Process, Big Picture, Team Work, Bonding

Other Adventures

  • Examples: Military Scenarios, Fire Walking, Bungee Jumping, Car Racing
  • Description: May refer to a variety of simulated or nontraditional activities aimed at novel, shared experiences. Different vehicles allow for different metaphors.
  • Outcomes: Simulations allow for big picture experiences, time management, and decision making, while nontraditional activities focus on motivation, commitment, and leadership of teams.

Myths of Outdoor Training and Development

Outdoor Training and Development has evolved considerably in the past thirty years and is now more on track with current instructional design and training theories. Critics and skeptics of OTD often speak and reference programs of yesterday. Whereas there are still some programs who have fallen behind the times, many of the practices and myths of old OTD programs are outdated and no longer apply.

Myth 1: OTD is inherently risky and places individuals in uncomfortable situations.
Fact 1: Some elements of OTD are inherently more risky than others. However, research has repeatedly shown that adventure activities are significantly safer than most other traditional physical activities” (Priest & Gass, 1997). Further research suggests that the key factors in the level of risk associated with OTD activities are: 1) participant screening and 2) the quality and ability of the guide or instructor. The Project Adventure 20-year study of deaths and injury on challenge courses published in 1995 shows that out of a total of 194,800,000 recorded participant hours, the overall incident and serious accident rate averaged to 4.33 accidents per million participant hours (Jillings, Furlong, LaRhette, Ryan, 1995). That is considerably less than driving a car to and from the site. Although critical incident information is challenging to uncover in the adventure industry, Keith Jacobs of Experiential Systems and member of the Association of Challenge Course Technology recently announced that he was aware of 16 critical incidents between 2002 and 2004. Of the 16 known incidents, 2 fatalities occurred. Nearly all of the incidents attributed some or all responsibility to instructor judgment error (2004).

Myth 2: OTD pushes participants too far and places individuals in potentially harmful positions.
Fact 2: The outdoor training and development industry has almost universally adopted the concept of “Challenge by Choice”. Practitioners recognize that some OTD exercises place participants too far beyond their limits and encourage participants to try their best and only do the things that they are comfortable doing. Boot camps and overhead Trust Falls at the onset of a program are (for the most part) a thing of the past.

Myth 3: OTD is too expensive.
Fact 3: Quality OTD programs, depending on what you are looking for, can range from $50 to $1000 or more per person per day. Training fees often fall right in line with other classroom instruction and training that seeks similar outcomes. As with all training, the money spent is an investment in developing human potential. The expense related to the cost of the program is often directly proportional to the return.

Making Training Work

There is a name for outdoor training and development programs that lack poor instructional design–we call it “recreation.” As Roger Delves, principal consultant with Ellis Hayward, puts it, “one of the biggest risks of any organization investing in outdoor management development (OMD) [the United Kingdom and New Zealand term for OTD] is leaving the training in the training room” (Gregory 1999). To maximize learning, OTD programs must be viewed in the same light as more formal training. Implementation of a design framework like the ADIE Model (assessment, design, implementation, and evaluation) can be very beneficial.

Assess. Peter Sheath, general manager of the Bristol plant of General Domestic Appliances and strong advocate for OTD advises, “Firstly, you must have clear expectations, and make sure they are relevant” (Cook, 2000). If you compete a basic needs assessment, and “if there is no business benefit, don’t do it,” warns Karen Moore, a psychologist and director of assessment at the Dove Nest Group, a management training consultancy based on the shores of Lake Windmere in Cumbria.

Organizations need to be absolutely clear of their objectives and about what they are trying to achieve. John Howard, an OTD provider at Anglesey Sea and Surf Center (ASSC) discusses potential clients. “They either have totally overblown objectives that cannot be met in a short course, or they simply don’t know exactly what it is that they want.” (Shutte, 1999). Vague or fuzzy objectives often lead to failed expectations and failed trainings. Be certain to present your objective to your trainer and provider before designing the program. Fuzzy objectives should be clarified.

Design. Once a goal assessment has been completed, it is equally imperative that an audience and target population assessment is completed. Some activities and programs work well for certain people. High ropes courses, whitewater rafting and wilderness programs are not for everyone, and can be dangerous for older employees with heart conditions. Other activities like group initiatives are more universal and allow participants more options and roles in choosing their experience and level of participation.
In selecting activities and designing the program, be certain to consider pre-instructional and follow-up activities and programs. A good provider can help you select ways that will best meet your programmatic needs.

More will be said about selecting a provider later on in this paper.

Implementation. Programs vary widely in degree by the nature of the product and provider chosen. Groups who come well prepared are most likely to reap the benefits of OTD. In many cases, this means informing participants of what is expected of them and what they should expect of the program. Participants often express signs of anxiety and distress when they lack the proper information to choose to feel otherwise.

Depending on the length and nature of the program chosen, active components and time for reflection and discussion should be shared nearly equally. Participants should be allotted the time to make adjustments and apply new learning immediately, else retention and transfer of information is unlikely. Selecting a good provider is key to the overall outcome of the program. Wagner suggests there is no greater indicator for the success of a program than the quality and ability of the facilitator (Cain and Jolliff, 1998).

Evaluate. There is a true lack of good evaluation that has been conducted in the field of Outdoor Training and Development. As the bottom line becomes more important to companies, human resources departments are feeling the pressure to show support for their programs. OTD programs are frequently at the top of the list because of their novel and flamboyant nature. Steve Nielsen, managing director of the Leadership Institute, is quick to warn evaluators and business directors, “If you only look at the bottom line, you are only going to work on the things that can truly be measured. And if that’s all you are going to work on, then you are doomed to failure. You must deal with People where people live–in their hearts–and then tie it to their minds.”

Choosing a Provider

Availability of Outdoor Training Programs in the United States is staggering. Jim Liggett, owner of Ropes Courses Incorporated and founder of the Association of Challenge Course Technology, recently estimated there to be more than 15,000 ropes course in the United States. This statistic needs to be taken with a grain of salt, however, as many programs and courses are run as part of a summer camp. Kirk Hallowell, co-chair of Experience Based Training and Development (EBTD), suggests there is a difference between programs offered by programs that provide educational programs and organizations that provide organizational development. “A facility, such as the YMCA or camp, may have a ropes course, but they aren’t necessarily able to provide a corporate program” (Campbell 1996).

When approaching a provider, go prepared. Shop around and compare programs from a series of vendors, both locally and elsewhere to get a good feel for what is possible and will work best for you.

Priest provides a characterization of corporate and/or EBTD programs that can be extremely useful when comparing vendors and deciding whether or not an OTD program is right for your organization (c).

Types of Programs and Associated Costs

Program Type Recreation Education Development Redirection
Primary Purpose To change feelings To change thinking To change functional behaving To change resisting and denying
Application Universal/everyone Organization-wide Intact group (team) Pairs or individuals
Action Events Off-the-shelf Tailored Customized Unique and original
Learning Cycle Action emphasis Reflection added Transfer of learning Supported transfer
Organizational Goals Disconnected Aware & related Well integrated Seamless connect
HRD’s Role Can be absent May observe Should assist facilitation Must co-facilitate
Organizational Intent Zero order change First order change Second order change Third order change
Organizational Impact None Individual only System (individual) System + individual
Typical Length 0.5 – 2 days 1 – 3 days 2 – 5 days 3 – 10 days
Cost per Client $50+/program day $100+/program day $200+/program day $500+/program day

The following 10 recommendations grow out of research completed by Richard Wagner and Christopher Rolland (1992) and personal experience as an OTD provider.

  1. Determine the objectives for the program before selecting the vehicle or scope of the program. Program objectives should be specific and measurable. If your objectives are immeasurable, you should negotiate with your provider on more clear objectives that are obtainable.
  2. Select an OTD program on the basis of your objectives and not on the recreational desires of your participants, your own desires, or cost prohibitions. Settling for a lesser program often means sacrificing some objectives. If a program does not fit your objectives, revisit your objectives and consider a new program. Keep in mind, the program should be dictated by the objectives and not vice versa.
  3. Look for a provider that listens to your needs and desires. Quality providers will be willing to customize the training program to meet your specific needs. Be aware of cookie cutter models. What worked for someone else won’t necessarily work for your company.
  4. Select a firm that meets your complete programmatic needs. Some practitioners offer needs assessment and evaluation services, others do not. In many cases, it is more cost effective to use in house trainers who are familiar with your company to conduct the needs assessment and evaluation. In that case, it is also helpful to have those trainers come along and help facilitate discussion. The more that is required of the provider, the more carefully you should check references and choose carefully.
  5. Ask for references and check up on them. Do not rely simply on word of mouth of the adverts of a glossy magazine. Look for a proven track record in program effectiveness and safety. Quality providers should be able to provide you with some sort of documentation.
  6. Inquire about how much time will be spent engaged in activity and how much time will be spent in discussion and reflection. As a role of thumb, at least 20 minutes out of every hour should be spent reflecting. This might take form in various ways. Inquire about alternate forms of assisting transference back to the workforce.
  7. Inquire about the qualifications of facilitators. Are facilitators trained in first aid? Do they have specific experience working with other clients in your work area? What credentials do they carry? If the nature of your business is specific and you cannot find a provider, consider bringing in a subject matter expert from your own company or elsewhere to help employees make connections back to the workplace.
  8. Cost. Programs can range from $100 to $1000 or more per person per day. Do not let cost be the driving factor in your decision. Additional fees for a quality provider should be regarded as investments in employee development and not debits. If cost prohibits you from selecting a reputable provider, consider an alternate training vehicle.
  9. Invite upper management and important decision makers along.
  10. Evaluate the effectiveness of the OTD program. Maximize the results by modifying the program based on evaluation results.

Outdoor Training and Development can be a powerful tool when utilized correctly, but it is important to know its limitations. Although data exists that suggests that OTD programs have measurable achievement in the workplace, there is a need for more formal research to be completed by both providers and corporations who are implementing the programs. Currently, the greatest defense and assurance of quality programs is being an educated customer, ensuring that good instructional design principles are incorporated, and selecting a quality provider that is interested in partnering with your organization (Priest, C). Else, critics might be proved right in their assertion that OTD is simply and over-priced day at the park for burnt-out managers.