Experiential learning
ATD Blog

New Research Shows Investing in Experiential Learning for Leaders Pays Off

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Organizations know the importance of leadership development in delivering organizational success, but are struggling to create programs for current and future leaders that are relevant and engaging. However, employers that use experiential learning (learning by doing) to develop leaders at both the frontline and senior (executive) levels are much more likely to report both learning effectiveness and success in the marketplace.

This blog post provides a preview of some key lessons and best practices that will be published in full in the forthcoming research report from ATD and the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), Experiential Learning for Leaders: Action Learning, On-the-Job Learning, Serious Games, and Simulations.

What Is Experiential Learning and Who Uses It? 

Experiential learning is an umbrella term that covers learning that happens through action learning, on the job, and using simulations and serious games. Some examples are group activities where participants attack real-world business problems, job rotation and shadowing programs, adventure learning, and virtual or live simulations. These experiences allow leaders to gain new knowledge and skills through hands-on practice in low-risk environments.

ATD and i4cp found that three-quarters of organizations are currently using experiential learning to any extent in leadership development. However, less than half (approximately 45 percent) of all organizations use it for both frontline and senior leaders. Not surprisingly, the most frequently used type of experiential learning for leaders is on-the-job learning.


Top Performers Invest in Experiential Learning for Frontline and Senior-Level Leaders 

The research discovered that high-performing firms were about three times more likely than lower performers to use experiential learning for both the frontline and executive-level leaders. Not only that, high-performance firms invest in designing and managing robust experiential leadership opportunities, with instructional designers focusing on creating these opportunities. At lower-performing firms, designers were more likely to focus entirely on traditional classroom and e-learning programs.


Experiences that are designed to simulate real-world leadership challenges are pointed out in the research as being particularly successful in terms of delivering performance. As Susan Burnett, an experiential learning expert, points out, great learning “will always be driving to close the gap between development experience and real-life experience. Before launching a strategy, why not have leadership teams do a dry run of the strategy execution, much as the army does a mock engagement before they actually deploy, or as an emergency team practices a rescue to prepare for a potential disaster? If more executive teams did mock strategy executions, they could learn and correct the missing pieces of their execution plans before deployment. This approach produces both learning and business value.”

Learn More About Designing Experiential Learning That Delivers Value

The full report, Experiential Learning for Leaders: Action Learning, On-the-Job Learning, Serious Games, and Simulations, will be available in May 2016.

About the Author

Maria Ho is the manager of ATD research services. She serves as ATD's senior research program strategist and designer and provides oversight and direction for all of ATD's internal and external, industry specific, and market research services. Prior to joining ATD, Maria was a public policy researcher, data analyst, and writer at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.

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