The Connective Power of Experiential Learning

The Connective Power of Experiential Learning

By structuring opportunities to “learn by doing,” we not only connect theory to practice, but we blur the boundaries between learning and working and between learners and workers.

Before he became chief talent officer at General Motors, Michael J. Arena co-led a research and practice team investigating the leadership processes through which companies innovate and adapt. The conclusion, shared in a recent interview, was that “adaptation has a lot less to do with brilliant strategy, brilliant innovative technologies, and even super-smart people. It has much more to do with the social arrangements of how you bring those things together to drive adaptation.”

Arena, along with many others, have improved our understanding about how social capital can foster innovation and enable organizational agility. Their work also highlights the value of getting smarter and more intentional about the connections we create and develop through experiential learning. Although “learning by doing” can be a solo exercise, most experiential learning brings people together to work on projects or shared objectives, such as developing a marketing plan for an organization, running a manufacturing operation in a simulation, or preparing a student for the world of work. Learners connect with each other and with other people, who might be clients, mentors, coaches, and—quite possibly—career champions for them. This article is about the connective power of experiential education and why it is so important to management development and business education.

Call It a Form of Social Capital

Professional education is as much about application as it is about knowledge and content, so it is not surprising that experiential learning has become a fixture in management development and business school programs worldwide. By structuring opportunities to “learn by doing,” we not only connect theory to practice, but we blur the boundaries between learning and working and between learners and workers. Rich connections are established and developed in this space between education and practice, and those connections have value stemming from access to information, norms of reciprocity, and greater trust across the individuals and groups involved. Call it a form of social capital. So how do we build on and leverage this kind of value?

Simply put, we design experiential learning programs with explicit attention to the kinds of relationships we intend to enable or create. An approach could be as straightforward as narrowing the set of people we are trying to connect, as well as develop, with an experiential learning activity. The Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University, for example, decided to focus on the needs of first-generation students with their experiential learning programs. Similarly, the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University has started to target women for their Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) Accelerator, which matches social entrepreneurs in developing countries with Silicon Valley executives to develop business plans.

Connective strategies can bring together a greater diversity of perspectives in experiential learning. After all, research has consistently demonstrated the value of non-homogenous teams in terms of creativity, judgment, and financial returns. Diversity might relate to gender, ethnicity, and other differences, as well as differences across sectors, functions, or countries. For example, MBA students at Yale (U.S.), HEC (France), EGADE (Mexico), and UCD Smurfit (Ireland)—as part of the Global Network for Advanced Management (GNAM)—form cross-school teams to manage a virtual factory as part of an online simulation.

In business education we also connect people across disciplines to catalyze innovation. In Ecuador, for example, ESPAE expanded a one-day program event in which executive MBA students visited science and engineering research centers and labs into a full practicum called Business Opportunities in Science and Technology. Now, following initial visits, the students participate in a boot camp, working alongside researchers who have ideas they want to commercialize. In the second year of the program, the business learners and scientists work together on business plans.

Advances in technology have helped support efforts to connect experiential learning participants. Web-based collaboration platforms, for example, enable schools to broaden and diversify the range of potential participants in simulations and projects. Students working in project teams are now able to connect virtually with each other and with client managers; and they can engage suppliers and customers—even so-called extreme users, who can reveal powerful insights about products—in virtual focus groups. Software now enables schools to use data from learner assessments and other sources to support matching (e.g., learners to coaches). Networking platforms, such as LinkedIn, extend relationships beyond the initial experiences. New tools, such as Mentor Collective, are emerging to help schools manage mentoring relationships.

A Win-Win-Win

There are at least three benefits to being more intentional about connecting in experiential learning.

First, we can improve the outputs of experiential learning, increasing value to the organizations served by student teams, interns, and apprentices. In most cases, experiential learning is about creating as much as it is about learning. The insights and specific outputs produced are intended to be useful to the companies that commit time and, sometimes, money to be involved. Outputs might include code written by a virtual team charged with converting raw customer data into managerial insights, a social media plan created by an intern and her company mentor, or a design brief for a new service to be offered by a nonprofit. These outputs are tangible and become part of the learners’ career portfolios. And these outputs can be improved over time by collecting data and using it to build better teams and mentor matches in the future.

Second, the connections we make can enhance learning. Our relationships affect not only what we learn but also how we apply the knowledge and skills we gain. We learn from the people we work with, especially when diverse perspectives are brought together in meaningful ways. In fact, many of the skills and competencies sought by businesses today are inherently social and are directly supported by the kinds of experiential learning and social connections discussed here. For example, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) includes the following competencies associated with career readiness, among others: oral/writing communications, teamwork/collaboration, leadership, and global/intercultural fluency. These are all necessary skills, which are hard to imagine being fully developed without the social interaction and feedback afforded by experiential learning.

The way we connect learners through experiential learning also provides practice for how they will learn throughout their careers. Company-based learning programs, such Johnson & Johnson’s Talent Acceleration Process (TAP), are increasingly designed to connect emerging leaders with a wide variety of experiences and managers from outside the company as well as from within it. Learners are challenged to take techniques and approaches acquired in one setting and apply them in other, sometimes completely different, situations. As I previously wrote, that kind of learning agility is essential to the development of innovative leaders. In the GNAM virtual teams example, the schools take special efforts to prepare learners to work and learn together virtually, especially since the simulation brings together different work and cultural norms, as well as time zones.

Third, being more deliberate about social connections in experiential learning can improve career outcomes. To be sure, we are not talking about the “good old boy” network model for higher education in which alumni are bound together by tradition and the simple fact that they went to the same school and experienced the same rituals. And career prospects are not just about who you know anymore. Experiential learning provides students opportunities to demonstrate skills and consider the fit of a company, as well as develop relationships. For example, internships are experiential and a powerful entry point for full-time jobs, and business schools work hard to fill them. Now we are seeing innovative ways to identify potential interns through other experiential learning activities. For example, Goodyear now runs an innovation challenge with the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, in which student teams compete for opportunities to intern at the Goodyear Innovation Labs, as well as for prize money.

Of course, business education is not only about landing the first job; it is about building a successful career. Today, a typical career means changing jobs more frequently than ever, and inter-organizational social capital is an asset. At EY in 2013, employee recommendations accounted for 45 percent of non-entry-level jobs, and that number was up from 28 percent in 2010. Interestingly, Ron Burt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, has studied the impact of an executive education course he teaches largely on the principles of social capital. Compared to a control group (managers who were eligible to attend but did not), participants in the course were more likely to earn better evaluations, get promoted, and stay with the company.

Finally, I should note that more business schools have started to provide experiential opportunities to build social capital that impacts new business creation. The University of Technology Sydney, for example, offers an MBA in Entrepreneurship (MBAe) “for people who have ideas and want to see them through either as a start-up entrepreneur or as a change agent in existing organisations.” They provide access to a venture lab, mentors, and connections to potential partner organizations.

The Business Education Advantage

The future of business education is both more experiential and more social. Technology has played a central role. It has brought attention to the social skills humans will need in a world where artificial intelligence dominates prediction and decision-making. It has made content more readily available—to be “pulled” on demand, enabling business education to be more interactive and connected, as well as focused on applying concepts and practicing important skills The parallel in business is clear. Thinkers like Michael Arena and Ron Burt are showing companies that organizational agility matters as much as operational efficiency in a “positively disrupt or be disrupted” world, and that agility is supported by social capital—as well as human capital—approaches. As Arena explains, “[H]uman capital is what you know; social capital is how well positioned you are to leverage what you know. Both are equally important, but we have paid very little attention to the latter."

The intersection of experiential learning and social capital development is where business schools will continue to excel. This should not be surprising. After all, management is a social process; it is about getting things done through other people. More and more, I have come to believe that connectedness is a key not only to the success of our learners and relevance of our research but also to unlocking the competitive advantage of business schools in a growing sea of competitors. Our greatest potential is found as much in the diversity of our connections—in the breadth across schools, companies, vertical markets and sectors—as it is in the depth of our research and education. By bringing together managers in one company with managers in completely different ones and engaging them in co-learning and co-creating alongside faculty, both inside and outside of business, we are creating real value while building social capital that no other organization can. To me, business education is no longer just about “knowing, doing, and being”; it is also about “connecting.”


Dan LeClair is focused on strategy and innovation in business education. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLeClair.