ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 18

Bonding with a thrill

By Esther Williams

One-man armies never win battles. It is teams that work together that can out-perform those that merely work from the same office. HR practitioners around the world today recommend outdoor training in learning models to develop skills such as leadership, teamwork and communication to enhance an organisation’s effectiveness.

“We use outdoors as a tool for training,” explains Wade Campbell, Sri Lanka’s Managing Director of Borderlands, which offers adventure based training programmes that enable individuals to explore from a different perspective who they are and how they work together, moving towards significant change through a real experience.

“We put our trainees into explosive environments,” Wade says illustrating one of their techniques. When a non-swimmer is put into the middle of the river, there is fear and anxiety. However, the individual has to take responsibility and do it right, learning in the process how to trust people and himself. Trust here is built on good communication.

Kushal Dhanushka of MAS Intimates participated in a team building exercise that involved activities such as scavenger hunt, trust building and white water rafting of which he found rafting the most challenging. Rafting not only challenges the individual by testing his endurance and strength but also as an adventure sport enables teams to focus on communication and team-building skills.

Borderlands: A saga of adventure

A Canadian national, Wade Campbell who holds a Masters in outdoor activities has had over 20 years of experience in the field, having served as a certified trainer/course director/photographer in Outward Bound Canada and in US, Japan, Mexico and Nepal. Having started operations in the Himalayas of Nepal in 1996 Borderlands came to Sri Lanka three years ago after the peace accord when Nepal was experiencing a period of instability. Checking out the island to see if the environment was conducive to run such programmes he was amazed. “The adventure based potential is untapped and underdeveloped,” he states. In Sri Lanka they currently work with some of the top corporate companies. “We like to keep it real and safe with the use of the latest equipment of international standards, fully insured,” he says.

“When I came out of it my fear was gone,” he said, of the activity that taught them how to go beyond their expectations. “You can topple if you do not communicate.” Back at office he now finds it easier to interact with others and is able to get more work done because of effective communication.

Similarly, there are several other activities among the experiential learning exercises – rock climbing, trekking, mountain biking, both simulated and real that while energizing members allow for nurturing tolerance, facilitating conflict resolution and managing stress.

However, water based activities such as white water rafting, kayaking, and river-crossing form an integral part of these programmes. “The river is a great teacher – indifferent to social status, income and education,” Wade says, adding that it takes you at face value. Hence, a new world that is wild, unpredictable and constantly changing is opened up to participants in the form of a river that has its own natural rules, rhythms and outcomes.

Rafting apparently mirrors the team’s approach on how they deal with things. Wade has noticed that in every group there are risk-takers and the withdrawn who normally would behave likewise in an office set-up. “The natural qualities of people come out during the activities,” he says.

Notably, the activities enable members to focus with clarity on their strengths and need areas. If everyone is a risk taker, the company would obviously be in trouble and if everyone is passive, then the company would not move forward. An organisation would need to find the right balance by identifying the diversity - the different strains and insights that people bring.

Citing the incident at a recent programme when the CEO of a high level management firm fell into the water at the rapids and was assisted by a junior colleague, “That relationship has forever changed,” Wade surmises pointing at the new bonds that are evolved among team members, enabling them to be a more productive workforce.

Similarly, when being held at the top of a high fall, participants count on support from colleagues. By doing so, their relationship and communication is taken to a whole new level.

Still on the subject, rafting according to Wade is a great analogy. The group paddles together, overcomes obstacles, celebrates successes, learns from failures and learns to appreciate the environment. “It is all about training - the river and the boat are merely tools,” he stresses. It goes without saying that a lot depends on the carpenter who can either smash a window or build a house.

Participants who have been at the training say that the activities though highly stressful are simplified, allowing for people at various levels to voice an opinion. In addition, living in tents with no mobile phones and having to ward off leeches, a person is removed from his/her comfort zone. “True adventure has to have hardship, adventure and fun,” Wade remarks.

“The team dynamics has certainly improved as a result of the team building and motivation exercises,” spokesperson of Standard Chartered Bank Manik Welikala said explaining that their members now understand better each other’s capabilities, the comfort level having increased tremendously.

All sessions end with a debriefing. “Reflection is a way of making learning conscious,” Wade says, “as it gets to the heart of the matter and the truth of things.” By doing so we process our feelings, understand them, resolve questions and get on with our work. A team can thus achieve their maximum potential and take it to another dimension.

Most people have no hesitation about supporting another individual by giving a hand when crossing a river. How is the same learning transferred to their professional life? What of the competition? Borderlands has on their staff both educationists and professionals from the corporate sector who having formulated the programmes help participants draw parallels in the corporate world.

Normally a video recording is made of the entire programme for participants to see for themselves what they are capable of, to revisit the course and reinforce learning as they slip back into old routines. “They are often shocked at their accomplishments.”

The leap which involved a jump from a thirty foot high rock into the river was the most frightening event according to Ceylon Pencils’ (Atlas) Manager for Human Resources and Administration Sonia Gnanapragasam. “It was highly risky but all my colleagues faced the challenge except for me as I wear glasses and cannot see without them,” she laughs.

From their experiences, Borderland finds such programmes beneficial to both traditional organisations and progressive companies. On their part they tailor-make each programme using different approaches to meet the needs of the company based on their budgetary constraints, physical or health constraints.

Experiential learning is at the heart of many training and learning events the world over for it has been established that some of the most important aspects of management can be learnt in an informal outdoor setting.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.