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Outdoor training: can you afford teamwork?

Care to jump off a 30-foot pole or rope yourself to two coworkers and climb a wall in tandem, all in the name of corporate improvement? Some big-name companies are asking their employees to step in line to prove their commitment to teamwork. It's part of the outdoor training, or "experiential learning," craze.

Whatever you call it, the project can be expensive. Richard Wagner, a management professor at the University of Wisconsin who has done extensive research on outdoor training by corporations, says the cost of wilderness programs, the more strenuous, all-outdoors version of the training, averages $2,800 per participant, and outdoor-centered programs, which combine indoor living with outdoor exercises, average $300 a person.

With those numbers, who can afford the field days? Organizations like Amoco, Arthur Andersen, AT&T, DuPont, Ford, Merrill Lynch, and the Department of Defense, says Wagner. And companies like Asea Brown Boveri and Salomon Brothers, adds Thomas Rowe, whose Newport Yacht Services in Rhode island offers corporate clients three clays of team-building-through-sailing at $2,000 a person. All of these companies are looking for the formula to improve their competitiveness, and they're hoping outdoor training is part of it.

That's why they send everyone from top executives to sales representatives and hourly-wage workers to outdoor training centers. Companies want the trainers to teach their employees teamwork and trust and to make them more open to change. The training vendors' ploys range from suggesting that participants cross their arms a new way to asking them to jump from a five-story ledge, led to the ground by a rope and harness, with a crowd of cheering teammates for support.

The DuPont Company is one of the forerunners in using outdoor training. Clifford Nix, director of quality and leadership development for DuPont's Fibers Segment, reports the company is investing $25 million with the Santa Fe-based Pecos River Learning Centers for a whole range of developmental training, beginning with the outdoor learning. DuPont's plan is for 22,000 employees - that's "all of us in Fibers," says Nix - to complete the training by October of this year.

"When you think about the development of that many people," Nix says, $25 million is a very cost-effective investment." And, according to Nix, DuPont's multimillion-dollar figure includes the cost of all the extras: transportation to five remote training facilities, food, lodging, program literature, repeat visits by company leaders, overtime pay in some circumstances, even insurance protection - plus an elaborate on-site follow-up program,

But you don't have to invest millions. Researcher Wagner gives three outdoor training options:

* Contract with a training service and take your employees to the vendor. "I'm sure Pecos River, for instance, has an off-the-shelf price for a company that wants to send three or four employees," says Wagner. "And if you're a DuPont and say you're sending 12,000 people over five years, you certainly can negotiate a good price."

(The American Society for Training and Development, based in Alexandria, Virginia, published a list of 105 outdoor training vendors in the U.S. and Canada in its March 1991 issue of the Training & Development Journal)

* Arrange to use property near your office - say at a university or YMCA - and hire outside consultants as training facilitators," or instructors. Arthur Andersen, for example, pays trainers between $400 and $800 a day, according to Wagner. Or lease the property and have your own people trained as facilitators.

* Use the portable method, where you purchase the training props and instruction manual and do all your own training. Roland, Learned, & Associates, in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, sells a Teams Kit for $2,850. It's a wooden chest full of equipment and instructions for 31 "problem-solving initiatives," the company's term for the developmental games. Roland, Learned also has an abbreviated version for $1,300 and sells some games individually.

Regardless of the money a company invests in outdoor training, eventually the firm needs to ask: Is it working? "Because these programs are so expensive, we assumed companies were evaluating their effectiveness," says Dr. Wagner. "We discovered they're not." That's the biggest problem with the programs, he says.

Amoco and the U.S. Navy fund much of Wagner's research in an attempt by each to evaluate its own outdoor training program. But the professor warns that many of the larger training vendors, such as the Pecos River Centers and Outward Bound in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Vancouver, aren't enthusiastic about outside evaluations: "Sure, a company could pay me $2,000 to evaluate its program, but I can only say yes or no [about its effectiveness]," and 'no' could translate into a big money loss for the trainers. indeed, according to DuPont's Nix, Pecos River administers the evaluation of its program with DuPont.

The solution? Outdoor training advocates say, to make the investment worthwhile, companies must set objectives before they start a program. DuPont's Fibers Segment, for instance, would like to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (see page 4), and the outdoor training would look good on the application. But Quality Director Nix says that while DuPont Fibers uses the Baldrige criteria as a basis for its continuous improvement plan, "we don't want to be so focused on the award that we take energy away from improvement."

Another snafu is employee commitment. Insiders say that managers at some companies aren't always willing to participate in the outdoor training and, when they do, they soon revert to status quo when they return to work.

"The change has to take place within the individual," says Nix. "As it takes place, the way we deal with people changes. At DuPont, we're seeing extreme energy, but without the development work back at the plant after the outdoor experience, I wouldn't do [the outdoor training]. You can't go away for two and a half days, see the possibilities of different ways of working, and come back and not see the possibilities. you won't be successful."

How tough is it to win the Baldrige?

Everybody's dropping the name Malcolm Baldrige, adding it to their advertisements, writing it on their letterhead. Motorola, Cadillac, Federal Express - all winners of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Is the Department of Commerce, manager of the award program, dilluting the significance of the award by honoring too many companies? Or have winners just decided to start milking the recognition at every chance?

Here are the facts, according to Program Manager Kathy Leedy of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the agent of the Commerce Department that oversees the program: Nine companies have won the Baldrige Award, three in 1988, the year the program began, two in 1989, and four in 1990. The law governing the award-giving limits presentation to six companies annually, a maximum of two "Baldriges" each in the three categories of manufacturing, services, and small business as defined by the Small Business Administration).

Frequently, divisions of large firms choose to compete for the award as stand-alone organizations. (Read how DuPont's Fibers Segment is working toward the Baldrige in the article above.) For instance, in 1990 both the Cadillac Motor Car Division of General Motors and IBM'S Rochester, Minnesota, office won. These corporate subsets were honored along with Federal Express Corporation - the entire company competed - and the Wallace Company, a small Texas-based pipe and valve distributor. In 1989, the winners were Xerox's Business Products and Systems Division and the Milliken Company, a large textile producer; in 1988, the Commercial Nuclear Fuel Division of Westinghouse, all of Motorola, and Globe Metallurgical, a small business in Ohio, took the honors. Two provisions of the program, Leedy explains, are that small businesses must compete as whole businesses and no division of a large business can compete in the smalll business category, regardless of its size.

So, how do you win a Baldrige? First, complete an application that asks how your company is improving quality in seven critical areas (but limit the explanation to 75 pages if you're a large business and 50 pages if you're a small firm). Then pass the scrutiny of the NIST's Volunteer board of examiners. For 1991, 227 people from the private sector were appointed to the board from a field of more than 1,300 applicants. The NIST proudly releases the names of its examining board members each year - the list is a who's who in business and in quality cliques - but "we protect their addresses and phone numbers," says Leedy, "because we don't want anybody bugging them."

The board of examiners breaks into groups of five to seven people to evaluate each application and, after narrowing the list of candidates, travels to each of the qualifying business sites to "inspect and validate," says an NIST spokesman. "When we visit applicants, we look at the facilities and talk to the employees. We don't look for new information. We just try to understand what's on the application." In 1990, examining teams visited 12 sites before selecting the four winners.

Program Manager Leedy says the deadline for submitting entries for the 1991 Baldrige Awards was April 3, at which time the NIST registered 106 applicants, compared to 97 in 1990, 40 in 1989, and 66 in 1988. The review process will stretch until the first week in October, at which time the board of examiners will hand over its report to the Secretary of Commerce and President Bush. Together, the two "have the legal authority to name the winners," Leedy stresses, although the board of examiners has included its selections in the report.

The government employs seven full-time professionals and eight support people, seven full-time and one part-time, to coordinate the Baldrige Quality Award program.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Financial Executives International
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Couch, Robin
Publication:Financial Executive
Date:May 1, 1991
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