The Business Case & ROI of Experiential Learning

In section one on Experiential Learning, we introduced David Kolb and his Experiential Learning model which we use to deliver experiential learning.  The model has four distinct phases:

  1. Experience
  2. Reflection and Discussion
  3. Conceptualization
  4. Application

Here, we’ll focus on the phases that bring about the best results in business leadership development: reflection and discussion.

Virtually everything is better in a group

Group reflection and discussion provides many valuable benefits to learners in addition to increased retention of the material.  Research from the Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching shows that group discussion has a very positive impact on learning outcomes.  This creates an environment where learners explain concepts, reinforcing the information.   It also provides learners the opportunity to learn from a peer, who may be able to explain it in a way that makes more sense to them in their circumstances.  For us, this takes place through facilitated dialogue with our Leadership Facilitator.

The two big questions to address during this portion of the experiential learning process are:

  • “What happened?”  This first question is about gathering facts and stating reality about the experience or situation.
  • “Why did it happen?”  This second question is aimed at analyzing the reasons why things happened, or unfolded the way they did.

Here’s a real-life business example

Using an everyday example, say, you’re late for work.  Your boss asks you, “Why were you late?”  You answer: “Traffic caused me to be late.”  And then you realize to yourself, “I was late every day this week.” (Hope this doesn’t sound too familiar.)

When you ask yourself the “why” of why it happened, you determine: “Traffic was the cause four of five days.”  Once you pinpoint the reason “why” it happened, you can then begin to brainstorm possible solutions to avoid being late going forward (we’ll explore this more in Part III and IV of this series in “Conceptualization and Application”).

And an example from one of the country’s most storied battles

As an example from our leadership experiences, we’re going to look briefly at a key instance from Gettysburg that likely decided the fate of that battle, while becoming a huge turning point for the Civil War.

What happened? General Richard S. Ewell of the Confederate Army did not attack Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg.

Why did that happen? The military leader of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, had issued an order to General Ewell that was unclear.  We have other examples of Lee’s orders being vague.  General Ewell even asked for help and clarification.  The truth is: Lee didn’t give Ewell help or clarification.

The bottom line: Ewell didn’t attack because of vague orders from his superior, a common occurrence in organizations.  As leaders, we think we’re communicating and that the message has been clearly received.  We all know the famous quote from George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

What’s the takeaway here? During reflection and discussion, participants are able to connect the lessons from the battle to their own experiences. Participants can then glean important insights and applications that they can take back home (enter Phases 3 & 4)

When thinking about this phase of the Kolb model, there are some important questions to consider:

  • What experiences do I have in the regular course of business that I should be reflecting on that I am not?
  • Is there a way to build time into the day or the week for this type of reflection?
  • Could I or my team benefit from more discussion of problems and issues, and dig down to the root of “why” things happen(ed) the way they did?

It’s great to reflect and talk about what you’ve learned as a team.  But even if you stop the formal process with reflection and discussion, it will almost guarantee greater results for your department or organization.

Don’t believe us?  Just look at the numbers:

The Business Case for Experiential Learning

Many high-performing firms have turned to experiential learning to improve employee training.  The research shows that it is more effective and has a higher rate of concept retention.  The result is a more effective team and lower rates of turnover.

High-Performing Firms Use Experiential Learning Three Times More than Lower Performing Firms*
Retention Rate of Concepts vs. Five Percent with Traditional Methods**
Job Knowledge is Acquired Through On-The-Job Experience***


Return on Investment

More Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning in Business

Kolb Experiential Learning Model

The Kolb Experiential Learning Model

experiential learning daily activities

Experiential Learning Training at Work

Leading through massive change and chaos: Lessons from the Battle of Gettysburg

Experiential Learning From a Historical Battle