Experiential Learning explained through Confucius

[Gouache on paper, c. 1770.The Granger Collection, New York]‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’

With this quote, ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius gives us an important insight into learning: lectures go in one ear and out the other, Power-Point presentations make things ring a bell, but the only way to truly learn something is through active practice.

You don’t learn to ride a bike by reading the instructions booklet, do you? This is exactly the principle of Experiential Learning in delivering ITIL-related awareness and training.

Decades ago learning equalled plain knowledge absorption. Now Montessori schools teach nursery children through ‘guided discovery’, English teachers help foreigners of all ages learn the language through role-plays and games, and it’s high time businesses trained their staff likewise, in order to improve efficiency – and efficacy, too.

So how does this apply to Service Management, and more specifically, ITIL? Well sure, it’s nice to hold accreditations, but theory alone doesn’t imply understanding: “He who learns but does not think, is lost!” says Confucius, before adding: “He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.” Training employees to deal with common and uncommon incidents or just to manage changes in the system through Best Practice is, in fact, essential to avoid time-wasting, low customer satisfaction and needless financial loss, or as Confucius would say “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”

With anything Best Practice, the know-how is more important than the know-what, therefore certificates may not be enough if they do not give practical experience of the knowledge they provide. It is also important to have a tailored approach, realising which processes are relevant to the business and how to apply them to everyday operations and incidents. Investing in an ITIL Foundation course, then, may not have the expected results – and the main reason, surprisingly, has social and cultural roots.

In fact, surveys in the sector all agree that one of the major pitfalls in putting ITIL into practice is not money or lack of guidance, which are at third and second position, but internal resistance to change. People do not understand why they should change and cannot see the benefits, causing them not to really collaborate in putting ITIL into practice. Training all employees involved in the operations is important to get the best out of Best Practice. “If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” Easy to say, but how do you teach people effectively? Well, using Experiential Learning’s methodology, through role-play involving real life examples the participants take on a role (that can either be the one they are currently performing within their organisation or a different one to allow them to experience challenges connected to other roles) and are encouraged to make mistakes and see the consequences of their actions in a safe, virtual environment. From that experience they understand why it is so important to change behaviour and operational procedures and learn how to put theory into practice, which results in a change of perspective on the whole management of IT Services.

The strategy used in Experiential Learning is surprisingly simple: participants are free to make their own choices and at the end of each round of role-play, the facilitator who leads the game reviews with them a series of reports, whilst at the same time discussing their own perception of their performance in different areas, so that they can see what needs improvement, where they have progressed and how an action taken by a department can be successful in an area but cause discontent in another. Reflecting upon mistakes and successes leads to building a theory, and then to planning a new technique to be put into practice in the following round, copying the good and changing the bad, learning again from strengths and weaknesses of the new tactic, in fact self-teaching the notions.

Do, review, create a theory, plan, do again. This technique is found in David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle, contained in his publication ‘Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development’ dated 1984. Kolb, an educational theorist known for his contributions in the field of organisational behaviour, developed the Experiential Learning Model (ELM) with Ron Fry in the early Seventies, an approach to learning based on experience. Through this cycle, the trainee uses all the learning bases – experience, reflection, thinking, action – encompassing the ways of learning recognised by Confucius for gaining wisdom: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Activities if truth be told require in fact an effort, but that’s why the knowledge acquired through them will almost certainly remain in memory.

According to the Learning Pyramid, a graphic representation of average memory retention rates for each different learning technique, people remember only 10-30% of what they read, hear and see but 70-90% of what they do as an activity, especially if talking through it or teaching someone else what they have learnt. The pyramid is based on research carried out by the National Training Laboratory in Bethel, Maine in the early sixties and is still used as an indicator when explaining the effectiveness of teaching methods similar to this. So with only a morning or afternoon session of Experiential Learning, one not only manages to see how the ITIL principles work in practice and what their effects and benefits are, but the information on Best Practice processes will have all sunk in.

Whether you are planning a whole IT system revolution, a small migration or are just cautiously studying your next moves – “The cautious seldom err ,” sure, but be aware they don’t seem to achieve anything of importance, either – Experiential Learning should be the launching pad for all operations; it might be unbelievable that one can achieve such an insight in only a half-day session, and certainly the journey to making the best of ITIL processes can be long, but let’s keep in mind that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”


Derek Elphick


Derek Elphick, Head of Service Management

This article is published on the Jan/Feb edition of VitAL, and online on http://www.vital-mag.net/2010/02/itsm-experiential-learning-explained-through-confucius


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6 Responses to “Experiential Learning explained through Confucius”

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