Workforce Diversity

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The diversity of the U.S. workforce has become a business issue in recent years. If demographic and societal trends continue as predicted, it will be even more of an issue as we move into the twenty-first century. That means that workplaces are beginning to embrace diversity programs as more than a way to stay out of lawsuits or as "a nice thing to do." Learning to manage diverse workers and to make full use of a wide variety of talents and back-grounds has become a business imperative. Nowhere is this more important than among employees who must work closely as a team.

Women make up roughly half of a workforce that was once predominantly male. The Americans with Disabilities Act is opening corporate doors to workers with a wide variety of physical and mental disabilities. More U.S. workers belong to minority ethnic or national groups. Immigration is up. More employees who are gay, lesbian, and bisexual are refusing to hide their identities. And most large firms are now doing business internationally, which means that employees from around the world might be part of the same work team.

What does this mean for teams and for the people who train them to work as teams? The Training magazine poll showed diversity as a training topic in 53 percent of the organizations surveyed. Diversity training can be tricky because it addresses issues that can be controversial and highly personal. It should focus on behaviors in the workplace-not on beliefs. It should emphasize the contributions of all employees-including white men. Most important it should be handled only by a practitioner with solid experience in diversity efforts. For that reason many companies choose to bring in consultants with diversity expertise. A bad diversity program can be worse than no program at all, and the result can be disastrous for diverse team members who are trying to forge ways of working together.



EXPERIENTIAL AND ADVENTURE LEARNING

Experiential learning, or learning by doing, makes use of a basic learning principle: People learn more when they are actively engaged in the learning process. Experiential learning can involve role plays and simulations, "game show" activities, and team problem-solving exercises. But the term is closely associated with a particularly high-profile type of experiential learning. It's called adventure learning, and it often takes place outdoors, away from the workplace. Members of a work team go through a program together in order to build teamwork skills and camaraderie.

Proponents of adventure learning say it helps teams find new ways of working together to achieve goals, promotes trust among teammates, sparks creativity, and provides a common language and shared metaphors that can be applied later at work.

Adventure learning comes in three basic varieties:
  • Wilderness programs usually involve an outdoor activity such as white-water rafting, mountain climbing, or sailing. Participants live outdoors or in rustic accommodations for the duration.

  • High-impact programs include activities that take place well above the ground. Trainees might climb around on high-ropes courses, walk a balance beam high up in the trees, or scale a high wall.

  • Low-impact programs rarely go above eye level. For instance, trainees might work on a low-ropes course or lead each other around on blindfolded "trust" walks. Some low-impact activities can take place indoors.
Each kind of learning has its advantages and drawbacks. A high degree of risk (or perceived risk) can enhance learning by forcing participants to engage themselves more actively in the exercises and by providing a more dramatic emotional experience. But some high-risk programs could be impossible for employees who are less than athletic. Low-impact programs that can be held inside have the advantage of being unaffected by the vagaries of the weather. A major drawback to wilderness programs is that they tend to be extremely expensive, costing thousands of dollars per participant.

Not surprisingly, outdoor experiential programs are quite controversial, especially those that are seen as an excuse for executives to take a wilderness vacation on the company's time. In fact some organizations contribute to that perception by using the programs as perks for corporate leaders or rewards for top performers. Legal liabilities are also a potential pitfall, especially with the higher-risk exercises and those that might not offer equal access to employees of all levels of physical ability.

Because of the risks involved and the specialized facilities needed for most outdoor experiential programs, virtually all of this type of training is outsourced. Corporations contract with firms that specialize in adventure-based activities, and facilitators include workplace learning specialists as well as experts in the more physical aspects of the programs. Trainers who are charged with contracting for such services must be sure to check out the level of physical risk and the suitability of the planned activities for the targeted employees.

It's also crucial to ask questions about how the facilitators plan to follow up the physical activities. The further removed an exercise is from the reality of the workplace, the more important it is to debrief teammates afterwards in order to reinforce the learning and make the connections to the team's real work crystal clear.

DISTANCE LEARNING

When Thomas Campbell wrote "distance lends enchantment" in 1799, he could have been predicting training delivery methods of the 1990s and beyond. Today large corporations and government agencies are beginning to discover some enchanting possibilities in distance-learning technologies.

Many trainers and organizational leaders see distance learning as the wave of the future. As of the mid-1990s the wave is still a ripple, but it's growing quickly. The U.S. market for desktop videoconferencing systems and services increased 81 percent between 1991 and 1995, says Info World Publishing (as quoted by Patricia Galagan in Training & Development's February 1996 issue). And in Training magazine's "Industry Report" survey (October 1995), 43 percent of responding firms said they train employees through videoconferencing, teleconferencing, or distance learning via computer.

In today's business environment, distance learning for various kinds of training and education makes sense for a lot of companies. It also includes such low-tech options as plain old correspondence courses conducted by "snail mail." However, that's not the kind of instruction that is causing a surge in the popularity of distance learning. Various business trends make distance learning sensible, but it's the technological advances that make it viable.
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