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Arts can help business training get a standing ovation

The creative arts and power of today’s multimedia technology are emerging as new tools for achieving business success, particularly in the realm of skills development where it is being applied in inventive and fresh ways to help enhance teamwork, improve decision-making and boost productivity.

Using the input of artists, graphic designers, movie makers, cartoonists, theatre people and many other creatives, businesses around the globe have begun to unlock truly vibrant and impactful training interventions — interventions that have may see the curtains drawn on the commonly used “chalk and talk” training approach.

Whether it is customer service training, leadership, performance management, risk management, change management, crisis management or diversity, to leave an indelible mark on their people today, businesses are realising that they have to do more than merely deliver information.

This is something that not only companies are increasingly recognising — leading business schools, including Wharton and the Harvard Business School, are adding arts-based teaching and reading to their curriculum.

In South Africa, Cape Town — as the major hub for the arts and creative industries — has taken the lead in integrating these new modes of training to the benefit of local organisations. From the experience of Learn to Lead, an experiential training organisation based in Cape Town, there is a talented and diverse creative community offering opportunities for dynamic collaboration — this community has contributed greatly to the effective training solutions designed by Learn to Lead since its inception in 2004.

According to collaborator Paula Kingwill, director of The Bonfire Theatre Company — a section 21 company including drama therapists, music therapists, actors and musicians who specialise in the playback form of theatre — drama is one powerful medium in this regard.

“Some of the valuable elements of using drama include its focus on teamwork, the attention to listening, the prompting of spontaneous creative thinking or thinking outside of the box, and that it is a collaborative medium. As a demonstration to people, it is more engaging, immediate and makes bigger impression than powerpoint presentations and didactic training methods,” she says.

The playback theatre technique allows the audience to tell their stories, and then see them reflected back to them when the professional actors act them out. In this way, individual’s stories become part of a collective. This kind of acting has been used in leadership and customer service programmes, where stories of people’s experience of applying their newfound skills back at work can be shared so that others can learn from the experience.

Kingwill adds that participation in drama also gives rise to more authentic expression as the body-based exercise does not cut off the emotional experience.

“Many participants are apprehensive to begin with — they think it is childish and will make them look silly or foolish. Stereotypes associated with drama mean people are sceptical as to how it will benefit a business person. But many business people are surprised by the things they learn about themselves and their colleagues through the drama — a lot can be learnt by trying new things and challenging the ideas we hold about ourselves. What also happens is that when learning is located in the body, or experientially, the memory is imprinted more effectively. Because the drama requires playful interaction the result is a strong team spirit and camaraderie that is built between colleagues.”

Catherine Morris, a director of From the Hip, a video and multimedia production company, says that engaging people is also a major part of the use of video and multimedia in training.

“YouTube and the internet in general have moved video beyond the realm of television to make it far more commonplace. People are now more accustomed to seeing visual representations. Plain text is no longer sufficiently engaging in the face of new media. Today videos are being used in creative ways by everybody at just about every level. The result in a training environment is that a presentation is far more engaging and memorable,” she says.

Morris adds that even the production process of a video can help organisations. From the Hip is developing a movie-makers’ team-building exercise, which is designed to be a hands-on workshop that gets people working together well in a fun and collaborative way to produce a short video.

Another emerging interactive training tool is board games designed for a company’s specific need.

Deon de Villiers, a graphic designer who runs agency Art de Ville and who has worked on designing a number of these, says that people get excited when they see a game of high production value commissioned by their employer.

“Full production induces the wow factor, and looks extremely professional so people are enthusiastic from the word go,” he says.

Board games are effective not only because they promote knowledge in an area of the business, but also because they include a number of aspects that are central to the workplace — handling fast changes, taking calculated risks, maintaining self-discipline, “coolness” under pressure and determination.

The setting of board games also requires the ability think and act while involved in competitive social interaction, often dealing with moments of both cooperation and confrontation.

A consistent theme that runs through many of these new engaging means of training, is the improved teamwork that it develops. Elaine Rumboll, director of executive education at the UCT Graduate School of Business, says that research has shown that while teams have the potential to deliver better performance than individuals they seldom realise this potential.

“Too often, people are schooled to operate solo and taught to compete. Suddenly, they find themselves in an organisational space which says they must work in teams — and they struggle to function properly. Motivating and developing teams and team leaders presents a critical challenge,” she says.

Businesses are now realising that people can learn in different ways and they need to be more creative in their teaching, learning and engaging.

With the involvement of the arts and creative industries it is possible to fuse potent ideas and create cost-effective, exciting training activities and spaces that truly energise and develop people.