Executives on an educational journey

An article by Nicola Schuldt-Baumgart published in FINANCIAL TIMES GERMANY on the 25 of MAY 2012.

Samuel Mueller, general manager of WDHB Europe, is often on the road. He organizes learning expeditions on topics like “Mobile Lifestyles” or “Models of Social Collaboration” and takes managers to America or Asia. A day is perfect when all the different pieces have come together smoothly and the often weeklong preparations for an expedition for executives have paid out.

“Learning expeditions are a tool for people and organizational development designed for top executives”, says Mueller. According to him, primary aspects of these expeditions are intensive experiences and direct exchanges on-site. Instead of meeting in their offices, participants would find themselves in the hustle and bustle of a metropolis such as Bangalore in India. Discovering the unknown and foreign is another important dimension: “The cultural distance supports the learning process”, says Mueller.

However, the destination of the expedition is never selected arbitrarily. “The choice is based on a detailed briefing by our customer”, says the WDHB expert, their customers being primarily large-scale enterprises and corporations operating on an international level. WDHB’s programs typically include workshops with a design company or discussions with scientists. The goal is that the executives can apply what they have learnt to their daily work.

Experts consider a Learning Expedition successful when there is sufficient corporate support, and when the theme of the expedition corresponds with the strategic company vision. The international technology group EADS has been making use of this kind of journeys for a long time. “Through the experiences with foreign cultures, our executives gain new perspectives and strengthen their strategic competences”, says Louise Croquette, Manager Leadership Development & Learning at EADS Germany. According to her, these programs are in no way expensive gimmickry for executives. Instead, every expedition involves a clear mandate for every participant, which has been derived from the corporate strategy. “There is a considerable return on investment for EADS”, says Croquette.

IBM Germany also values learning expeditions of this kind, though the company does not call them expeditions. Since 2008, IBM has been running an internal Corporate Service Corps program, through which employees are placed in emergent countries. “We want our employees to gain on-site experience and be involved in local projects”, says Peter Kusterer, responsible for Corporate Citizenship at IBM Germany.

When IBM employees have to deliver useful results without being able to resort to additional resources, they learn to esteem team work. This cooperation persists even after their return: “New networks emerge beyond formal organizational structures – and our corporate culture clearly benefits from this. It enables the organization to be faster and more innovative, and it strengthens our competitive ability”, says Kusterer.

Learning trips also raise awareness and understanding of foreign cultures, even if the distance traveled is not that long. “Most decision makers form a Franco-German environment do not know enough about the culture of their respective neighboring country and therefore give away 40 percent of the potential collective revenue”, says Marion de Vriès at SAM International.

The advantage of a Learning Expedition is obvious: It provides executives with a comprehensive overview of a country and its business culture. The participants of an expedition have the opportunity to prepare for their collaboration in an international project or to get to know new marketing strategies and management styles.

“The new impressions they gain not only enhance their intercultural competence but also change their perspective on their own organization”, says de Vriès. That way, they are able to question the status quo and initiate change. In today’s globalized world, this is a core competence that many executives either do not have or do not dare to put in practice.


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