This article originally appeared on on February 19, 2015

When looking at a traditional corporate training classroom, it’s tempting to ask why this environment hasn’t changed in centuries. The traditional model of students at desks with an expert imparting knowledge is the industry standard for most corporations. But is it effective? When was the last time you truly learned something sitting in a classroom, listening for hours?

Despite evidence that this old-school approach to training doesn’t work, it continues to be the standard for most corporations (tell me again what is the definition of insanity?). But as firms require employees to do more with less, it’s even more imperative that workers be properly trained from the beginning to avoid losing productive work time and, ultimately, becoming frustrated and ineffective.

Remember how we learned to ride a bike? We didn’t watch a film or read the directions. Instead, a parent or an older sibling took us outside and walked us through the process step-by-step, from how to get on the bike to how to pedal. We worked on each step on our own until we finally figured it out.

You didn’t know it then, but this was highly interactive, highly experiential learning.

Also known as human-centered design, experiential learning flips the model, making the learner (not the instructor) the center of the classroom experience, so that the learner does 80 percent of the work with a facilitator coaching him or her through the training experience. The focus then is on simplifying content and blending IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence) skills to make content stick, resonate for all learning styles, and draw people into their learning journey.

This “Modern Classroom” approach consistently exceeds Level 1 Kirkpatrick assessment targets, and according to survey data on Level 3 assessments from Oxygen, there is a “30 percent percent increase in attendees’ confidence to perform a higher quality of work using what they learned in class.”

In this type of classroom, there are no tables and no lectern. All coursework is custom designed. Similar to a Montessori school, it is decorated with colorful visual displays on the wall. Upbeat music plays in the background as learners enter the room, and a handwritten welcome sign is prominently displayed at the door. This classroom sparks learners’ curiosity and instantly makes participants want to engage and learn more from the moment they enter.

Case Study: HGST

HGST, a Western Digital Company that develops and manufactures advanced data storage solutions with more than 41,000 employees worldwide, is utilizing experiential learning to engage its 1,400 global managers in a new approach to performance management and leadership, as the company looks to transform its corporate culture.

HGST had relied on a traditional approach to performance management, which included bi-annual written performance evaluations and a numbers-based rating system to provide feedback to employees on their performance. This process also feeds into decision-making on employee’s compensation.

HGST realized its methods of evaluation and fixation on performance ratings had become bureaucratic and a distraction from the performance-based conversations and relationship between leader and employee. Earlier last year, HGST decided to eliminate these practices and tasked HR with finding a new approach to performance management.

“This was a challenging task,” admits Global Senior Director, Talent Management & Talent Acquisition Annette Pellinat. “We started by benchmarking what other companies were doing in this space and quickly realized that we needed to overhaul the entire performance management process.”

HGST decided to eliminate performance ratings altogether and move away from “event-driven” performance evaluations. “Instead we put in place a practice of ongoing and continuous feedback focused on performance and development that would help employees do their best work every day. This was a radical shift for our leaders and our employees,” Pellinat says. “We had to focus on culture change and how we could socialize these concepts in the U.S. and Asia. We also needed to resolve how we would reward employees without having performance ratings and continue to reinforce our pay-for-performance philosophy.”

The rollout of the new program began by bringing members of the HGST Global Talent Management organization to San Jose and Singapore for a two-day training session to indoctrinate and become facilitators in the new method. By having its own internal facilitators, HGST was able to nullify the effect of geographical culture differences while retaining all core messaging because training was delivered to employees in their native language.

“We took a top-down approach by starting training with our highest-level executives who needed to support and model this new approach. They then were prepared to hold their managers accountable to the new system and provide guidance and feedback along the way,” says Pellinat. “By November, all 1,400 leaders worldwide had gone through the training.”

Thus far, Pellinat says the positive feedback from the training is incredible and the level of engagement is like nothing she’s ever seen before. “Leaders come into the room not knowing what to expect—some are highly skeptical about the changes and don’t understand how we can manage without performance ratings. The way the session has been designed with the facilitator presenting concepts and the managers working together in a highly engaging experiential process, they are able to see for themselves how it will work. They own the concepts and are prepared to leave the session and start engaging with their employees in a new way.”

Pellinat believes the corporate culture shift at HGST will not only increase the performance of all employees (and the company’s bottom line) but also demonstrates that the company is dedicated to building great leaders and supporting ongoing career development for its employees.

Furthermore, companies can prepare employees to implement what they have learned, beginning the day after training. Learners also can bring current work to the training so they can apply what they learn to their real world.

As business changes, training method needs to change, as well. The first step begins by evolving training to make sure it is designed in a way that increases retention and application and helps improve the way people work. Ultimately, every training effort should enable employees to be prepared once they walk out the training room door.

Quick Tips

Seven additional tips to turn corporate training into experiential learning:

  • Don’t lecture for more than 10 minutes.
  • Redirect questions back to the learners. The facilitator doesn’t always have to be the expert.
  • Give time after each lesson cycle for individuals to take notes in a workbook, an approach that helps the more introverted personalities reflect on what they have learned.
  • Recognize the energy in the room. If it has lessened, have people stand up and do an activity together.
  • Remember the 80/20 rule: The learner should do 80 percent of the work and the facilitator 20 percent.
  • Play music during group work to set the tone to the energy you expect in the room.
  • Review participants’ learning throughout the day and have them recall their biggest “aha” moments.

Juliana Stancampiano is CEO of Oxygen, which designs and delivers custom training programs that engage adult learners and makes content stick. For more information, visit