Outdoor Management Development

Towards a critical perspective

Seminar Paper, 2010

17 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of contents



The state of the field
What makes OMD so powerful?
The historical roots of OMD
What is OMD?
The objectives of OMD
Characteristics of an effective OMD programme
Different types of OMD programmes
Organizational factors of success and potential barriers to learning transfer

Towards a critical perspective
Against a purely functionalist and technocratic view of OMD
Against a decontextualised view of OMD
Against a depoliticised view of OMD
Towards a processual understanding of OMD
Reflection, reflexive practice, and their implications for OMD: Some conclusive remarks



Outdoor Management Development is a concept, based on experiential learning theory, and combines several tasks and activities conducted in the outdoors, with the purpose of facilitating management development and improving organizational processes. The mainstream literature is primarily concerned with the effectiveness of training programmes and the quantifiable observation of performance. Thus, it is strongly biased towards positivism and functionalism. The purpose of our paper is to provide an overview of the literature, and to develop a critical perspective on the concept. We argue that Outdoor Management Development must not be seen as a neutral management tool, but is subject to specific social and political contexts. It should be seen as an emergent process and approached with reflexive awareness. We argue that reflexive practice may be capable of dealing with the issues of context, politics and process, we are discussing throughout the critical part of this paper.


Nowadays, management development is seen as a crucial activity for organizations. It is claimed that its function is vital in terms of managerial effectiveness. Outdoor Management Development (OMD) represents one of the possible training methods and is an off-site development approach (Mathis and Jackson, 2006). Within the past 25 years, the OMD industry has become a multi-million Euro business for several providers. Additionally, there has been increasing academic interest in OMD practices (Jones and Oswick, 2007). Especially, in the 1990s many organizations and scholars increasingly paid attention to the notions of change, and how managers would be able to handle the fast-paced and dynamic business environment. Hence, outdoor trainings, as an influential source of organizational learning, started to enjoy great popularity (Burnett and James, 1994). Looking at the literature, there is a strong functionalist and positivist bias. Thus, the purpose of our research is to provide an overview of the main theoretical accounts, and to pursue a critical perspective on OMD.

Our paper is divided into two major parts: “the state of the field” - a review of the available literature; and “towards a critical perspective” - a critical discussion that goes beyond a functionalist evaluation of the concept and integrates various perspectives. In the first part, we outline different facets, reflecting the popularity of OMD. Next, we trace back the historical roots of OMD and develop a definition. We then summarize the underlying objectives, as well as characteristics, which potentially determine an outdoor training’s effectiveness. Different types of programmes, as well as organizational factors of success and potential barriers to learning transfer, are presented. The part ends with a critical evaluation from a functionalist perspective, as found in mainstream literature. In the second part of the paper, we are challenging functionalist and technocratic assumptions about OMD. Firstly, we are questioning whether managerial skills can be easily observed, controlled and developed within the scope of OMD, given their dependency on context and the associated complexity of training and development programmes. Secondly, we are dealing with the political dimension of OMD, arguing that the concept should not be seen as a neutral technique, since it is always value-laden and subject to relations of power and knowledge. Thirdly, we are moving towards a more processual understanding of OMD, where development is contingent rather than linear, and becoming a competent manager, is more important than being one. Finally, we are looking at the concepts of reflection and reflexive practice, bringing together the topics of our critical discussion. Without raising claim to completeness, the underlying purpose of this paper is to bring up different matters of OMD, which are not considered in mainstream literature.

The state of the field

What makes OMD so powerful?

Off-the-job management development programmes are seen to give individuals the chance to get away from the job and focus entirely on what is to be learned. OMD, thus, represents a developmental tool that should enable managers to get away from “business as usual” thoughts (Mathis and Jackson, 2006). This typically goes hand in hand with a more or less pre-designed programme that has its focus on a variety of issues. One of them is to increase a trainee’s attention by evoking intense emotions such as fear, anxiety or anger. This typically happens through physically and psychologically challenging tasks, which have the function of bringing a person in a focused and highly attentive state of body and mind. It is therefore assumed that the created stress has fundamental impact on an individual’s experience, and is thought to result in enhanced learning. In addition, the consequences of each individual’s or team’s action are directly related to the outcomes of the task. Thus, immediate feedback in terms of reward or failure is enabled, and trainees are forced to deal with the outcome of their actions. This might result in increased self-reliance, reliance on others, as well as maximization of one’s own or the team’s resources (McEvoy and Buller, 1997). Since the ownership of the solutions is said to be located within the delegates, commitment among participants usually can be regarded as high (Yeadon, 1994). Additionally, the experientially perceived experiences have the potential to help participants to re-evaluate their own goals and efforts (Mathis and Jackson, 2006). In turn deep reflection is stimulated, which might lead to polyphony in perspectives and alternative approaches to problem solving. Furthermore, decision making is underpinned by a high degree of unpredictability, which again encourages trainees to remain flexible and open up to ever changing environmental conditions (McEvoy and Buller, 1997). By and large, one might presume that the power of OMD lies in its claim of improving organizational performance (Yeadon, 1994). In fact, its assertion of holistic development focuses on a physical, emotional, mental, as well as a spiritual level (McEnvoy and Buller, 1997).

The historical roots of OMD

When enquiring the provenance of OMD more precisely, one can trace its roots back to the 1940s. Initially, it descends from the British Outward Bound survival training that was undertaken for naval recruits in the Second World War (McEvoy, 1997). It was Kurt Hahn and his colleague Lawrence Holt, who designed this programme, so that sailors were able to identify and achieve their potential. Basically, the idea was to create a somehow dangerous and adventurous atmosphere in the quest of enhancing learning. Hereby, the reflection of the experienced environment was considered to be essential (Irvine and Wilson, 1994). These training practices became increasingly popular in the United States around the 1960s, where especially young people used them as a means for “developing character, self confidence, and leadership” (McEvoy, 1997: 236). After a while, management development providers became aware of the programme’s affinity to management practices, and used it for their own purposes (ibid). Especially in the 1990s, OMD trainings were often conducted within the scope of change management programmes, such as TQM or BPR (McEvoy and Buller, 1997).

What is OMD?

Building on Hahn’s and Holt’s heritage, contemporary outdoor trainings are mostly associated with a series of “carefully sequenced and integrated experiential learning activities conducted (primarily) in the outdoors and designed to facilitate participant behavior change” (McEvoy and Buller, 1997). Jones and Oswick (2007: 328) similarly define OMD as “a broad range of training interventions, premised on the assumptions of experiential learning theory, which use structured tasks and exercises as consciously designed metaphors and isomorphs of managerial and organizational processes”.

The objectives of OMD

The choice of using the outdoors as an experiential learning method is offered for a variety of purposes. Commonly, a wide range of different outdoor pursuits, such as abseiling or canoeing, is accompanied by a metaphoric problem-solving approach. The former implicates a higher level of physical effort and is characterised by little review activities, as the performed activities should speak for themselves. By way of contrast, the latter involves very little physical exertion. Its aim is to provide activities that highlight certain processes, and are discussed more extensively in a debriefing phase. Depending on the desired outcome of the programme, the use of different activities can be combined to meet the participant’s expectations (Ibbetson and Newell, 1998). Objectives of an OMD training therefore might focus on personal, manager, team or organization development (McEnvoy and Buller, 1997). On the personal level, individuals might develop self-awareness, be able to manage stress and are encouraged to solve problems creatively (McKenna, 2004). Likewise, one might experience personal growth due to undergoing peak experiences, which are likely to push an individual to its psychological and physical limits (Ibbetson and Newell, 1998). Additionally, interpersonal skills, such as managing conflicts, motivation skills or generally communication skills, might be acquired. Moreover, one potentially obtains group skills, such as the ability to empower, delegate or build effective teams (McKenna, 2004). Hence, OMD seems to be most frequently applied for the purpose of improving teamwork and leadership development. In this regard, one of the main goals is to stimulate reflection (Watson and Vasilieva, 2007). The basic objective, as well as underlying assumption of OMD, is the transfer of training outcome back to the workplace (Jones and Oswick, 2007). Hereby, several authors claim to be capable of detecting several success metrics for an effective training design.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Outdoor Management Development
Towards a critical perspective
University of Innsbruck  (Department of Organisation and Learning)
Issues in Management Development
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
526 KB
A critical and well-researched analysis of the mainstream approach to Outdoor Management Development that is short and accessible, yet substantial and ingenious. A paper well worth reading for both academics and practitioners.
Outdoor management development, Foucault, management development, constructivism, deconstructivism, reflexivity, objectification, subjectification
Quote paper
Stefan Aufschnaiter (Author)Matthias Wurzenrainer (Author), 2010, Outdoor Management Development, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/165898


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