January 14, 2015

Mind the Gap | What is the Actor’s Impact on Professional Training? | By Alex Farrow

Professional actors in organisational training: What’s our impact?


Alex Farrow is a professional actor, represented by Actorshop, and has worked with the company since 2010. Coming from an organisational change background in the youth sector, Alex is completing his MSc Organizational Behaviour at Birkbeck College, University of London. His original research project focused on the role of professional actors in training and development, with emphasis on evaluation and impact.

Make sure to follow Alex Farrow on twitter | @alexjamesfarrow


In his Christmas email to the Actorshop family, Allen Liedkie, Director of Operations US at Actorshop,  said that, “[t]he backbone of Actorshop – our work in schools and companies – continues to have an impact on all those involved.” Though I believe he is right, it is a good time to reflect – and explore – what we know about the use of professional actors in organisational training and where the gaps in our knowledge might exist.

Professional actors in training

The training and development of staff is a large and growing industry with UK employers spending a whopping £49 billion on organisational learning in 2011[1]. The common belief amongst managers and leaders is that in today’s world the only way to gain advantage over the competition is to invest in the quality of staff[2], and it is this that has meant large sums of money being spent at a time of economic instability and recession.

At the same time, the use of professional actors in training and development has increased and has been used in a range of settings across the public and private sector[3]. Professional actors have been used for a variety of training topics[4], including diversity and equality training, patient simulation and medical exams, management training in large retail banks, with service providers including the police, social and fire services and more recently as part of the UK Government’s Ebola simulation at UK airports. Actors are also used at different organisational levels, such as recruitment, selection and assessment, induction, executive training, and leadership coaching.

From our research and experience, we already have a good understanding as to why organisations chose professional actors as a learning method. Actors are able to create true-to-life simulations[5], present real life scenarios[6], and enable spaces for participants to reflect on their own behaviour, attitudes and approaches to situations[7]. As well as the intellectual demand of more traditional training, actors offer not just a ‘learning by doing’ but a ‘learning by experiencing’ programme. Instead of participants only theoretically understanding how they should change their behaviour, with actors they experience that behavioural change at a visceral level.


Gaps in the evidence-base

 When a business invests in their staff, they expect something to change – and for many leaders that needs to be seen in the profit margin.

 The use of drama-based techniques in organisational training, such as role-play or forum theatre, derive from Behaviour Modelling[8] (which itself derives from social learning theory[9]) which is the process of observing a set of different behaviours and adopting them through reinforcement, rehearsal and a willingness to adopt the behaviour they have seen. Even as an academic theory, behaviour modeling might be limited for our understanding. While it is useful when thinking about a carpentry apprentice who watches, repeats and perfects, the work of actors in training is not to present the “right” answer (if any answer), but to challenge the conscience of the audience (with Hamlet in our minds), disturb their comfort zone and challenge their attitudes, behaviours and thought processes. We make training and learning human, and facilitate a space of experimentation, provocation and self-awareness.

Despite extensive evaluation and research into the broader training method and the extensive use of actors in organisational training, little empirical evidence and academic research into the effectiveness of using professional actors exists beyond case study examples written by training providers. Though there are strong academic assertions that, ‘drama-based training is held to the same standards as other forms of training’[10], there appears a gap in the current evidence base.

However, the dearth of academic literature belies the extensive work conducted by businesses and by training companies themselves, who frequently conduct rigorous evaluations on the impact of the training – some impressively over a long period of time. Unfortunately, such evaluations are often commercially sensitive and therefore not publicly available, and focus on the learning objectives of the training (as you would expect) rather than the effectiveness of the training technique (as our companies would like). While the effectiveness of the programme might be evaluated, the training methodology – in our case the uniqueness, emotional and connectedness of professional actors – is missed. This requires extending what is evaluated (typically the satisfaction of participants, the learning, and the transfer of training into changed behaviour in the workplace[11]), and ensuring that understanding more about the process is considered as useful as the results.

Though case studies provide examples of where professional actors have been used[12], many of these papers simply describe what happened rather than telling us what impact the training had on participants when they go back to their day job, whether their behaviour changed and if it improved the organisational performance in the long-term. Ideally, such evidence would be in the form of experimental research, with a control group of participants experiencing one learning method, while a test group experience actor-led training. This would require the same learning objectives to be present in both trainings, long-term evaluation of impact, and academic standards of independence, rigour and analysis. Though we know of no examples of this having been done previously, our research has been limited to academic literature and our knowledge of the sector.


Expert trainers and professional actors

We know that actors have the ability to connect with people on a human level – one that is emotional, real and challenging. This is our skill, our craft and our service. Many people, be they school pupils, frontline staff, managers or chief executives, will have witnessed the power of actors, be it through radio, TV, film or theatre. Stories connect with us instinctively on a human level, and the magic that comes from a transient moment of emotional experience can stay with us for a lifetime. This is our starting point and our offer as professional actors in the industry of organisational training.

That said, there are clear gaps in our evidence-base which we all have a responsibility to address – that includes us, our clients, the sector, and academics. For instance as professional actors, we must value our expertise in understanding emotional intelligence, personality types, behavioural management and motivation and learn to articulate their impact in training for developing effective management, leadership skills and business productivity. By being able to pinpoint our unique impact in the training room our industry will continue to grow, individuals will learn, businesses will develop, and public services will be of a higher quality.


[1] UK Commission for Employment and Skills (2011) UK Employer Skills Survey 2011: First Findings, http://www.ukces.org.uk/

[2] Pfeffer, J. (1993) Competitive advantage through people: Unleashing the power of the work force. Boston: Harvard Business School press.

[3] Swales, R. (2010). How to get the best out of drama based training. Industrial and Commercial Training, 42(5), 260–264.

[4] Academic literature includes:

  • St George, J., Schwager, S., & Canavan, F. (1999) A guide to Drama-based training. Employee Relations Today, 25 (8) 73-81.
  • Kneen, K. (2005) Transport for London’s non-traditional training. Strategic HR Review, 4(6);
  • Bradley, P. (2006) The history of simulation in medical education and possible future directions. Medical Education 2006; 40: 254–262;
  • Simpson, B. (2008) Playing the ideal role. Nursing Management, 14(9), 12-15;
  • Hayat, K., & Walton, S. (2013) Delivering Equality and Diversity Training Within a University Setting Through Drama-Based Training. Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture, 3(3), 290-305;

[5] Goldstein, I L., & Ford, J.K (2001) 4th Edition. Training in organizations: Needs Assessment, Development, and evaluation. Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.

[6] Swales, R. (2010). How to get the best out of drama based training. Industrial and Commercial Training, 42(5), 260–264

[7] Hayat, K., & Walton, S. (2013) Delivering Equality and Diversity Training Within a University Setting Through Drama-Based Training. Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture, 3(3), 290-305.

[8] Goldstein, I L., & Ford, J.K (2001) 4th Edition. Training in organizations: Needs Assessment, Development, and evaluation. Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.

[9] Bandura, A. (1977) Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

[10] St George, J., Schwager, S., & Canavan, F. (1999) A guide to Drama-based training. Employee Relations Today, 25 (8) 73-81.

[11] Kirkpatrick, D (1959) Techniques for evaluating training programmes. Journal of the American Society of Training Directors, 13, 3-9, 21-26; 14, 13-18, 28-32.

[12] Such as:

  • Kneen, K. (2005) Transport for London’s non-traditional training. Strategic HR Review, 4(6);
  • Swales, R. (2010). How to get the best out of drama based training. Industrial and Commercial Training, 42(5), 260–264;
  • Hayat, K., & Walton, S. (2013) Delivering Equality and Diversity Training Within a University Setting Through Drama-Based Training. Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture, 3(3), 290-305.

 

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