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A dramatic way to learn. By Lucie Benson

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26th Jun 2007
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Role play

Ever considered using drama to help with your professional development? One accountancy firm has been using drama-based learning to train staff for many years, with positive results, as Lucie Benson finds out.

Mention the words "role play" to staff and chances are they will be tempted to run for the hills rather than get up and 'improvise' in front of their colleagues.

However, business and financial adviser Grant Thornton has been using drama-based learning as its preferred method of training for over 10 years, and feedback from managers and partners in the firm has always been positive.

Grant Thornton works with training specialist Steps Drama, which provides role players to portray clients in various scenarios. The training programmes cover areas such as sales skills, appraisal skills, selection interviewing, influencing skills, partner development, leadership and management skills.

Steps Drama recently provided a three-day coaching and influencing skills programme to Grant Thornton, for its staff development managers (SDMs). The aim of the training was to coach the SDMs to become role models to other accountants in the firm, to further improve their people management skills.

"The training helps our SDMs to become excellent line managers and role models who can coach others to do their job better," says Sue Cohen, senior training manager at Grant Thornton. "Since our SDMs are geographically-spread, it also gives them a chance to network and to share experiences."

Interactive scenarios

Role players from Steps act out various interactive scenarios in which they portray employees in a fictitious accountancy firm. These show, for example, a manager coaching a colleague after an ineffective appraisal session or a manager trying to convince a partner of the importance of people management skills. In each scenario, the actors portraying the characters turn to the audience for help and advice. The delegates contribute suggestions and then watch as the actors immediately work these back into the scenario.

"The delegates are being coaches to the actors, which is exactly what we want because they are getting involved with the skills they need to practise," explains Cohen. "It is an effective way of getting people to think about how they deal with issues, whilst at the same time being very life like; it is as close to real as you can get. Their forum approach engages and challenges the delegates to discuss and debate their role and consider the best way forward in each scenario."

Participants are asked for situations and circumstances in which they have encountered behavioural challenges when they’ve been trying to coach others. Steps recreate these situations in bespoke role plays. The delegates then work in small groups and take turns to role play as a coach, with a Steps actor portraying the coachee, whilst the rest of the group observes and offers help and advice.

Mark Shillabeer, an account director at Steps Drama, says that the key value of the programme provided for Grant Thornton was to bring the issues to life, to give them the opportunity to examine them and share best practice with each other.

"We provide actors to enact situations that are reflective of the workplace, so delegates can engage in it and challenge it. This type of learning gives value in terms of doing what you can't do in real life, and trying things out a number of times until you reach a good solution."

He continues: "It is a simulated environment, so the power of it is that it enables them to think about things they may have done a number of ways in the past and try out other ideas in a safe way. So it could all go wrong, but it doesn’t matter because then we break it down, ask why it went wrong, how it can be done differently in future and discuss what they learnt from the session."

Softer skills

According to Raj Gopal, senior training and CPD manager at the ICAEW, this type of learning fits well with what the institute advises members to do, when undertaking CPD. "In the past, the mindset has always been formal, technical, classroom-based learning, but that is not necessarily the most appropriate method of learning for members’ particular development needs," she comments. "So we now encourage them to consider a wider breadth of development, in terms of softer skills, such as management, influencing and leadership skills. In that respect, what Grant Thornton is doing very much fits into what we are encouraging our members to do."

Daniel Mansfield, senior manager project finance at Grant Thornton, has participated in several of the training programmes provided by Steps, including the recent coaching and influencing skills programme.

"Initially, I wasn’t keen on doing the role playing, but I wouldn't say it was particularly hard," he remarks. "The pressure was on us to develop a situation, so we gave the people from Steps a scenario and a brief, for example a negotiation with a partner or a having a creative planning meeting with a junior member of staff. So we give them the background information, situation and the type of attitude the role player needs to display and we would get into a dialogue with them, on that basis. It was very much dependent on your own ability to give them a good brief."

Mansfield says that being part of a small group, whilst doing the role plays, and getting feedback from everyone on how he acted in the situation, was extremely useful. "It was good in terms of practising role play in a difficult situation, as well as receiving feedback on how I had performed from the whole group. The views of others give you a good, rounded opinion of how your actions, mannerisms and so on can be interpreted."

Cohen admits people are often reluctant to take part in the programmes, because of the role play element, but as a method of learning, it is popular. "Once they have done it, they find it powerful, useful and effective," she remarks. "We have had really good feedback and many of the participants have said they are much better at doing what they need to do and feel more confident in dealing with certain situations because they know they can. And therefore that means they will."

For further information on Steps Drama, click here.

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