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Using the arts for corporate learning and development

Graffiti image of Arthur Rimbaud

The tenth in a series of essays reflecting on the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s experiences in the arts

The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (‘R&V’) and its sister organisation (Poet in the City) have both been involved in using the arts for the purposes of corporate learning and development. This is a difficult area, in which competition from commercial training providers is fierce. What is clear, however, is that the arts provide some unique advantages in addressing workplace-related issues in a fresh and thought-provoking way. If used properly they can have a transformational effect on those participating. In this essay I shall explore this specialist use of the arts and the ways in which R&V and its sister organisation have approached the delivery of such services.

Identifying the training need

The delivery of corporate learning and development products using the arts appears, on the face of it, to be an attractive activity for an arts organisation. It draws directly on the arts expertise of the organisation and its network, potentially allows it to engage with large businesses and corporations, like banks, law firms and tech companies, and represents a potential source of earned income. That it is - in practice - difficult to realise this promise is down to a number of factors, some related to the arts and some to business. Perhaps most important of these is the fact that the use of the arts in such a context is purely utilitarian. The key question in the mind of the customer is whether the learning and development product meets already identified training needs within the organisation. The arts-related product needs to demonstrate up-front that it can deliver the professional outcomes it promises as well as (if not better than) other more straightforward training packages. In doing so it undoubtedly encounters some sceptical attitudes amongst the purchasers of such services. The arts are soft and cuddly aren’t they? All very nice, no doubt, but how can they possibly deliver against hard-nosed learning and development objectives and contribute measurably to the bottom line of a business? Top executives cannot be spared from their high-earning frontline roles just for some fun and games with poetry or theatre. I do not believe that this line of reasoning is correct. However, any corporate learning and development product using the arts does need to start with a strong and well-argued case for how it meets the organisation’s training needs.

Rather than seeing this as a problem, I have instead chosen to regard it as a spur to design products of high quality and relevance. Because it must also be acknowledged that many arts organisations are unable or unwilling to ensure that their corporate training products are delivered at the right level. Many executives are former arts students. Some are accomplished artists in their spare time. So for an arts-based programme to be compelling and effective it must be designed to exacting standards, disciplined and focused very clearly on learning outcomes. In other words it must make huge accommodations to the corporate world in which it is operating and prove its usefulness in practice, in a way that may be uncomfortable or even distasteful to many arts curators. In my case it certainly helped that I came from a corporate background, having worked for over 7 years as a solicitor at City law firms, and that I had a familiarity with the sort of focused corporate learning and development products usually favoured by such employers. It was not that they disliked creativity, only that such creativity needed to demonstrate its usefulness clearly.

What the arts can contribute in a corporate context?

Many corporate learning and development products involve ice-breaker exercises or creative games designed to relax the participants and get them thinking ‘outside the box’ about how they work. But the arts need to serve a purpose well beyond this if they are to form the basis of a whole workshop or training package. So, what is it that they do well? My own experience is that they are most valuable in dealing with difficult or controversial subject matter, allowing participants to think about the context of their work in new ways. For instance, in 2010 my then arts organisation (Poet in the City) was asked by Lloyd’s of London (the insurance market) to deliver a series of poetry-based workshops for senior executives from the insurance market dealing with the ‘difficult’ subjects of terrorism, war and refugees. These were topics which were every much in the news and which were increasingly affecting insurance companies and syndicates, requiring new contractual terms and higher premiums. But these professional conversations were happening without any thinking about the nature of these troubling phenomenon. There was a predictable push-back from some of the participants who started the session thinking that they were an indulgence and a distraction from their ’real work’. But this was a fine example of how the arts have a unique ability to unlock thought in some areas. Poetry does not make the mistake of seeking political, social or economic explanations for things like terrorism or war, but it can convey the experience of these abstract nouns by real people. The contribution of the arts is perception, understanding and empathy of a different kind. And its effect can be very powerful, like scales falling from someone’s eyes. In this case I recall the superb poetry of the poet Choman Hardi about her experiences of being a Halabja Kurd, and her evocation of an early life spent in refugee camps and in exile. These poems tell obliquely of the lived experience of loss, anger, estrangement and dislocation in terms that everyone can understand and relate to. Suddenly the subject matter of the insurance contract, the risks and losses identified in purely monetary terms, were translated into a relatable human vocabulary. It was particularly notable that it was some of the initial nay-sayers on the course who ended up being the most affected by it, and who lingered at the end of the sessions. For them, I believe, it had been a memorable educational experience,, and one that confounded their expectations. It should be noted that, in order to deliver the workshops at the correct level of quality, we needed to work with two exceptional poet educators and to put a huge amount of effort into selecting and contextualising the poetry featured. We also needed to create detailed follow-up exercises designed to stimulate discussion and consolidate learning from the sessions. Above all these sessions needed to be of exemplary quality, punchy and absolutely on point.

Other areas well suited to the arts

It should be frankly acknowledged that the arts are not suited to all aspects of corporate learning and development. But in some areas their relevance and potential usefulness seems indisputable. Perhaps the most successful arts-based product to date is the Henry V and Leadership programmed designed and delivered by Richard Olivier’s company, Olivier Mythodrama. This day-long course uses Shakespeare’s play to highlight different modes of leadership, whilst using various exercises and games to get participants to examine their own leadership styles, strengths and weaknesses. Clearly this is a highly relevant and appropriate use of the arts in a corporate context, and has been quite rightly praised. I was lucky enough to participate in this workshop as part of the Oxford Cultural Leadership programme in 2015. But despite the success of this particular product it is difficult not to feel that the use of the arts more generally to advance corporate learning and development goals is still underdeveloped.

The role of literature and theatre in approaching drafting and communication skills, for instance, appears underutilised. And, despite the effectiveness of someone like the actor and public speaking coach Robin Kermode, there seems to be a lingering reluctance amongst those purchasing training products to recognise that talent development in these practical areas involve the same skills as those deployed in the arts, albeit more prosaically and for more instrumental purposes. Is not a well-drafted contract or business report something that requires some artistry and skill with words? And surely that keynote address from a conference stage would benefit from the self-confident presentation and bearing projected by a good actor? I often refer myself to a corporate training exercise which required me to make a ‘balcony speech’, an impromptu call to action, made without notes. To my surprise I found myself using exactly the same technique less than a fortnight later in a complicated business meeting to enlist support (successfully) for an innovative arts solution. In such cases the arts suddenly reveal themselves to be directly applicable to outcomes in the ‘real’ world of business.

I think that it is possible to put the case even more strongly than this. In the 1990s the writer and business guru John Kao became fashionable for espousing the great benefits of ‘creativity’ in the workplace. His legacy is still with us. Corporations routinely cite creativity as an essential attribute in their executives and managers, and as a key element in their corporate culture. Kao himself stops short of advocating the direct use of arts-based learning and development, which is odd because it feels implicit in many of his arguments. The imperative, he says, is for employees to engage in intelligent play, to think ‘outside of the box’, and to extend the bounds of organisational thinking through imagination. It is also widely recognised that the new ‘knowledge economy’ requires individuals to be capable of this kind of creative lateral thinking, but it is not entirely clear where this is supposed to come from, especially when the formal vocational aspects of learning are more regimented and narrowly constructed than ever. We expect our executive ‘generals’ to find winning strategies for the next war but we train them rather rigidly in the methods and presumptions of the last one. Elsewhere I have written about the need for a paradigm shift in how the arts are regarded, and a reappraisal of their contribution to society. I regard the continuing reticence to use arts-based training as a reflection of the institutional bias which stills exists against the arts as a tool for human growth and self-understanding, something from which we all lose.

Using the arts to champion inclusion

R&V has been keen from the start to develop corporate learning and development as an income stream, and there is one area where it is especially well-placed to make a difference. As I have already noted, the arts are able to address subjects perceived of as ‘difficult’, and to re-frame perceptions around these subjects. The poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine are well-known to have been lovers and pioneers of what we would now call LGBTQ identities. R&V is an arts organisation, not an organisation dedicated to LGBTQ activism, but given the personal history of the poets, advocacy for tolerance and inclusion in this area was always going to be an important strand for the organisation. This has been identified as an area of training need by some of the world’s largest corporations, especially in the US and the UK, and has been embodied in mission and value statements. It has been further incentivized by laws making illegal any discrimination against employees because of their sexual identities. It was therefore entirely natural for R&V to develop a product using the arts to champion LGBTQ inclusion in the workplace.

R&V has been very fortunate to partner on this with LGBT Capital, an organisation committed to promoting corporate best practice in this area. I have particularly benefited from working with its director, Anders Jacobsen. We are not the first organisation to attempt corporate work in this area. Stonewall UK, the LGBTQ campaigning organisation, has delivered some programmes in this area. However, by their own admission, the results of these interventions have been disappointing. The problem, as Anders describes it, is that senior management may be keen to mandate greater LGBTQ inclusivity in their workforce but, once training providers engage with frontline workers in (say) the sales and marketing team or the finance department, they encounter a ‘permafrost’ of hostility. This does not mean that people are necessarily prejudiced. It is more accurate to say that they bitterly resent the suggestion that they are prejudiced and that they need to be re-educated to a ‘woke’ agenda. Some corporate learning and development work around LGBTQ attitudes has achieved the dubious distinction of making prejudice measurably worse. Given the patronising implication of such interventions perhaps this is not surprising.

This is a classic example of a situation where the arts can provide a way of addressing a ‘difficult’ area. As Anders notes, the point is not to proselytize for LGBTQ lifestyles. It is the much more limited objective of ‘mainstreaming’ tolerance and an acceptance of diversity. This was the great success of Pride as a festival movement. What started as a campaigning event has been gradually transformed into a celebration of tolerance and, as such, has become a family occasion, encompassing many different people, by no means all of whom are LGBTQ. Similarly, R&V sees the objective of corporate learning and development in this area as being to mainstream and normalise the acceptance of LGBTQ employees, whose sexual identities are perhaps one of the least interesting or important things about them. The point is that no individual should be marginalised, bullied or excluded because of their sexual identity, or made to feel that they need to hide their true sexual identity at work. What better way to communicate empathy and embed best practice in this area than using the arts?

In thinking about LGBTQ inclusion with big corporations Anders has also focused on the bottom line. There is a persuasive case to be made for inclusivity on the basis of efficiency and profitability, as well as on the basis of doing the right thing. A high performing corporate culture wants to make the very best use of its employees’ talents and this can hardly be the case if LGBTQ employees feel discriminated against or marginalised. The product which R&V has developed emphasises this connection between inclusivity and efficiency, between tolerance and high-quality performance. R&V developed its product with the Danish conductor Peter Hanke, who has extensive experience of corporate work, and with Evoke, a renaissance madrigal choir. Baroque music would seem like an odd starting point for contemporary corporate learning and development until you realise that it was precisely at this time that modern ideas of specialism, professionalism and technical expertise were first codified. The workshop devised with Peter Hanke and the choir not only has a great impact musically, but also connects to a series of exercises which demonstrate the enormous benefits of cooperation and inclusion in optimising the work of specialised teams. As well as the artistic and participatory elements, the programme also includes some important evidence-based content delivered by LGBT Capital, demonstrating the contribution that a tolerant and inclusive approach to LGBTQ employees can make to efficiency and profitability. Far from brow-beating participants with LGBTQ campaign slogans, the programme makes a much more powerful argument based on the optimisation of human potential in the workplace. It also presents a much larger case for tolerance and pluralism as part of corporate best practice.

For various reasons R&V has been unable to deliver its learning and development product commercially. These reasons have included an absence of the investment which would allow R&V and its partners to scale up and market its product properly. It has also been displaced during the last 3 years by the pressing and laudable desire of corporates to use training to respond to ‘Me too’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. More practically, it has also fallen prey to the COVID pandemic, which has prevented this kind of face-to-face arts-based intervention, especially one involving a choir. It nevertheless remains one of R&V’s proudest achievements, and a product which I think demonstrates the way in which the arts can contribute directly to the values-based culture and to the efficiency of a corporate client.

Living the values and enchanting the workplace

In the end perhaps the great opportunity for arts-based learning and development is to transform the way in which we think about the workplace. In the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, as we explore the whole future of office-based work, the arts provide a prism through which we can explore our notions of professionalism, teamwork and excellence, and can provide us with ways of living the values expressed in the corporate mission statement. As well as the sheer visceral impact of renaissance madrigal singing what appeals to me most about the LGBTQ arts-based programme described above is the way in which it makes a strong practical and emotional case for collaborative working, and embodies the excitement and the sense of collegiate achievement which comes from a great job, well done. I have written elsewhere about the importance of the arts to social capital building, and it is also a feature of the programme that it should connect where possible with existing work-based choirs. In a small way the programme also argues for the encouragement of ‘joining in’ and a wider participatory culture. R&V believes that the arts can (and should) play a much more important part in the life of a successful society, embodying our values, acting out our tensions, and enchanting our workplaces.  

Posted on:Thursday 31st March, 2022