Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TIME OUT : May 2, 1999
OBT:exercise for the soul
It is 6-30 p.m. The bus seems to be heading into the middle of nowhere. Slowly, the familiar sights and sounds of the city are left behind as the last trappings of civilisation fall away. The nearest habitation is a lone tea-stall about two km behind. As dusk turns into darkness, the road melts into a thin ribbon of a track that disappears through the bushes, and the bus draws to a grinding halt.
The bemused group that alights does not have much time to wonder what is in store for them. "C'mon folks, it's a four km walk to camp. No talking, please, as we're walking through jungle. And while we walk, I have a few questions I'd like you to ask yourselves.... Why are we here? What are we doing? What do we hope to achieve over the next few days?"
Welcome to OBT, or Outward Bound Training, a corporate training programme that is becoming increasingly popular for its ability to solve a whole lot of issues that cannot perhaps be even raised in classroom situations. Taking Time Out from the routine of everyday work, the programme works on the principle that when a group of people are thrown together in wilderness or adventure settings, where they have to fend for themselves and meet challenges together, there is growth in many directions.
Loosely used as a generic term to cover all kinds of outdoor learning adventures today, the concept of OBT can be traced back to the Forties to Dr. Kurt Hahn, a thinker, philosopher, outdoor person who believed that the outdoors has many lessons for city people which will enhance their personal thresholds as well as group thresholds. The most obvious benefits, as more and more corporate houses are discovering, are in the core areas of team-building, leadership development, conflict-resolution and interpersonal skills.
Emphatically endorsing Dr. Hahn's view are a growing number of adventure and outdoor experts, who co-ordinate with the corporate houses to provide the right setting, the logistical support, and the skills and expertise needed for outdoor living. "We temporarily set up an institution in the wilderness," says Tito Chandy of Dreamcatcher Learning Adventures, who has been organising outbound programmes for several years now. "The participants have to set up their own living base, their own learning base... and in the process, all kinds of issues crop up. These issues are taken, made relevant to the office place, and then resolved."
Programmes typically are located in the hills, in the jungle or sometimes even on the coast. An often-used location near Chennai is Tada, with rock-faces to climb, streams to ford and hills to provide the right ambience. Lasting anywhere from two to seven or even ten days, the programmes are packed with activity - the basic business of living, challenging new activities, creativity or team-building tasks, followed by intense sessions of introspection and feedback. The programmes themselves are a product of teamwork - between the outdoor expert, who provides the adventure, the facilitator and human resources expert who facilitates developmental learning, and the participants themselves, who give meaning to the whole exercise.
Says Preetham Nathan, who handles management training in a multi-national bank in Chennai, "What happens from Day One is that, as they continue with games from morning till late into the night, they get so physically exhausted that by the second day all inhibition, all caution is thrown to the winds, and true bonding, trust and interpersonal skills start happening. In fact they themselves recognise this.
"There's this 'taken away' feeling," says Uma Krishnan, a senior executive in the same bank, who participated in one such programme a few months ago. "In a city environment, everybody's wondering 'have I got an email, is my phone ringing' - you're always on call. In this case, everyone knows that for 48 hours they cannot reach you, period. It's such a different world out there - you certainly couldn't have got this feeling in an indoor setting."
Alok Jetley, another senior executive of the bank, echoes similar feelings. "It gives people the chance to know one another," he says. "I enjoyed myself thoroughly. It was strenuous work - more the introspection than the physical part - but it was fun all the way."
"It's a very good deal from the cost-benefit point of view also," says Nathan, smiling. "We went into it on a need basis, and when we looked at costs, we were pleasantly surprised to find it much cheaper than an indoor training programme in a hotel. It's a win-win situation all around."
What exactly is it about the outdoors that makes these programmes so effective? "It is very different," says Raja Krishnamoorthy, organisational development consultant. "99 per cent of your learning is in the classroom. Here, the participant experiences change. Also, rarely does the opportunity come where, with the intellectual process, the body has an active role to play - the body which is fundamentally the support structure that holds the mind."
Do people mind the hardships of living outdoors? "Initially, yes, many of them are quite angry, but by the end of the programme, they often don't want to go back. There is tremendous enjoyment, lots of fun across the board, the sheer thrill of activities like rappelling and river-crossing...."
Tailored to the group profile, the activities are varied and exciting. Camping, trekking, rock-climbing, fording, para-sailing, hang-gliding.... The adventure experts are aware of the need for stringent safety procedures, and the rules and precautions are strictly enforced. Activities are chosen according to the terrain, or vice versa. While trekking, rock-climbing and some water-sports are possible around Chennai, Bangalore and Pune seem to be the place for aero-adventures. Pegasus of Bangalore offers a range of possibilities at one spot, with facilities like an obstacle course, rock-climbing and rappelling in the hills nearby, canoeing and rafting. All in all, it is a great experience, feels Uma Krishnan. "I think everybody needs to experience it at least once - and not necessarily as part of work. In fact, at the end of our programme I came back saying may be we should do this with the children, and my husband and me.... As a concept, I think it is great for the soul...."
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