The magical world of workplace education

Image result for The magical world of workplace education A start-up claims that learning tricks boosts creativity — but is it an illusion?

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Alice Newton-Rex is in her company’s boardroom performing card tricks to her team. Magic is not generally part of her role as chief product officer at money transfer business WorldRemit, and her inexperience shows as she asks a colleague to pick a card at random and look at it, then return it before she nervously shuffles the deck. Amazingly, that card now appears at the top of the pile. No one seems more surprised than Ms Newton-Rex, who has only had a few minutes to practise the routine. She learnt the trick as part of a leadership training session from Abracademy, an executive education business that claims teaching the art of magic offers valuable workplace lessons in management and team-building. Ms Newton-Rex was a little sceptical before her team’s session, but thinks the magic was helpful. “This team has grown very rapidly, so having something like this that takes us outside our comfort zone is very useful.” Abracademy is a start-up founded in 2015 by professional magicians and people with backgrounds in education. Alex Pittas, head magician, used to sell magic kits in London’s Camden Market before joining the Magic Circle. Pedram Parasmand, who led the WorldRemit session, was a school science teacher before co-founding a training and development consultancy, The Skills Lab. Abracademy clients include Vodafone, Barclays and Twitter. Last year its teams of “magilitators” — a blend of magician and facilitator — taught sessions about innovation to more than 4,000 HSBC staff over nine months. Like bespoke executive education programme teams at business schools, Abracademy works with clients to develop training sessions. It uses the concept of “wonder” to help managers understand creative thinking and hone presentation skills, and the concept of “belief” to encourage workforces going through periods of rapid change to think more positively about the process. The London-based company is one of several workplace education start-ups challenging established business schools and other training companies. Latest figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (2015-16) found that in the UK alone, universities generated £667m from continuing professional development and continuing education. Abracademy is also competing with alternative degree providers such as Swedish start-up Hyper Island and corporate universities set up by large companies to provide specialist training targeted to their own staff needs. One of the problems facing training courses like those offered by Abracademy is that it is difficult to measure their value, according to David Asch, director of quality services at EFMD, a business school accreditation body. “The problem all executive education providers struggle with, whether they are private business schools or specialist training providers, is proving the value of what they do,” he says, noting that there are no formal exams at the end or modules to pass. “I would be concerned if my organisation spent money on this.” Abracademy courses are designed to fit the needs of each client and promote the skills they would like participants to learn, according to Priya Ghai, an Abracademy “mind master”, or training facilitator. After the course outline has been agreed, the Abracademy team decides on which tricks to teach the group to match the client’s goals, she adds. Each course is jointly led by a facilitator, who guides participants through the learning process, and a magician who brings an understanding of how people’s minds work. The magicians’ knowledge of human psychology is how they are able to pull off sleights of hand, according to Ms Ghai. “Having those skills combined helps people to create a series of workshops that has engagement and energy at the same time,” she says. “If you can really harness this wonder mindset in your life then it will enhance your creativity and your ability to collaborate.” Rubens Filho, Abracademy’s founder, is a trained magician (“master of spells”). He admits that the hardest part is getting a client to sign up for a first training session. “We do have to manage expectations,” he notes. “We have had to turn down several potential clients who expected a magic show.” Accenture, the consulting firm, was an early adopter. Edward Mackle, business innovation lead at Accenture, took part in a magic session in Dublin. His team runs sessions for Accenture clients focused on helping them to think more creatively about business challenges. “We are always looking to do that better and Abracademy brought an interesting angle,” he says. Thinking about performing the tricks well helped him with preparing for presentations to clients. “It is about being in the right mindset to generate ideas, to bring the right energy to the room,” he says.