Horse-whispering is the latest in a long line of activities marketed as corporate team-building events. You can take your pick - from creative video, outdoor theatre, cordon bleu cooking or playing in an orchestra. More rugged pursuits include potholing, abseiling and white-water rafting. Are they just gimmicks, or should employers consider them a valuable part of training and development strategy?
Most external group training events cost serious money and take up considerable work-time - so they are not taken lightly. After the first euphoria of the 'outward-bound' approach to team-building in the 1980s, the genre attracted a lot of bad publicity when people got hurt.
Since then, there has been a shift away from the tougher survival course to co-operative team-building activities. Chris Batten, business development manager at Brathay Development Training, one of the market leaders, claims that the industry has moved to a more sophisticated approach, using a variety of problem-solving projects. Creative exercises at Brathay include screen-printing, costume dramas and murder mysteries. Sophisticated and/or useful? It's hard to say. 'All projects are nonsensical in relation to specific job skills,' argues Batten, 'but they provide a framework for people to sit back, think about the task and get better at relationships.'
David Beckett, head of claimant centres at Barclays Bank, says he welcomes the move away from macho development programmes, and questions whether employers have the right to ask their staff to undertake sometimes scary tasks. When a person accepts a job as an IT operator, does the psychological contract include spending weekends as a mini Chris Bonnington or scraping away as second violin?
'People should be put in an environment where they can choose and work within their own comfort zone,' says Andrew Johnson, human resources director of the restaurant chain TGI Friday, whose team-building exercises include raft-making and community projects. 'High-risk events don't benefit anyone,' says Johnson, who favours using outdoor tasks to explore team development.
'They provide an environment away from the workplace, which allows participants to develop team skills in a more objective and less contentious way,' he says. 'But they must be designed to achieve business objectives, so that they are a method to make people learn and not just have fun.'
And there's the rub. However far removed the team activity is, physically, from the workplace - up a mountain or down a pothole - its value lies in how closely the learning process is related back to the real working environment. Alison Hardingham of the consultancy Interactive Skills and author of an Institute of Personnel and Development resource pack for developing teams, suspects the main benefit of team activities is that they enable people to get to know each other in a wider context than is possible in the office.
Companies need to think about what they are trying to achieve before embarking on any team-building exercise, says Debra Allcock, head of campaigning at The Industrial Society. 'Long-term business objectives include boosting productivity, improving communications or increasing sales figures,' she says. 'So it is important to ask whether the lessons learnt on the exercise can be sustained when everyone is back at the workplace, doing their real job.'
Does the ability to whisper sweet nothings to a stallion achieve a better return on sales? And can horsing around help team-building?