Despite their potential—and predictions of their dramatic rise—online simulations are used infrequently by corporate training departments. While many CLOs support the idea in principle, most have not integrated simulations into their corporate training offerings.
Many factors contribute to this gap between potential and reality, but the largest roadblock to widespread adoption of online simulations is uncertainty over how to develop, use and incorporate simulations successfully into existing training environments.
This article touches on some fundamental questions about simulations: What topics are best taught through simulations? What are the characteristics of successful simulations? How can simulations best be integrated into training environments? What are the barriers that prevent organizations from adopting them? Only when good answers to these questions are provided will simulations find widespread adoption in corporate training settings.
First, it’s important to define what a simulation is. All too often, interactive screenshot walkthroughs of applications and courses with multiple-choice assessments are called simulations, even though they do not create a simulated environment. Such training applications have their place in corporate training, but they don’t allow learners to engage actively and learn from their own mistakes in a simulated environment.
A simple test can reveal whether a program is a linear course with assessment questions or a true simulation: Are learners studying presented materials, or are they learning from the outcomes of their own actions? If learners are mostly engaged through lecture or presentation material, they do not learn from the consequences of their actions. In a true simulation, the users make choices that lead them down different paths toward different outcomes. The learners’ individual choices determine where they find themselves later in the simulation.
What Topics Are Best Taught Through Simulations?
Simulations can be used in many corporate training areas, including leadership training, sales and customer-service skills, new-hire orientation and operations management. In general, simulations are most successfully used in areas where judgment skills, not facts, are being taught. Simulations are also effective at modeling complex financial or economic behavior.
An example of one of the most widely used simulations—taught in thousands of operations courses over the past three decades—is the Beer Game. Invented at MIT in the 1970s, the game teaches principles of systems dynamics and operations management. In the Beer Game, students are part of a beer distribution chain where distribution partners are not able to talk to each other. As the simulation develops, poor communication leads to chaos in the distribution chain. By experiencing this chaos, users learn about operations management on a visceral level.
The Beer Game is a good example of using a simulation to teach a complex business topic. While the basic learning objectives could be conveyed with a few PowerPoint slides, it’s doubtful that students would internalize the material in a lecture format. The Beer Game leaves a much larger impact on students than a PowerPoint presentation because it lets students make mistakes and learn directly from the outcomes of their own actions.
In general, the softer the skill that is being taught, the more open-ended and complex a simulation will need to be. Communication skills and team-building skills are hard to model well in simple scenarios—they require the simulation designer to create complex real-world scenarios and rules to govern interpersonal dynamics.
Learning objectives around new product sales, customer service, economic systems or distribution chains, however, may need a less complex setup to create an effective learning environment. For example, a microeconomic simulation might allow a user to control cost and quantity of an item and achieve learning goals with a very simple setup.
Simulations are less appropriate in teaching hard skills. There is no real need to create a simulation on how to fill out a 401(k) form—a simple tutorial or interactive walkthrough can achieve that learning objective. However, a simulation on how to invest one’s 401(k) funds and observe the outcome of one’s investment over the course of a lifetime would be an effective learning experience for new employees.
Characteristics of Successful Simulations
The effectiveness of the many types of online simulations depends on the objectives that are to be achieved. Nonetheless, there are a few features that are common to the best simulation experiences.
While simple assessment tests can test knowledge transfer for linear courses or classroom lectures, it can be hard to learn from experiences and actions without obtaining feedback on one’s actions. We wouldn’t know how to ride a bike if we hadn’t fallen down a few times and learned from the sometimes-painful feedback we received.
Feedback is a standard practice for military simulations, and most simulated military exercises conclude with detailed debriefs. The reason: People might have some intuitive sense of what went right and wrong during the exercise, but clear feedback allows the experience to become tangible to the learner’s experience. And because learners have just made mistakes in a simulated environment, they’re probably more open to internalizing knowledge than if they had passively listened to a lecture.
While many simulations use numerical data (profits, etc.) to give feedback to the learner, this type of feedback is often not enough—good feedback loops ensure that a user who makes good decisions didn’t make them accidentally. This can be done by observing the actions of the simulation participants and questioning them about the choices that they made.
While this qualitative feedback is often done in the classroom debriefing the simulation, it can also be incorporated into the simulation itself. Successful online simulations use feedback loops in the simulation narrative, for example, in the form of a mentor or a board of directors who critique performance and offer hints to improve results the next time around.
A simulation can have many levels of complexity, depending on the learning objectives. Some simulations let learners choose different paths using multiple-choice questions, then present them with outcomes based on the choices they make. In other simulations, users control quantitative inputs (e.g., the allocation of financial or other resources) and observe the effects on output variables (e.g., sales, profits or quality measures).
As one can imagine, the presentation of more decision points or allocation choices means more complex algorithms that will determine what paths the learner is led down, what events they will react to and what choices they will make.
The most complex open-ended simulations present the user with a large number of choices at each turn that lead to an almost infinite number of outcomes. The most popular example of such a simulation from the gaming world is the best-selling computer game The Sims. In this simulation, users slip into the role of a simulated character and have almost complete freedom of action as they interact with their environment. There are also an infinite number of turns, which are defined solely by time ticking away.
The trade-offs of how complex a simulation should be are multi-faceted. Many of the less complex simulations developed to date have disappointed in their ability to truly engage the learner. What was meant as an honest attempt to simulate a work environment comes across as stilted and unreal. Learners quickly lose interest and ask, “Why don’t you just tell me what you want me to learn rather than making me go through this tedious exercise?”
On the other hand, more complex, open-ended simulations are costlier to develop and are often not appropriate for training and workforce development. Computer games like The Sims have a different objective from e-learning: They reinforce behaviors that lead to fun rather than behaviors that lead to absorbing distinct learning objectives. Creating a simulation environment that is too complex and not appropriate for the given objectives is often the reason for end-user confusion, frustration and disappointment with the experience.
Part of the challenge of creating an effective e-learning simulation is to balance the fun (so that the user stays engaged) with the learning. For example, in the Beer Game users have very few choices that aren’t directly related to the learning objectives. If the simulation required learners to choose other variables not directly related to the beer distribution chain, the focus of the simulation would be lost.
A good simulation uses the complexity that is appropriate for the learning objectives and goals of the experience that is being simulated and makes the simulation experience as easy as possible to understand for the learner, while retaining the fun that comes from making choices and observing the outcome of one’s actions.
How Can Simulations Be Integrated Into Training Environments?
A striking aspect of the Beer Game is that it is mostly played as a collaborative classroom exercise. Students learn by observing the difficulty of communicating with each other in a complex supply-chain operation while sitting next to each other in the classroom.
While online simulations have been getting much attention in recent years, simulations can work well in many settings both outside and inside the classroom: as online exercises that are part of a blended course, as stand-alone e-learning modules or as capstone experiences to a classroom lecture series.
Which setting is appropriate depends on the level of prior knowledge that students bring to the table. Linear tutorials and lectures—whether online or off-line—are most often the best tools for laying the foundation of new materials. Simulations excel at reinforcing those foundations and often tend to do well as capstone experiences in combination with classroom activities.
For instance, a company that wants to teach new hires the company’s strategic direction and values might first want to teach those values in a lecture format or through a linear e-learning course. The company could then reinforce those concepts with a simulation that presents difficult situations and challenges employees to apply the company strategy and values.
In general, the less familiar students are with the environment being simulated, the more handholding they need—either in the classroom or through virtual collaboration. Simulations can work as stand-alone online tools without a live tutor or instructor, but only if the learner is familiar with the environment that is being simulated.
Why Aren’t Online Simulations More Widely Used?
Until recently, technical barriers prevented the widespread use of simulations as learning tools. In the past, many simulations were simply too hard to develop and distribute to the computers where they were needed. Furthermore, the costs of pioneering a new type of learning while deploying hard-to-install and hard-to-support custom-made simulations were simply too high for most environments.
As standard-issue computer technologies, such as Macromedia Flash, become more ubiquitous and e-learning vendors with simulation-development expertise develop more industry- and topic-specific simulation templates, technology and cost barriers are continuing to shrink, opening the marketplace for widespread adoption of simulation technology.
Clearly, other barriers need to be overcome as well. Overenthusiastic e-learning vendors have touted simulations in many areas where they should not have been used. Many companies that first adopted them were disappointed with the results. All too often, unfortunately, learning objectives were ignored in order to provide clients with the “wow” factor. Simulations looked good, but little learning occurred.
To overcome this barrier, CLOs and training managers need clarity about the purpose of a simulation, as well as how it will be integrated into the training environment, before starting the process of developing the simulation.
Other barriers simply stem from bad simulation design. Many ineffective simulations on the market today have unclear learning objectives or include features that distract the would-be learner. This reduces the value of the simulation as an educational tool. Effective planning and simulation-development expertise are required to avoid the pitfall of bad simulation design.
In addition to technical and design barriers, organizational barriers need to be addressed. As mentioned, soft-skills simulations need a feedback forum to debrief participants. Simply making a simulation available on an LMS is not enough to get employees involved and engaged. Because simulations often teach higher cognitive skills that require a learner’s full attention, simulations need to be promoted to an even larger extent than e-learning courses, and participants need to be allowed to take time away from the office to fully engage with a simulation. Only with adequate marketing and technical support will simulations truly be integrated into corporate learning environments.
As companies overcome technical and organizational barriers, they still need to confront the largest roadblock to widespread adoption of online simulations: uncertainty over how to develop, use and successfully incorporate simulation into existing training environments. Once corporate training departments become more sophisticated about simulation development and understand when and how to deploy what type of simulation, the true potential of simulations might be realized.
Simulations offer huge advantages over lectures, handbooks or on-site trainers. They engage students while helping them retain and apply what they’ve learned. They allow people with a wide range of learning styles to meet learning objectives at their own pace. Furthermore, simulation technology is becoming more sophisticated, as well as more cost-effective, all the time. Any corporate training department that decided five years ago that simulations didn’t work needs to take another look at what simulations can do for employee motivation and retention rates—and corporate training ROI.
Bjorn Billhardt is CEO of Enspire Learning (www.enspire.com), an e-learning course-development company that specializes in creating scenario-based courses and interactive simulations. Bjorn has helped develop award-winning online simulations for Harvard Business School, the World Bank, Canon, SAP and other leading companies. Bjorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.