“It doesn’t surprise me that they’re moving toward that,” said Jim Wexler, Brand Games’ executive vice president of marketing. “If you’re trying to communicate company information–putting together a sales force, developing a leadership program or, on a much more basic level, running retail–you need to be able to do it in a way that’s relevant to employees.” Brand Games specializes in marketing communications and develops games for Microsoft Xbox, Sony Playstation, PC and wireless platforms (cell phones), but also provides high-tech, game-based, soft skills occupational simulations for companies like Merrill Lynch and Samsung.
“We’re trying to create experiences that reflect the kind of gaming and the kinds of interactions that these sophisticated users of these platforms do in their everyday lives,” Wexler said. “What we’ve done is literally created a 3-D world in which you’re at the helm of a company experience, and you react in role-playing, real-life situations, and have to respond successfully and in a way that reflects the things that the company stands for.”
Wexler said so many companies have implemented simulations, partly because of the demographic transformation of the workforce. “The fact is that as baby-boomers cycle out and the workforce makeup changes, you’re going to be dealing with different kinds of employees, who learn differently and have grown up intuitively embracing different tools in their lives, such as videogames and the Web,” he said. “The employee base today is younger, and one that came up with games. If you’re under 45 years old, you’ve had a seminal moment with a video game.”
Of the group that used simulations, 78 percent reported their simulation products and services have been developed in-house, while 71 percent said their organization procured simulations from external sources. The overlap shows that a substantial minority of companies seeks out technology-based educational solutions to meet specific training needs wherever they can get them, whether inside or outside of the organization.
Given these statistics and examples, it might be tempting to believe that simulations have just about conquered the employee learning field. However, Business Intelligence Board members reported a combination of factors–such as high cost, lack of organizational infrastructure, scarcity of quality products and services and a management-level comprehension deficiency–have limited the use of simulations. Accordingly, less than a third of those polled said simulations had impacted organizational learning to a significant degree.
Roger Schank, Ph.D., chairman of e-learning provider Socratic Arts and developer of the Story-Centered Curriculum simulation, empathizes with this skeptical view. He believes many simulations produced are too shallow and short, and said that many companies place excessive weight on quantity–rather than quality–of courses and content. Some so-called “simulations,” he said, are not really simulations at all. This assertion was supported by the fact that from a list of examples provided in the survey, more than half of respondents said a step-by-step, on-screen animated guide demonstrating data-entry tasks qualified as a simulation, even though it did not involve a simulated environment or practice on the part of the user.
“I think most companies basically haven’t understood the concept of simulations yet,” he said. “I know how the word ‘simulation’ is misused. What they have now in simulations, and what I see over and over again, is somebody says something like, ‘You are now in a building. You’re about to sell somebody something and you’ve made the following presentation and they’ve asked a question. What do you answer?’ I’m sorry, but that’s not practicing, that’s trying to learn what the right answer is. Most learning is not about memorization of answers and knowing what someone asked you to say. It’s about being able to do something at the right moment. So, if it’s not a doing-based simulation, it’s not very meaningful.”
The biggest concern about simulations in learning and development departments–the cost of simulations, according to the survey–is more complicated than the mere dollar amount on the price tag, Wexler said. “It’s true that [simulations] cost something. Another way of saying ‘cost’ is that [companies] want to make sure they understand cost-benefit, because an exercise with a simulation has to pay out. In our industry, the more we can show cost-benefit–that a better trained employee is a more productive employee–the better our bottom line.”
Wexler also addressed the trepidation regarding the absence in some companies of both the understanding of technology-based education and the awareness of first-rate simulation products and services. “It’s a brave new world. People know they need this stuff, and they want to make the right decision about how they implement it. There’s a lot of blinking lights on the radar screen. There’s no clear path for people to know how to assess it. The people who are trying to figure it out don’t necessarily know where to turn,” he said. Organizations can deal with these concerns through thoughtful foresight, investigation and imagination, he added. “In our field, we’ve always worked with visionaries. It takes a CEO of vision to implement these forward-thinking programs. Whether it’s mid-sized or large companies, they already know that–because their user base is on the PC and their reps carry laptops–this is a platform for communicating with their people,” Wexler explained.
“They’ve been around a while,” Schank said. “I think that simulations were worked on and created effectively seven or eight years ago. I think people need to understand what’s good and what works, and be willing to step up and spend the money to have people build realistic simulations. I know there aren’t that many people who know how to build simulations—they’re few and far between. They’re not easy to build. I know they’re expensive, and there aren’t that many people who want to spend real money on education and training.”
In spite of concerns about cost and quality, there seems to be a great deal of faith in the future of this method of instruction. Altogether, 39 percent of research board members said they thought simulations would make a significant impact on their organizations’ learning and development programs within the next two years, whereas 28 percent believed it would take longer than that. Only 2 percent thought simulations would never have any substantial effect on employee education.
In addition, a whopping 83 percent of survey respondents currently using simulations projected their companies’ use of these tools for instructional purposes will increase in the next two years. Of those whose companies are not using simulations currently, 41 percent predicted that they will be implemented two years from now, while 30 percent said it would take longer than that.
“The word-of-mouth is there,” Wexler said of causes behind the rise of simulation use. “These people who run training and HR, and CLOs, see it in their everyday lives—for example, in the way kids play and learn. It’s part of the fabric of our lives now that 3-D environments and these kinds of complex interactions are becoming so effective, and it’s where it’s all going.”
Wexler also explained that an increasing emphasis on the knowledge and skills of the workforce is contributing to the ascendancy of instructional simulations. “CLOs are increasingly recognizing the importance of increasing the productivity and the focus of their people,” he said. “Companies realize that the payout of having their people be on point and on message, and more productive, is huge. Forward-thinking people know that is the margin of differences in their businesses—how on-message and how in-lockstep their people are. It’s everything for a lot of companies. In some of the companies we deal with, like consulting or financial services companies, the people are the product.”
The simulation industry has a long way to go, though, particularly if technology-based educational initiatives are to vie with the offerings of popular mass media for users’ attention, Wexler said. “Right now, people who are using simulations, role-playing and such are probably doing it in a very basic form. They have sophisticated employees and trainees, who have a lot on their mind and a lot of competing messaging–with commercials hitting them, with the entertainment they embrace–and companies need to bust through the clutter and get them to embrace the training on the same level they embrace other messaging in their lives. It has to be robust, sophisticated and, dare I say, enjoyable.”
Still, Wexler harbors no doubts about the impending dominance of simulations in education and training. “While it’s a robust business, I think we’re at the beginning of a cycle,” he said. “We’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of how simulations will be embraced.”
Brian Summerfield is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.