“You’d rather not have people practicing on the customer,” said Roger Schank, Ph.D., chairman of e-learning provider Socratic Arts and author of “Virtual Learning: A Revolutionary Approach to Building a Highly Skilled Workforce.” He added, “In the air flight simulator, they’re not practicing on you when they take off in the 747. They practiced on a 747 simulator 100 times before they got to you.”
Instructional simulations can be defined as exercises that manufacture an environment in order to provide trainees with hands-on experiences of job-related tasks. Or, as Schank put it, “A simulation makes you feel like you’re there and you’re doing something. People learn by doing. So, the whole issue is, when you are finished with any learning experience, what have you done? What have you practiced? The key word is practice, because the only way you learn anything is by practice. You want to learn how to play the violin? You’ve got to practice. You want to learn how to drive a car? You’ve got to practice. You want to learn how to sell? You’ve got to practice.
“Education is all about practice. What happens in school is the authorities have created an arbitrary set of things to memorize, and we all know we don’t really need them, so we forget them. What happens in training is the same thing. Some of these companies are putting millions of dollars into nonsense. It’s like they’re waving a wand and saying, ‘We have training!’”
The flight simulator is just one example of a simulation. They need not be, and usually aren’t, so complex and high-tech. The appropriate simulation depends on the industry and resources of the company that is using it to deliver learning to the workforce, along with the tasks or skills being taught. Although there is a great deal of variability within simulations, they generally fit into two categories, according to Chris von Koschembahr, executive of information transformation for IBM’s IT Education Services and worldwide director of IBM’s mobile learning efforts: those that deal with soft skills, like customer service, leadership and selling skills, and those that focus on hard skills, like flying a plane or performing the steps in a manufacturing process.
Soft Skills Simulations
Soft skills simulations are associated mostly with interactions between individuals and groups, encompassing characteristics like leadership, customer service and sales aptitude. Because of the intangible and interpersonal nature of the attributes taught in these situations, many soft-skills simulations are not technology-based. In several of these programs, the most complicated pieces of equipment used are paper and pencils.
One of the most popular kinds of soft-skills simulations involves a mock business, which manufactures something like “widgets.” Within this organization, different team members are assigned to handle various management tasks. This exercise teaches trainees more than how to place an order for raw materials, devise a logistical system for product distribution or perform some other tasks they might never have to execute in real life. It demonstrates the importance of communication, initiative and teamwork to the success of a business.
Von Koschembahr said that IBM uses many different kinds of soft-skills simulations. “You can’t always have coaches and in-person training for everyone all the time,” he said. “So what we’ve built in IBM is a comprehensive library of role-playing simulations that people can go through. We call these ‘coaching simulators.’ What’s nice about it is that it’s not linear in fashion. There’s not one right answer, although our experts that have been assembled have perhaps identified the preferred path to the end goal.”
Von Koschembahr provided an example of a high-tech soft-skills managerial simulation used at IBM. “One of them has an employee walk past your office and say, ‘See you, boss. I’ll be around all weekend here at work—just wanted to let you know.’ What do you do in those cases, when someone seems to be working excessive amounts of overtime? Imagine a photograph of that employee now sitting at the desk. You begin a role-play, and they give you five choices: How should you start? Should you challenge why they’re working the weekend? Should you ask them what’s going on outside of work, perhaps? You can click on a button, and it can give you pros and cons, but in the end, you have to choose one of those five. Now, one of them is probably the best, but the other four are not wrong. There is not one right way of managing. And so when I click on one, based on which one I choose, the photograph of the employee changes expressions. It’s visual feedback with hints and tips, and it progresses in a non-linear fashion.”
Soft-skills simulations are experiential. This means that they establish particular environments with distinct rules and objectives, which are not necessarily based on reality, and then provide participants with distinct functions within those realities. The goal of the exercise is not to teach the users how to perform a specific task, but rather to ingrain them with problem-solving proficiency in a given role, whether that responsibility is managing employees, selling a product to a client or assisting a customer with a question.
“If you want to teach people to sell, you might want to have them practice on simulated customers,” Schank said. “But in that case, the customer you’re practicing on has to look and act like a customer. It can’t be some cartoon of a customer. It has to be a simulated person there, who actually reacts to what you say. The trick of any simulation is that it has to look and feel real. The less it looks and feels real, the less it’s a simulation.”
Hard Skills Simulations
Hard skills simulations tend to employ technology-based education solutions to teach users particular assignments or skills. This classification can be divided into two subsets, the first of which is the physical simulator. This frequently is a stand-alone virtual reality device that, in effect, replicates the entire work environment down to the smallest details. Physical simulators, pioneered by the U.S. military during and immediately after World War II, include driving, flight, space flight and other high-tech simulations.
The second subset is the computer-based simulation. Unlike physical simulators, which emulate the whole work milieu, computer-based simulations pertain to specific tasks or skill sets, from relatively simple duties like typing, data entry and spelling to more complex procedures such as accounting, computer programming and auto repair. Computer-based simulations allow trainees to perform certain functions over and over again, without fear of making a costly mistake. In addition, computer-based simulations–which often utilize the Web to deliver real-time, on-demand simulated learning solutions–do not have to be limited to training new employees. Veteran staff members can access the information as well, in order to learn a new skill, see if any new developments in a particular field have been made or just reacquaint themselves with a familiar procedure.
“One of our key focus areas in my part of the IBM world is training our partners and customers on IBM technical education,” said von Koschembahr, who listed WebSphere, Java and Linux as being among the hard skills taught through simulations at IBM. “Those are hard IT professional skills that are required in the marketplace. We use a tremendous amount of simulations to bridge the gap between having your hands on a machine or operating system and not having anything at all. The idea of capturing application simulations to enable people sooner and faster is a key thing.”
Hard-skills simulations typically are representative of reality. They embody an existing populace, organization or arrangement of practices, and are used to explain cause-and-effect relationships. Hard-skills simulations also help users predict the results of their actions, comprehend procedures and develop contingency plans. To this end, technology-based hard-skill simulations are governed by simulation manager software, which creates illusory environments through complex compositions of algorithms, computable sets of mathematical steps used to produce desired outcomes.
Simulations provide their users with risk-free learning environments. Concerns about hurting one’s co-workers or one’s self, as well as damaging or destroying company property, are practically nonexistent, allowing the learner to focus on absorbing the lesson at hand and applying it to a real-life situation. Users can make as many mistakes as necessary prior to getting a skill or technique down pat. Also, simulations, both high- and low-tech, often are enjoyable and comfortable settings in which participants can get better acquainted with their company and their fellow employees. This, in turn, leads to greater absorption of knowledge, said Martin Bean, chief operating officer of IT training company New Horizons Computer Learning Centers. “I believe adults learn by doing,” Bean said. “If they have fun, retention will go a lot further.”
“The key is to make you feel like you’ve entered into a brand-new situation, and you have to make a bunch of decisions,” Schank said. “The consequences of your decisions play out, you make errors and you have to recover from the errors. You have the feeling of having done it, and you put it into practice again and again until you get good at it.”
There are many other advantages of using instructional simulations to teach employees. For instance, simulations generally are far more tolerant of error–and much less intimidating–than a human instructor, reducing learner anxiety. After all, nobody enjoys having someone watching and judging their every move, disparaging them whenever they make a mistake.
A significant benefit of using technology-based simulations is that they’re especially effective in recruiting and training younger members of the workforce, who are accustomed to those platforms. Jim Wexler, Brand Games’ executive vice president of marketing, cited the U.S. Army’s use of videogame-style war simulations to boost enlistment. “They distributed [the simulations] to young people to get them to see the relevance of and get jazzed about the Army,” he said. “They had incredible success. There were about 40 million hours of interaction for the games that they distributed.”
Finally, instructional simulations often provide a smoother transition from training to actual work. Simulations usually stimulate all of the senses. As distinct individuals, different employees will learn in their own way. Some of them may learn by listening to instruction, others by watching a specific task performed and still others by performing a task themselves. A good simulation will accommodate all of these types of learners.
Like many new technologies and techniques, simulations are not without their problems. However, some of these can be dealt with through creative thinking and prioritizing.
One drawback of simulations–particularly hard-skills simulations–is the sheer cost required to develop, deliver and implement them as learning solutions because of the cutting-edge technology they use. One way to deal with the high cost is to customize simulations according to the organization’s greatest training and education needs. In other words, teach what employees absolutely must know, rather than immersing them in a complete virtual working environment. For example, it is not necessary to spend millions of dollars to generate a simulated grocery store just to show the cashier how to work the register.
Hard-skills simulations also can be difficult to bring up to date when changes in real-world tasks and skills occur. Once more, the solution here is to keep it simple when possible—the less complicated the simulation and the learning content, the better. As a rule, this will make any future changes to the simulation less frequent and less arduous.
One of the biggest problems with soft-skills simulations–non-technology-based group sessions–is that some employees might hold back in their role-playing because they cannot suspend disbelief or they don’t want to be too harsh or overbearing toward their fellow participants. Thus, they’ll give other team members the “kid-gloves” treatment when impersonating a dissatisfied customer or an angry boss. Imagine the surprise of inexperienced employees when they encounter a real dissatisfied customer or angry boss in the future.
Finally, and most importantly, hard and soft skills simulations are not a cure-all for learning and development woes. No matter how realistic or thorough, instructional simulations will always leave skill gaps. Furthermore, simulations cannot completely prepare trainees for the miscalculations, delays, bad breaks, monkey wrenches and other obstacles they inevitably will encounter on the job. The way to deal with this is to blend simulations with other learning, such as classroom-based instruction or coaching. Learning executives should never put all their eggs in the simulation basket, no matter how advanced they become.
“It’s not the same as having the machine,” von Koschembahr said. “If you only use simulations, it can be a negative. It fails if that’s their only opportunity, and they are a deeply technical person and really need to administer a machine. If you use it as you should, as a component of broader training, it’s win-win.”
When examining the universe of simulations, one has to wonder what the future holds for this highly dynamic and largely technology-driven field. Will simulations one day manufacture worlds as real as our own, so far as we can perceive it? At this juncture, it is far too early to tell. Yet one thing is for certain: Simulations are quickly becoming one of the most popular and effective learning tools for businesses of all kinds.
“I’m a huge fan of simulations,” said Bean, whose company uses simulations to teach both hard skills related to information technology and soft skills for working effectively in teams. “Simulations and instructional gaming are where the learning and development industry needs to be.”
It is not unreasonable to predict that in just a few years, almost everyone who goes into a new job might train on a simulation of some kind. If there’s a skill to be taught, you can bet someone will develop an instructional simulation for it.
Brian Summerfield is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.