There's no doubt that simulation is a hot topic for leading learning executives, but as the use of these dynamic tools grows, how will they change? Will we eventually see a Star Trek Holodeck-like environment, where entire worlds are re-created for learners to interact with their working environments?
The Next Level of Technology
“As a category, simulations are limited only by technology,” said Jeff Snipes, president and founder of Ninth House. “The Holodeck is the holy grail.” Because of budget and technology restraints, many organizations have lowered their expectations of what simulations should be, and the benefits decrease as a result. “They often think of simulations the way they think of e-learning, an HTML-based click-and-walk-through kind of business simulation,” Snipes said. “A lot of simulations I've seen aren't behaviorally based, which is a real disappointment.”
Unless learners need to build new behaviors, simulations may not be the right choice for learning investments. “If what you're trying to do is impart knowledge or low-level skill-building, learning can be delivered as a word problem,” explained Eren Rosenfeld, general manager of performance simulations for Accenture, which developed its first simulations to train its own internal workforce. “Simulation, once you're there, is like “The Truman Show”,it's powerful and effective, but you don't want to use it where you don't need it.”
Fortunately, as technology becomes more sophisticated, simulations can take advantage of that progress and become more sophisticated as well. “Learners are going to see a lot more advanced, video-based simulations where you're running behavioral scenarios and practicing your techniques,” Snipes said.
Chris Musselwhite, Ed.D., president and CEO of Discovery Learning, said he is seeing more sophistication around simulations. “It used to be a simulation was a simulation, but I think there's a little more sophistication in terms of the quality, complexity and understanding of which simulations meet which needs,” he said.
The Next Level of Learner Expectation
Simulations will have to become more sophisticated and will be adopted more widely to support the newest learners who enter the workforce, many of whom have been raised with the Internet and videogames. 'Learners' expectations are changing,” Rosenfeld said. “In training, you have to give the people what they want. When you talk to a workforce in their early 20s, they've grown up with the Internet. They have new expectations, and we're going to meet those.”
The next-generation learner expects more from learning than classroom lectures and PowerPoint presentations. They expect high levels of fidelity and complex technological interactions. “The audience expectation is changing tremendously,” Rosenfeld said. “Expectations about fidelity and being able to find the exact piece I need are going up. People expect things to be more individualized. I think we're going to have learner expectations continuing to increase as everything moves forward in terms of the Internet and technology. Simulation is well-suited to that because it's the high-end whiz-bang of learning.” She added, “The reality is that the expectations of this new workforce are going to be pretty serious in terms of fidelity of experience. If you're just going to talk to them with PowerPoint for a few days, that's not going to fly.”
Simulations can help build the fidelity of the learning experience to real-world job environments. “We have a real vision to put the learner into the middle of the learning and wrap the learning around them, which is different from classroom or e-learning,” said Snipes. “Even instructor-led training is generally one-dimensional. The group may talk, but you can't step them out of the class and go to the factory and put their hands on the equipment. With the way we approach interactive video, you can do that. If you work on a cruise ship or manage a hotel, I can put you on the ship or in the hotel you're running. You're immediately in the middle of this movie.”
Many simulations on the market today do not deliver this real-world experience, only imparting cognitive skills and not contextualized, behavior-based learning. “They're simply teaching you how things work in a different way, but not letting you practice,” Snipes said. “If you can let the individual learner practice and put the controls in their hands, you're going to dramatically speed up the learning. A cognitive business simulation is a screen saying my price per unit, my output, my labor cost, and I can tweak the variables and see what the output is of my actions. It's a good way to teach business acumen, but it's not realistic because no one in the organization has power over all of those elements. It teaches understanding of how the business works, but it's not going to change your skill set or behavior.”
High-value simulations will teach the pilot how to fly, the manager how to manage, the leader how to lead. “They put the learners in a business context and let them run,” Snipes said. “They can interact with personalities, can see facial expressions, can make decisions, hire people, fire people, and the business is going to prosper of fail based on their feedback. I think the breakthrough is that it takes simulations to a level of behavioral change as opposed to knowledge transfer. We put learners in the cockpit as the leader of the organization.”
The Next Level of Granularity
Simulations are generally large, long experiences that teach a behavior from one end to the other, but this is changing, according to Rosenfeld. Simulations have often been blended with other learning formats, but that blend is becoming more granular as simulations are built out into shorter chunks of learning. “Back in the '90s, simulations were large, more than 10 hours long end-to-end experiences,” Rosenfeld said. “They were still blended, so you had capstone classes or virtual classes, but what we're finding now is much smaller simulations in terms of seat time. The old courses were 40-plus hours. You could still take 20 minutes at a time, but it all hung together as one course. Now, we're finding five hours or less, very targeted, even more of a blended learning solution. It's compelling, realistic, looks and feels like real work. We're still seeing the same benefits, but they're much more focused applications inside of that blended solution.”
For example, an employee might log onto a simulation before doing a performance review on the proper methods and best practices, Snipes said. “How many times have you been in a meeting where you made a decision that you wish you could take back?” he asked. By providing shorter, targeted learning-object-like simulations, organizations can help employees learn to make better decisions, just in time.
Tata Interactive is another simulation vendor that has broken simulated learning into chunks. Its SimBLs, or Simulation-Based Learning Objects, are “interactive, self-contained chunks of learning content.” Tata serves clients like McGraw-Hill, American Airlines, GlaxoSmithKline and BP-Amoco, and its simulation learning objects can be used alone or in combination with other types of learning, even as assessment tools.
The Next Level of Accountability
Ultimately, if the value of simulations cannot be measured and if the learning cannot be proved effective, investments in this type of training will not deliver expected returns. However, simulations generally deliver excellent metrics. “The name of the game here is business results,” Rosenfeld said. “Let's say you have a new strategy or you're missing a goal. You look at your workforce's needs and then try to wrap learning around those needs. You have to look holistically, and you may find that you have a workforce that needs to change a behavior. That's where simulation is best.”
The benefits are twofold: The business benefits from better prepared employees, and the employees benefit by being able to understand and perform better, bringing better compensation and increased job satisfaction. “You're building awareness from a strategic business standpoint,” Rosenfeld said. “The employees understand cause and effect between their actions and how they affect the business, and from a personal perspective, how it affects their own compensation. It's very compelling. It then echoes those metrics back to me, when I do this, here's the outcome, and what it means to me personally and what it means to the business. I get to really play the game, where I see my scoreboard of success moving, it's very important from an outcome standpoint.”
Learning executives will increasingly expect metrics to be a part of simulations, Musselwhite said. “Simulations really work well when they have measurable outcomes,” he explained. “When it's over, there's some metric that can be measured. For example, with Press Time (a simulation offered by Discovery Learning), you're trying to get a product to market. At the end, you either do or don't achieve the results. There's a measurable outcome, which leads to being able to have norms.”
These norms allow teams to compare their performance with that of the other teams. In addition, as more organizations use the simulations, additional metrics are built in so that teams can compare their own performance with that of other teams at other organizations, both within their own industry and with teams at large, Musselwhite said.
“It is so critical,” Musselwhite said. “The minute they realize there's something that can be measured and that it's being compared to other people, they kick into overdrive. They take it much more seriously. There's something about this whole issue around how we learn that has to do with what we measure. The more we're able to measure it, the more we can think about how we change that behavior and make it better, and measure it again, that cycle tends to be a very rich learning cycle.”
The Next Level of Growth
According to Musselwhite, the interest in simulations is growing as people realize that some of the quicker and easier types of learning don't deliver the interaction and results that are needed in large organizations. “I think there's a growing interest in simulations because there's been a realization that some of the quicker, easier things that could be done don't meet the needs around interaction, decision-making, problem-solving and how we work together as a team,” he said. “The quicker-to-access online learning modules just don't address that.”
“I believe that simulations are the trends, and you're going to see a lot more over the next four or five years because inherently, they are the embodiment of the best way to teach,” Snipes said.
Rosenfeld agreed, saying the adoption rate will continue to increase. She added, “I think we'll see technologies emerge that we haven't even thought of yet. I think we'll be afforded new things. Right now, there are some environments where it's hard to deliver simulations. Some basic infrastructure issues limit what we can do. With video and audio capabilities, the fidelity will increase, but the size will remain small. And as learning objects go, things will continue to get smaller, continue to be just in time. Think of who's in school now, 10 years from now, it's going to be all new expectations. It's hard to anticipate what that will be like.”
Is the next level of growth for simulations a Holodeck-like environment where learner can interact with simulated characters, environments and equipment? Only time can tell, but learning executives are poised to boldly take learning where no one has gone before.
Emily Hollis is managing editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.