“This is the construct. It’s our loading program. We can load anything from clothing, to equipment, weapons, training simulations…anything we need.”
–Lawrence Fishburne as Morpheus in “The Matrix”
With technology advancing so rapidly, online learning practices are embracing more interactive, immersive and effective learning methods. More importantly, as technology becomes more widespread, adoption becomes smarter, and we learn how to use it to achieve specific results. While the use of technology-enabled simulations and games for corporate and government learning is still not the norm, many organizations are learning how to use simulation technologies to reach new levels of effectiveness for a wider population. By providing engaging and challenging surroundings—virtual or real-world—for learning and applying new skills, simulations and games enable learners to add context to new techniques and practice them in a risk-free environment.
An Integrated Learning Process
A fully integrated learning system leads the learner through a process familiar to all of us: build awareness, teach, provide an opportunity to practice, prepare for on-the-job application and finally, sustain, sustain and sustain more.
The end goal of any learning experience is appropriate and effective on-the-job application. Pave the way for learners to apply, and you’ll see results. Unfortunately, transferring skills from the Web or classroom to the real world can be next to impossible without a systematic and careful transition plan. Effective learning design should bridge that “application gap,” through which countless learners fall. In some cases, the application gap is bridged intuitively or with minimal effort. However, in every case, the goal is for learners to hit the application stage running, and to prevent “business as usual” by providing the ongoing reinforcement, coaching and tools to help improve application of their newfound skills.
This transition to application—bridging the application gap—is composed of two principles, which may run concurrently or independently depending on the need: establish context and practice. Most often, they operate as a single mechanism: contextualized practice.
First, create a context in which the learning will actually be used. For instance, I know that rubbing two sticks together will create fire. But if I were stranded on a deserted island, I can assure you that I’d be looking for some matches. Likewise, if as a new manager I attended a management class to strengthen my skills, and one week later was managing employees, I’d be looking for a refund. We’re all familiar with this concept—we use it every day. Put yourself in somebody’s shoes: your significant other, your employees, your manager. Context adds meaning and takes us one step closer to application.
Then we practice. It’s cliché, but practice does make perfect. And any employee is sure to get plenty of practice in the real world. However, until some future time when that employee becomes fully competent through practice, the downside is much greater than an individual developmental gap: patients can die, planes can crash and organizations can (and do) suffer tremendous losses. Nobody would allow a doctor to perform surgery who had not practiced in a safe, low-risk environment first. Want to fly a commercial jet? Thousands of hours in a flight-simulator are required.
Contextualized practice transitions learners through the application gap. Varying levels and strategies are appropriate for different skills, but as we wonder why learning doesn’t always stick—why so much experience is required in order to develop a complicated skill like leadership—we also must wonder why managers shouldn’t also be learning on cadavers.
Determining how the application gap will be traversed entails many factors: cost, time, audience, confidence level, etc. Take the deserted island example, where a learner has been provided the concept (fire), tools (sticks) and a coach (matches). That might work well for 1 percent of an organization, but larger groups may want to use classroom simulations or games, online simulations or a combination (e.g., in modern medical training, where simulations and heavily applied coaching are used together).
Types of Simulations
Simulations may be played on a board, acted out in a classroom or run on a computer. On a tactical level, the objective is to show the learner how effective their decisions are and what would have happened had the situation been real. There is more than enough data and expertise to support all types in all situations, but there is only one true measure of value: effectiveness at bridging the application gap. Translated to business, that means: Do fewer people die? Are there fewer accidents? Do you meet your quarterly objectives? Are employees sticking around?
Types of simulations can be dissected in terms of two general constructs: content and emotional engagement. The content construct can be broken down into two general categories: Stage I simulations, which involve hard, cognitive and personal skills (i.e., learning to read, operating a car, etc.), and Stage II simulations, the overarching goal of changing complicated, interconnected behaviors that live and breathe in a variety of contexts and personal points-of-view. Stage I and Stage II simulations interplay with the other construct, emotional engagement, which is affected depending on the simulation’s need for experimentation or realism. (See Figure 1.) The motivation for Stage I simulations generally includes psychological gaming triggers, such as scoring, environment size and competition. In Stage II simulations, emotional buy-in often becomes more critical to add context to the learning and move it closer to application in diverse and complicated environments. However, there are many cases where experimentation needs to be encouraged in Stage II simulations, and powerful emotional buy-in may hinder a learner from truly experimenting.
Professional flight simulators provide an example of a Stage I simulation with some but not prominent emotional investment. Flying (the mechanics of it, anyway) is a skill set best taught in a low-dependency, gaming-style environment. Scenarios may complement the environment and create emotional ties, but hours of practicing, building confidence and learning important context elements such as wind effects, broken equipment and adverse conditions is the goal.
Stage II simulations are game-like and immersive, and offer the participants important feedback about their performance, but there is more to it than that. For most Stage II simulations to be effective, there must be a significant emotional tie-in for the learner. To achieve this, Stage II simulations require the same elements life brings: choice, drama, conflict, resolution and a sense of accomplishment. Flight simulators offer some emotional involvement, but unless there is a manufactured crisis during the simulation, things go rather smoothly. In contrast, Stage II simulations for business should offer a selection of choices that enable the learner to “feel” the impact of his or her actions, and those choices’ lasting effects.
Think again about the flight simulator. It’s instructive and offers immense opportunity to practice (or play), but when the plane crashes, you simply try again. Competitive and survival instincts make you want to succeed, but there are few if any interconnections with others. But when you’re watching a movie, you want to jump into the screen and change some action to affect the plot. You laugh. You cry. You’re invested. The movie has created an emotional contract between you and the characters, not unlike the contract an employee makes with his or her classmates in a classroom simulation. It’s not a video game—it’s people you care about.
Above all, simulations must challenge the participant. At the conclusion of a simulation, the learners should not want it to end. They should want to continue and improve their performance. It is through these virtual experiences that learners can safely make mistakes while applying skills, all while engaged in a situation that mimics real life.
Simulations for Business
Regardless of the stage, simulations do not work in all business training situations, and it is crucial to properly identify the best way to bridge the application gap to reach your desired outcomes (or on-the-job outcomes). Executed well, simulations and games yield huge benefits and rewards across the organization: productivity gains, management effectiveness, corporate loyalty, team building, employee effectiveness and much more. Additionally, as on-the-job results are measured, a properly executed simulation within the right program may prove faster and more cost-effective than other forms of education and training.
We’ve known this forever. Classrooms are full of role-playing, business simulation and practice. As more training shifts to the online world, how has something as complex as role-playing a performance review in the classroom (a true simulation) transformed itself into a set of text questions in a Web browser? Text questions and quizzes are not simulations—there are no emotional ties, no thrills of success and no challenges. That employee will learn to apply what they have learned only through the experience of doing and failing in your organization.
When deciding on a simulation or game for business, there are many variables to consider. Prior to committing to the concept, the organization must ask itself:
Why do we need a simulation or game, and how does it fit into the overall program structure?
How and where are we providing context and practice?
What resources will be available to the learner?
How many people will be using it?
What’s the necessary complexity?
Is this an individual or interconnected skill?
Do we want to encourage exploration and experimentation or encourage simulated success?
How will we measure success and impact after the simulation has concluded?
Based on the answers to these questions, the organization should have enough information to know what stage simulation is needed and how it will be implemented. The next challenge is to define the simulation itself and how it will be organized. There are some best practices top-performing organizations have utilized when designing and successfully deploying simulations:
Business focus: There are a number of different simulations and games—both custom and off-the-shelf—that imitate business, but are not business. Learners will have a challenging time relating to a simulation on igloo manufacturing if they are line managers at a software development company.
Content and complexity: Whether virtual or real-world, the design and flow of the game or simulation is critical to its success. The content should be engaging and filled with energy and should encompass a high percentage of interactivity and learner involvement. For the complexity of the simulation, less can be more. The learner’s choices should reflect the same decisions faced in the business environment.
Motivate learners: Not all groups embrace simulations as readily as others. It’s important to investigate and test the concept. Personal motivation affects the amount of time that people are willing to devote to a simulation. Corporate learners are more motivated when they can see and “feel” the usefulness of what they are learning in the simulation. In addition to their personal success, corporate learners deeply care about their actions’ impact on others.
Recognize that time is a factor: In all domains of learning, the development of expertise occurs only with investments of time. A simulation itself is not the “be-all, end-all” solution for rapid development. Deploying a simulation is a huge advantage to the learner, but it will need to be capitalized on with reinforcement tools and techniques.
Leverage technology: In addition to board- and real-world-based simulations, a number of solutions go far beyond the generic “point-and-click” mode of online simulations. The decision/choice trees grow exponentially as the learner moves through the simulation. Additionally, the cost savings and scalability realized when deploying an online simulation is formidable.
Most organizational learning might not include flying planes or performing surgery, but real people are involved and those people affect an organization’s profits and losses. Simulations and games allow learners to learn and apply experientially and see in real time what their choices are doing—both positive and negative. Moreover, both enable learners at all levels to experiment on newly learned techniques in a safe environment without the detrimental effects of making mistakes in real life.
Learners can interact with all types of technology-enhanced simulations, and for “interconnected” leadership skills, the ideal way to prepare a user is through strong, well-designed, character-driven, video-based simulations. As the learners’ attachment to the characters grows—and they see faces change and body language adjust and hear words spoken—the learners internalize. They understand. They apply.
The concept of simulating life and business is not new. However, innovative learning techniques—interactive video, real-world games and more—abound and are rapidly being adopted by today’s successful organizations. Corporate training and education departments that are looking to revamp and extend their initiatives should take a serious,fresh look at interactive gaming and simulations for their organizations, their training ROI and their employees’ productivity.
Adam Nelson, vice president of technology and product development for Ninth House, designed the company’s product and service architecture, multimedia courses and product administration, and oversees all technical services, field engineering and customer support. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.