Training Games

Simulations teach employees under real-life conditions—without real-world consequences.

By Dave Zielinski Mar 1, 2010
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0310cover.jpgA growing number of employees are using online simulations to role-play challenging scenarios, practice job skills and attend virtual meetings by logging on to web sites. In some cases, simulations in virtual worlds save companies huge sums that would have been spent trying to re-create job conditions in the real world.

Doctors in training can treat "patients" rushed to a virtual emergency room, and if they inadvertently "kill" a patient by failing to check for allergies to medications before making treatment decisions, there is no real-world fallout or malpractice suit. Information technology employees can build virtual models of computer hardware that let them "walk" along data flow pathways. Call center workers can engage an irate major customer in a virtual 3-D simulation, and if they fail to choose the right soothing words or actions, the shame of losing a multimillion-dollar account will be experienced only virtually.

The ability to re-create real-life conditions and keep learners engaged in ways that traditional "telling-based" training can’t match has made simulation technologies and game-based learning attractive options for human resource leaders. The rise of 3-D technologies and affordable virtual learning spaces—with interactive avatars that allow learners to create a sense of presence online—fuel that interest.

Well-designed simulations allow employees to improvise better in the real world and deal with ambiguous or unpredictable situations. These aptitudes and skills aren’t often developed by classroom- or book-based instruction, learning executives say.

"Simulation technologies enable you to put people in precarious or highly challenging real-world situations and allow them to make mistakes and take corrective actions in safe environments," explains Karie Willyerd, chief learning officer for Sun Microsystems in Santa Clara, Calif.

There’s also a belief that reality-based learning creates a more lasting impact on participants. "It’s like telling your kids not to speed vs. them getting into an accident because they are driving too fast," says Clark Aldrich, an independent simulation designer and author of The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games (Pfeiffer, 2009). "The latter type of learning stays with people longer and creates greater conviction about the training exercise, which is the strength of good simulations."

Going Virtual

3-D technologies are enabling organizations to stage learning events without far-flung employees ever having to board a plane. To save on travel costs, Sodexo Inc., a food service and facilities management company in Gaithersburg, Md., held its annual diversity inclusion conference in a virtual setting rather than ask 450 employees to travel to Sodexo Group headquarters in Paris, as they had in the past.

Sodexo chose an easy-to-learn platform from Unisfair, a provider of virtual events headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif., according to Betsy Silva, Sodexo’s senior director of diversity learning. Attendees logged on to a web site, heard prerecorded opening remarks from the head of Sodexo France, and, much as they would at an in-person conference, moved about using avatar-like images to listen to live presentations and panel discussions, visit exhibits, and participate in chat room discussions and networking events. An "interactive theater" enabled participants to watch actors role-playing workplace diversity scenarios.

Silva says holding the event virtually saved about $1.8 million in travel-related costs and the equivalent of 900 workdays. The conference was so successful that the 2010 version will also be held in a virtual setting.

But Silva stresses that virtual conferences need at least as much rigorous planning as do in-the-flesh counterparts. "Be very strategic in how you position the presenters, the materials, the chat rooms and networking options," she says. And, first-time users of virtual platforms should have an experienced user walk them through all of the features, rather than just relying on online tutorials.

Learning for Leaders

When it comes to teaching managers new strategies or preparing them for expanded leadership roles, simulation continues to be a favored approach. But while there’s a high "wow" factor in staging simulations in 3-D virtual worlds, some trainers believe that the biggest bang for the training dollar still comes from runningsimulations the old-fashioned way—with direct human contact and real human interplay.

When Accenture, the Dublin, Ireland-based consulting and outsourcing business, was transitioning from a fragmented private company to a consolidated public organization, executives sought a way to teach senior managers about leading in a newly configured, centralized business. They contracted with BTS, a provider of custom business simulations based in Stockholm, Sweden, to build a simulation that would help leaders in HR, finance, legal, marketing and other units make the types of decisions that supported the new strategy.

Building Soft Skills in Simulations

At ConAgra Foods, simulation is viewed as a premier way to promote strategic thinking in newly minted vice presidents. The Omaha, Neb.-based company uses a simulation called The Executive Challenge, designed and facilitated by Enspire Learning Inc., an Austin, Texas-based learning solutions provider, as the culminating activity after eight days of leadership training.

But there’s also important peripheral value to the simulation: teaching teamwork and high-level interpersonal skills.

Participants run a simulated business modeled on ConAgra and rotate through roles including sales and marketing, research and development (R&D), and finance. Teams compete for business and market share. Each participant contributes by making decisions and completing tasks, says Robbie Rettmer, senior director of leadership development.

"The stakes are high in the game, because if you are in that R&D role, for example, and you’re not communicating well with your cross-functional peers, there will be negative fallout for your team," Rettmer says.

At the conclusion of the simulation, ConAgra senior executives determine a winner, a decision made not just on financial measures such as net profit or market capitalization, but also on factors that gauge teamwork skills. "How well the business teams work and make decisions together weighs heavily into that final decision," Rettmer says.

In the simulation, managers run a "mini-Accenture" business, working in five teams that compete against one another. During a week of classroom activity, the exercise requires managers to make the same decisions around business development, recruiting, marketing and compensation that they would in the real world, says Amanda Lutz, enterprise capability development director for Accenture.

Acting in the role of chief executive officer or chief financial officer requires managers to think holistically and weigh the impact of their decisions across the organization. "If they decide to pay some of their key people 10 percent more in the simulation, they see that it costs 10 percent more to run the business," Lutz says.

Teams compete for business; at the end of a simulated first year, they submit all management decisions to a review board. Simulations are only as effective as the quality of feedback participants receive before, during and after the exercise, Lutz says, a fact that more HR leaders are acknowledging as they ask senior executives to serve as coaches to trainees while they work through simulation scenarios.

Game-based learning can reveal qualities in employees that might otherwise go undiscovered, says Gary Woodill, director of research and analysis for Brandon Hall Research, a training industry research firm in Sunnyvale, Calif. "People who are shy or who you don’t normally perceive as having leadership traits sometimes emerge as leaders in virtual-world simulations and games," says Woodill, who conducted a study on how 16 organizations use games for training. He found that executives are beginning to use games to see if people have leadership skills when they are asked to lead a group in simulated scenarios.

Games for New Hires

Companies are employing iterations of "serious" games to make learning more engaging and effective for employees, particularly members of Generations X and Y who were weaned on high-action video games.

At Sun Microsystems, two games have proved successful for new-employee orientation and recruiting. Rise of the Shadow SpectersandDawn of the Shadow Specters were co-developed with a vendor and set in an alternative universe with elements of fantasy and science fiction.

Set on the planet "Solaris," home to a society based on Sun’s core values, the games feature groups of "lost colonists" who settle the world after spending centuries wandering through space. To ensure that people wouldn’t get lost again, the colonists made it their goal to create a network of information available to the entire universe; Sun exists in the game as the company that founded the network. "Shadow specters" threaten the world, and the task of saving Solaris falls to players.

The games, which cost $100,000 combined to develop, are designed to teach new hires the company structure, strategy and history; to make them feel welcome and integrated into Sun’s culture; and to portray the company as an innovative enterprise with strong values, says Sun’s Willyerd.

The games make "what otherwise might be dry material more palatable and exciting," she says. "By using a discovery learning mode and enabling people to move to higher levels and compete against each other in the game, we found the ‘edutainment’ concept to be valuable not only in keeping people engaged but in creating a high level of learning retention."

Sun created two versions to accommodate employees with varying computer capabilities and tastes. One is driven by a story line, and the other by arcade-like video game action. The initial Rise of the Shadow Specters requires the most recent version of a Flash web player and a high-speed Internet connection. Dawn of the Shadow Spectersis more text-based and appeals to a different type of gamer—players cannot die, there are no villains to sidestep, and high-action competitive elements that some find stressful were eliminated.

Cost Considerations

If there’s a perceived drawback to simulations, it’s their high cost relative to other training options. Indeed, even when partnering with vendors, there’s usually a significant upfront time investment to ensure that you build a simulation that closely mirrors real work scenarios and features sound instructional design. But experts say advancing technologies continue to create more affordable options.

"How much you spend on simulations also depends on your production values and desire for complexity. When people ask me about simulation costs, I usually say, ‘Do you want the wedding video or the "Titanic"?’ You can create effective simulations at many different levels," Woodill says.

Constructing simulations in virtual worlds such as Second Life often costs less compared with real-life training. Some oil companies, for example, build simulated facilities in the virtual world that teach employees to walk on and operate oil platforms and react to virtual "fires" that force them to locate lifeboats and leave the platform quickly and safely. Hospitals have built virtual-world simulations to mimic large-scale emergencies and epidemics.

"Second Life can be cost-effective because you can build simulations, islands and avatars yourself using tools in the platform," says Margaret Regan, president and CEO of the Future Work Institute, a global consulting firm in Brooklyn, N.Y. Once you’ve built a simulation in a virtual space, the costs of training additional people on that platform are often small.

Costs aside, simulations—be they conducted via single-player e-learning scenarios, in 3-D virtual worlds or in throwback classroom settings—remain a favored tool of learning executives because of the strong return on investment. Payoffs from building these fertile learning laboratories are measured in myriad ways, from improved grasp of corporate strategy to enhanced trouble-shooting skills to painting companies in a favorable light with high-potential employees.

Lutz follows up with managers three to six months after they’ve completed Accenture’s simulation to gauge how they’re putting learned skills into practice. While she doesn’t have hard quantitative data, she says anecdotes are routinely encouraging.

"One manager reported that as a result of knowledge gained in the simulation, he fought and challenged a specific financial transaction, and together with our tax department was able to save the company $1.2 million," Lutz says.

The author is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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