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When Are Simulations Useful?

Simulation-based learning is making a comeback as an industry buzzword. Yet many learning professionals still struggle to convince their organizations to adopt simulations and game-based programs.

The industry has been unable to consistently make a compelling case for simulations because many are still unsure what kinds of learning simulations can and should support.

Simulations can affect the kind of belief change crucial to a career transition such as a leadership promotion. Under certain circumstances, simulations also can allow skill practice to take place through repetition. However, simulations can be inefficient when it comes to knowledge acquisition.

A simulation is a simplified representation of a real-world system in which learners, through trial and error, experience how the system will respond to their actions and decisions. Rather than telling learners “this is the correct way to act,” a simulation allows learners to discover a set of conditionals: “If I act in this way, I can expect these results.”

The trial and error approach is an inefficient way to acquire new facts. In a leadership development program, emerging talent may need to acquire facts ranging from HR compliance policies to financial performance metrics. Discovering these facts through trial and error likely would be time-consuming, tedious and troublesome, especially for top talent.

Simulations are better used for skill practice. They allow for repeated application and immediate, contextual feedback. Instead of evaluating the applied behavior as correct or incorrect, they simulate the real world results of the action. By practicing behaviors in this way, they become second nature and automated, which increases efficiency and effectiveness.

One of the early simulation success stories was the flight simulator. While flight simulators develop the psycho-motor skills of piloting a plane, repeated exposure to simulated adversity can advance pilots’ judgment and help them control their emotional responses.

However, leadership development involves more than the acquisition of knowledge or skills. It involves a change in belief, the acquisition of abstract critical thinking skills, and the ability to recognize patterns and a change in attitude when dealing with adversity, stress and ambiguity.

These changes in attitude and belief are difficult to bring about. When people undergo rapid belief change, it is usually in response to a serious, often catastrophic challenge to their existing beliefs. To engineer belief change through a learning experience, that experience must place the learner face-to-face with a serious challenge. This is where simulations are especially valuable: they engineer an environment in which a learner can encounter failure and then discover by trial and error a new frame of reference that allows him or her to succeed.

“I am a real fan of leveraging simulations to foster rapid, impactful and profound learning,” said Lucy Dinwiddie, global learning and executive development leader at GE Aviation. “Simulations allow learners to use data, make decisions, set strategy, see the outcomes of their actions and refine strategy iteratively. Such learning environments allow participants to hone their actions and change beliefs in profound ways.”

Rob Carroll, senior director of financial programs training at Fresenius Medical Care North America, agreed. “Simulations that create a company/industry ecosystem allow participants on the cusp of broader responsibilities to see the interplay of finance, R&D, sales and manufacturing, thereby understanding how the whole company functions, not just their piece of it.”

Learning professionals will successfully introduce simulations into their organizations when they consistently apply them to the most appropriate learning outcomes: belief and attitude change and, when time permits, skill practice, instead of trying to shoehorn them into programs that are primarily about knowledge acquisition.

Nathan Kracklauer heads the Berlin office of Enspire Learning, a technology-enabled learning experience provider. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.