posted 10 Jun 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 9
The rules of the game
At the end of March earlier this year, Ark Group hosted its first conference on the value of business simulations in an organisational context. Eilif Trondsen, chairman at the event, shares his thoughts on the key learnings delegates and presenters were able to take away, having heard from the likes of BT, Pfizer, KLM, Orange and the London Business School.
A friend who is quite active on the conference circuit once made the comment that if you gain just a few new insights during a conference, you are doing well. This may be overly cynical, however, as I think one can, and should be able to, do far better with a little extra effort. By reflecting on what one hears – both from the presenters and the other attendees – and combining this with one’s own contextual reflections, you should be able to make conference attendance a part of your learning journey.
I was looking forward to chairing Ark Group’s Business Simulations conference, because it is a subject that has intrigued me for a number of years. I am, though, still trying to figure out how quickly simulations will gain a significant role in the emerging e-learning landscape. Most analysts seem to agree that simulations have huge potential. But in common with many aspects of e-learning, particularly over the past two or three years, the acceptance and use of simulations has lagged behind expectations. This comment may also apply to business games, as many commentators and analysts often talk of games and simulations (G&S) collectively, even though games don’t necessarily involve simulations. This conference had a number of sessions that focused on games, and for sake of simplicity, I will use the term G&S to describe the topic as a whole throughout this article. In this brief write-up I will summarise what I learnt and the insights I gained over the course of the event.
The magic is in the blend
During the most intense period of e-learning hype, during the dotcom boom years, there was little talk about blended or hybrid learning solutions. Even if most analysts probably recognised that instructor-led training (ILT) or classroom-based learning would not disappear any time soon, most focused on pure e-learning. Today, however, in a time of greater realism and less hype, there is a stronger focus on what the mix of e-learning and ILT should be and what factors determine the optimal blend.
The situation seems similar in the world of G&S. Some of the most successful simulations-based e-learning companies, such as London-based Imparta, whose CEO, Richard Barkey, presented at the conference, have recognised that a good mix of simulations-based e-learning and instructor or coach-based workshops seems to work best, at least for the majority of audiences. This would no doubt be particularly appropriate for learners who are uncomfortable with and/or relatively new to the world of information technology. It is important to recognise that many different learning styles and preferences exist among a company’s employees. Allowing for this diversity in learning environments is important and will yield higher participation, fewer drop-outs and greater overall success.
Conventional tools and training are no longer enough
Kim Warren of London Business School kicked off the conference by demonstrating how simulations could be used to great effect in business to overcome some of the serious failings of current practices. Through a number of examples, he showed the serious problems we have with poor managerial understanding of today’s complexity and uncertainty in business, and argued that simulations should be added to business-school curricula. While Harvard Business School and other universities have used the case-study approach with great success, Warren said we must now recognise the limitations of this approach. It is, he said, too static and does not allow dynamic ‘what-if’ analyses that can test alternative assumptions and scenarios, which are so important to developing a better understanding of the complex relationships that drive today’s businesses.
Many, but not all, learners enjoy games, and the engagement and interactivity that often come with a well designed game. It is not difficult to understand why games, often involving competing teams, are becoming so popular in both educational and corporate learning environments. At the conference, John Castledine of Pfizer Research University clearly demonstrated the wide range of gaming/simulation approaches currently available. Castledine discussed the concept of the learning organisation in the context of his own company. Pfizer’s strategy for learning and creating knowledge illustrates how games and simulations can play an important part in teaching the principles (including high uncertainties and risks) of the drug-discovery process.
There was one note of caution, however. It is imperative that your learners’ expectations about what they can learn from games and simulations – and what they should not expect from them – are carefully managed. Consumer electronic-game makers, such as Electronic Arts, spend tens or hundreds of millions of pounds on highly realistic, very graphic-intensive and ‘high twitch’ gaming environments that no learning games or simulations can hope to match. Such resources do not exist in the learning-games industry (and perhaps never will). If you don’t tune expectations properly, learners may get turned off from the start.
A bridge between disparate knowledge-based fields and domains
Important domains of business and learning, for instance KM, e-learning, and the concept of the learning organisation (LO), could benefit significantly from increased connectivity and overlap. While many e-learning analysts predict a convergence between their field and that of KM, relatively little analytical work has been done to demonstrate how this convergence will take place. However, in his keynote presentation, Jan Klabbers, from KMPC in the Netherlands and the University of Bergen, described and contrasted KM and the concept of the learning organisation. In addition, he presented conceptual frameworks for understanding the linkages between knowledge and games. He argued that games (which could involve simulation) could help bridge the gap between the two fields. Furthermore, he maintained that games help managers learn to deal with the interrelationships between explicit and tacit knowing, which is an important and complex issue of learning and knowledge transfer in business.
Klabbers, who teaches game-based learning and game design at the department of information science at the University of Bergen, argued that gaming could help break down the distinct language barriers that exist between the KM and LO practitioners. If games can play even a small role in helping to deliver a degree of convergence between KM and LOs –perhaps also incorporating e-learning – the impact and benefits would be significant, and would help unite some very large communities of practitioners that are all concerned with improving corporate performance. Since e-learning, the learning organisation and KM have their own (overlapping) tools and technologies, being able to integrate these could also have dramatic benefits from an enterprise-applications perspective.
Simulations as next-generation e-learning
Although reliable statistics on the sale or use of simulations – even for the key markets of North America and Europe – are hard to come by, there is general consensus that interest in the use of simulations is growing steadily. During the conference, Graham Courtney of the US simulations-based e-learning company Simulearn argued strongly that traditional e-learning has failed and that simulations would come to the rescue and create the foundation for next-generation e-learning. Both Courtney and Imparta’s Barkey argued that ‘super-real’ simulations-based products, which both companies produce, would play a growing role in e-learning.
However, so far, relatively few simulations-based e-learning companies have gained the kind of traction that many analysts had expected. Imparta and San Francisco-based Forio may be among the relatively few that are experiencing a reasonable level of success. The difficult situation could of course be explained by current economic circumstances, in which few training departments feel they can afford to purchase simulations. Today, perceptions of high costs – well founded or not – have no doubt kept the demand for simulations relatively low, unless of course you are part of the US military, which has a huge budget for simulation-based learning. Many relatively simple simulations probably do not have to be very expensive, although Barkey noted that simulation-based products typically run at around £100-150 per hour, compared to £10-20 for more traditional e-learning content.
Effective, credible marketing is still a key success factor
There is an argument to suggest that we have not created sufficiently credible and in-depth case studies to illustrate the benefits gained through G&S-based tools to help solve specific business problems. We are certainly seeing a growing number of presentations at e-learning conferences discussing business-alignment issues, and how e-learning should not be seen as an alternative form of training, but rather as an effective tool for tackling business problems, for example getting products to market faster or increasing productivity among sales staff.
The case study with the most detailed analysis of metrics and benefits was presented by Simon Cavill from BT. The company used simulations with great success as it moved from delivering traditional telecommunications products to internet-based customer solutions. Results from its eXperience programme, which consisted of a number of different employee groups and a careful, phased approach to learning, measured the results in terms of value (sales productivity and customer satisfaction) as well as in speed (time to market). More in-depth case studies of this kind that lay out not only the business problems solved but also the metrics involved in costs and benefits would no doubt be well received by potential users of e-learning and G&S. Admittedly, many users may not be willing to reveal such details, but the BT case shows that there are those that are willing to share lessons learnt, especially if they are already well beyond the initial implementation phase of their G&S-based project. It is companies like BT that can demonstrate what next-generation learning systems and processes will really look like in practice.
Eilif Trondsen is director, Learning on Demand programme, at SRI Consulting Business Intelligence. He can be contacted at email@example.com