I’m a big fan of the use of simulations for learning and performance improvement. Rather than simply communicating concepts in a lecture style format, simulations allow participants to immerse themselves in learning-by-doing experience that closely replicates reality.

These kinds of simulations can entail board-based games, role plays, computer based activities (single or multi-player) or full-scale experiences with thousands (literally) of participants that stretch over several weeks.

Whatever their shape, simulations bring ideas to life that would otherwise remain dry and abstract concepts.

Here are five powerful applications of simulations, and what was gained from their use.

1. War gaming: military simulations
It was the military who first used simulations for learning a long time ago, and it’s the military which uses them most extensively. The largest and most intensive type of simulation-based learning I have come across are those run by the US Army run over a two-week period involving units each of 3,000 to 4,000 people going head to head in simulated combat for 18 hours per day on 650,000 acres at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert.

Laser-based technology tracks when weapons are fired, and disables units when they are ‘hit’. Video cameras zoom in on hotspots, and audio tapes record communication over the voice network.

A Harvard Business Review article that described this training observed that the training is sufficiently remarkable that it has been studied by companies such as Shell, Sears, Motorola and General Electric.

What was gained?
Combined with the critical After Action Reviews (AARs) which are non-hierarchical debriefs, and the involvement of 600 observer/controllers, this kind of training is widely recognised to have almost single-handedly transformed the US army. As one officer put it: “day after day you are confronted with the hard evidence of discrepancies between intentions and faulty execution, between what you wanted the enemy to do and what he actually did.”

And in the words of Brigadier General William S. Wallace: “it has taught us never to become too wedded to our script for combat and to remain versatile enough to exploit the broken plays that inevitably develop in the confusion of battle.”

2. Pilots in emergency situations: flight simulators
High-fidelity flight simulators – the most easily recognised form of simulation – are used for training flight crews, where they face instrument malfunctions and other unexpected events. Similar types of simulators are used as learning devices in other forms of transport, such as trains.

What was gained?
For airlines, simulations provide skills in how to handle emergencies. Interestingly, crew members in these simulated emergency situations are required to coordinate their actions, so there is implicit team-building that occurs as part of the simulation. Simulations teach train drivers how to operate new models of train and utilise their extra features, compressing the learning curve and reducing driver error.

3. Running a theme park: computer games
Another technology-based simulation for learning … computer games – the quintessential form of preoccupation for this generation – have some powerful learning applications. Prominent among these are the Tycoon series, which include Monopoly Tycoon, Railroad Tycoon and RollerCoaster Tycoon, and the Sim series including titles such as SimCity and SimFarm. In these games you learn how to set prices, allocate funds, put on or lay off staff, construct buildings and bid for assets. They can be played alone or with others. At their best, computer games combine skills acquisition with fun – a potent combination contributing to the effectiveness of simulation.

What was gained?
My son, now 15, recently played RollerCoaster Tycoon after a break of about 7 or 8 years; and learnt valuable information about financing when doing so. He understood the balance that has to be struck between the extra income from new buildings that are funded by borrowings, and the interest cost from those borrowings – a valuable lesson to learn at any age, but especially in your teens. (And more valuable than picking up the customers and drowning them in the lake, which is what he did when he played the game as an 8-year old!)

4. Mock markets: simulated competition
A common form of simulation-based learning used in some corporate and competitively exposed public sector organisations is where participants break up into teams and, in effect, run their own businesses. They maintain their own set of accounts, price products, develop marketing strategies and compete against other teams. Successive rounds of the game are played and the business results (revenue, profits etc.) are totalled up at the end of each round. These kinds of games can either be paper- or board-based games, or played electronically.

What was gained?
These competitive simulations teach the fundamentals of how markets work in a participatory way that no economics lecture could ever do. I participated in a couple of these a few years ago, one of which simulated the bidding process of the national electricity market. You come away understanding how prices are formed, and that your actions influence (without actually determining) the results and actions of competing units.

5. Practicing improved performance: simulating process improvements
The performance improvement approach known as Lean Six Sigma often uses game-based simulations to show how processes can be improved and those benefits quantified. Lean Six Sigma draws together the defect reduction program developed by Motorola titled ‘Six Sigma’ (which is a successor to the quality movement of the 1980s) and the emphasis on enhancing flow and minimising waste developed by Toyota known as the Toyota Way, and referred to by many simply as ‘Lean’.

These efforts originated in the manufacturing environment and are now being applied to services, with notable efforts to apply Lean to healthcare. Simulations are used for training, and also to pilot or test proposed process improvements.

What was gained?
About 18 months ago I participated in a process improvement simulation as part of training and accreditation in Lean. This was structured around a mock broadcaster which had to improve its processes for receiving and scheduling advertisements: the ‘broadcaster’ had to reorganise itself to eliminate bottlenecks and blockages and facilitate greater ‘throughput’, with massive improvements in the amount of orders processed and reduction in processing errors. It was a challenging, visceral and effective experience.

Later this month I will be facilitating and delivering a similar kind of simulation which I developed for a government agency, which is centred on a mock bank that has to improve the performance of its mortgage processing unit.

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The breadth, flexibility, and immersive nature of simulations make them a powerful tool for organisational learning. They are also in my view a massively-underutilised resource for management.

They serve to compress and accelerate learning experiences for staff at a fraction of the cost and risk. And they do so in a safe and fun environment. What’s not to love about that?

They also help overcome the chief obstacle to the effectiveness of traditional classroom-based training: that the context in which the training occurs is completely separate from the day-to-day work context, and therefore the lessons from the training are lost en route to the workplace.

If you’d like to find out more about simulation-based learning, read David A. Garvin’s book Learning in Action (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) and the article by Richard Pascale, Mark Millemann and Linda Gioja in the Nov-Dec. 1997 issue of Harvard Business Review titled ‘Changing the Way we Change’; both of these sources served as references for this newsletter.

And you’ll be able to read more about simulation-based learning in future issues of this newsletter…

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If you’re looking to boost your clients’ satisfaction, click here to download my article in the current issues of Training & Development magazine describing how to use Training Needs Analysis to boost customer satisfaction and accomplish other organisational goals such as lowered costs and reduced staff turnover.

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© Michael Carman 2013