Research has shown that computer-based simulation is one of the best vehicles for effectively and practically delivering a consistent experience across an organization.
Experience is the best teacher. This is an age-old adage that is universally accepted. Unfortunately, organizations have neither the time nor the budget to allow their people to learn through the "school of hard knocks." Therefore, simulations offer the opportunity to capture the necessary experience in a more deployable format and allow participants to gain experience in a safe environment. The combination of content, context, and time provides an opportunity for participants to engage with the issues both intellectually and emotionally, allowing for greater depth in the process.
What is it?
Simulation can be defined as a complex weave of scenarios put together to capture a period of time in the life of a character and to incorporate content (such as leadership, ethics, or sales) and context (environment, people, task, and culture) so that it imitates life. This combination of content and context, when placed within the flow of time, enables a participant to experience an issue as it could play out in real life.
Why it works
Experience is a key driver in the success of both individuals and organizations. With experience design, it is the experience itself that is important, not whether the participant gets it right. Instructional design is primarily focused on learning the what and the how of the required changes, not on gaining insight from understanding and practicing the why and when of things. The how and what are necessary, but not sufficient for bringing about change because they are static and not contextual.
When it comes to demonstrating the why and when (that is, to display judgment), a more dynamic approach is required, one that takes into account context and inter-relationships. In other words, what is required is a method that captures experience within a context that provides opportunities to use judgment to take action and live with and learn from the consequences of those actions.
Behavioral or branching simulations are built using the metaphor of a decision tree and are focused on providing participants with an opportunity to exhibit three criteria:
- critical thinking and decision making
- handling consequences
- receiving feedback.
These applications manifest as a form of "choose your own adventure" exercises where participants are placed into a series of scenarios in which they are challenged to make decisions by selecting a particular path or branch. Then they experience the consequences of their choices by following that branch to where it takes them. Scenarios are mini-experiences whose impact is influenced by the depth and applicability of the exercise. Two key benefits of simulations are building the experience portfolio and strengthening decision-making skills.
Building the experience portfolio. When we face a situation, a typical response will start with some kind of gut reaction to what we perceive is going on. Somewhere in our brains, we sift through a portfolio of experiences and search for relevant or applicable instances in which we have experienced this situation before. We then garner some insight into the situation we are facing and take action.
But often for learners, this experience portfolio is empty. For example, if an employee has been recently promoted from an individual contributor to a supervisor, there are not going to be any leadership experiences in that person's portfolio. By designing an experience of leading and dealing with coaching issues or difficult conversations, participants are able to deposit some relevant and application-oriented "files" into their experience portfolio that can be called on in real life. When playing the simulation, participants also get to practice their decision-making and critical thinking skills.
By making a selection from the choice options they're presented with, they also gain experience with using judgment. Given the contextual nature of the challenge, the experience portfolio can inform their decisions but not dictate them—they still need to think critically about what is appropriate in a particular situation.
Strengthening decision-making skills. Simulations are written to challenge participants at key points in the narrative with making decisions. It is through this approach that muscle-memory around critical thinking gets created.
Typically when facing a situation that requires a decision, we will consult our gut and take action. The challenge with this is whether our gut actually has a clue (whether there is anything relevant in our experience portfolio) and also whether we have the wherewithal to use what is there to make a good decision in that particular situation. In other words, will I be able to consider the issue that is before me, scan my portfolio, and consider my alternatives and potential consequences before setting my strategy and taking action?
From the perspective of populating the experience portfolio, simulated experience sometimes can have an advantage over the real thing. Rarely does a scenario that we face happen in a vacuum. It is sometimes difficult to connect the cause and effect of the various elements of the experience.
Simulation enables learners to connect the decisions and their consequences and still capture the flow of time so that the file in the experience portfolio will be richer and more complete. Designing an experience in a context that looks like their own environment, with challenges similar to the kinds that they face, enables learners to gain practice in that context with thinking critically.
Given the current business environment, finding ways to provide employees with the experience they need quickly is increasingly important. Experience is the best teacher, and experience design is an approach that can effectively capture, deliver, and deploy experience to where it is required. Experience design and simulation combine the strength of experience with the power of storytelling to achieve employee development requirements more quickly. Experience design provides a methodology to debunk the traditional view that simulations are too complicated and costly to produce.
By using a methodology that is driven by experience, the necessary skills to produce these kinds of applications are well within reach of existing staffs. The organizing principle for simulations is narrative and the primary source for the narrative is simply the job being simulated. In using experience design, organizations can speed the necessary experience to where it is required to increase the speed and efficacy of decision making and improve productivity.