After implementing a standardized client engagement process in 2006, assurance, advisory, tax, and transaction services firm Ernst & Young (E&Y) LLP set its sights on developing a formalized curriculum to support its new program.
According to Susan Heil, an E&Y director and the enterprise-wide learning leader for the Americas, managers play one of the most critical roles in the firm's engagement process. "These are the individuals responsible for running the engagement on a day-to-day basis—including everything from planning, budgeting, and scoping to putting a team together, delegating tasks, and managing client relationships."
Her team's challenge from a learning perspective, Heil says, was finding a way to show managers how their actions in each of these areas interrelate and contribute to an engagement's success. "We wanted to immerse managers in an environment where they could see the impact of their actions, practice and make mistakes, and understand how all of their decisions—however large or small—impact project outcomes over time."
To achieve this goal, Heil's team worked with ACS Learning Services, a Dallas-based provider of end-to-end learning outsourcing services, and Regis Learning Solutions, a Denver-based simulation and experiential learning solutions firm, to create "Engagement Economics," an eight-hour facilitated simulation that models the three phases of E&Y's client engagement process—including planning, managing, and closing—from start to finish over the course of a simulated time period of 20 weeks.
During the competitive simulation, managers work together in teams on a client engagement drawn from real-world E&Y cases. At the outset of the experience, each team is provided with all of the information it needs to kick off the project, including client background information, project goals, objectives and timelines, and client deliverables and expectations. Next, each team works together within a complex, rapidly changing environment to ensure the engagement's success in three critical areas: profitability, firm impact, and client satisfaction.
Throughout each phase of the multi-round simulation, participants encounter realistic scenarios, challenges, and dilemmas—all drawn from real-life client engagements—such as scheduling and resource management issues, client change orders, communications breakdowns, and scope creep.
In one such scenario, a client abruptly informs the engagement manager it no longer will be able to complete certain project deliverables as previously promised. At this point, says Regis Learning Solutions Managing Director Kevin Himmel, the manager quickly must reallocate resources and adjust project-staffing requirements accordingly.
Even a small change like this can have substantial impact on the success of an engagement, notes Himmel. "If a manager has too few people on her bench at the time the scope of the project expands, it will be difficult for her to ramp up quickly and add staff fast enough to meet the client's needs. On the other hand, if the manager has too many idle people on the team who are waiting around for an assignment, she'll be able to ensure client satisfaction. However, the profitability of the engagement will suffer because the firm will have to carry the cost of all of the non-billable time those employees spent waiting on the sidelines."
To ensure managers learn from their successes and failures as the simulation progresses, the simulation tracks all manager decision-making from round to round. It then calculates the cumulative impact those decisions have on the project in each critical success area, and continually feeds the results into a "dashboard" that depicts each team's performance over a specified period of time.
After each challenge or "round," for example, says Himmel, participants receive scores gauging their performance in terms of profitability, client satisfaction, and firm impact. "Then, the facilitator debriefs the exercise and provides extensive feedback designed to pull leading practices out from their experiences and improve their performance in the next round."
Results produced by the simulation, which E&Y launched for approximately 1,000 managers in late 2008, have been outstanding, according to Heil. The response has been so positive, in fact, that E&Y now is rolling out the simulation to an additional 3,000 managers throughout the Americas. Plans also are in the works to develop a condensed version of the simulation for the firm's partners, executive directors, directors, and senior managers. "The goal in extending the simulation to a higher level," Heil says, "is to ensure that when our managers return to the field after the simulation, E&Y leaders are in a position to extend managers' learning even further by reinforcing lessons learned during the simulation experience."