The average age of sales associates at Secaucus, N.J.-based kids' clothier The Children's Place is early 20s, says director of training and development Leslie McCleary, so when it came time to teach them best practices in safety and loss prevention, simulation technology seemed only natural. With such dry subject matter, the company needed something associates in its 880 stores would find interesting enough to pay attention to.
"They grew up with computers; they're gamers; they don't know life without a computer," McCleary says of her company's typical sales associate. "We wanted to make something that would engage them so they would learn these policies and procedures, but in a fun way." The simulation program Maumee, Ohio-based e-learning provider Root Learning designed for them, piloted in late May and set to launch around August, presents the material in the form of a crime scene investigation. With computers accessible in each retail location, and the ability to stop and start the 11 vignettes as needed, employees can complete training without disrupting their work.
Some vignettes, for instance, cover safety issues such as the proper handling of equipment, including remembering to put potentially dangerous tools back in their respective place. The exercise begins with the ringing of a phone in the middle of the screen. When the associate clicks on it, a recorded facilitator appears, informing him or her through a text-based message that there has been an accident, and the company needs the associate's help to figure out what happened.
The learner is instructed to read the "case file," which they get to by clicking on an icon on the phone that brings up a folder containing the facts of the situation, including instructions such as to interview fellow workers on what happened or investigate the scene, looking for clues. In one vignette, for example, there has been a safety-related accident.
The simulation allows the associates to take a magnifying glass icon to get a close-up view of the specific elements of the accident scene, while they also can click on icons representing other employees who have information about the problem.
Using the "magnifying glass," they see an Exacto knife left haphazardly on top of cartons on a dolly that has been left out. A ladder, in addition to a couple other pieces of equipment also has been left in the middle of the selling floor. The associate is able to jot down notes within the program after getting information from simulated peers and exploring the scene. From there, learners are given a text-based review of the company's safety standards followed by questions on what happened to cause the accident, and how the associate will prevent such accidents in the future.
The simulation was completely custom-designed by Root, which has created three other (non-simulation) e-learning programs for The Children's Place since 2003. The design process started in September 2005, and took four to six months to complete, which McCleary says is comparable to the other programs the vendor has created for her company. To ensure the system would appeal to learners, the company rounded up a few associates with a fondness for computer games to share likes and dislikes about such programs. Once developed, the simulation was tested with a small associate focus group.
"We wanted to give them an opportunity to feel like they're part of the solution," McCleary says of the decision to create a simulation for training, "that we're not just feeding them what they need to know, and they're just giving it back to us."
Keeping your audience in mind is, indeed, key when developing or purchasing the technology, says Clark Aldrich, co-founder of Norwalk, Conn.-based simulation provider SimuLearn. Branching stories, for example, that function like an electronic form of the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, in which users are given a journey or challenge with choices they must make to determine the outcome, are helpful when working with unenthusiastic learners.
They'll come to forks in the road, such as deciding whether or not to do certain tasks, and will be led to a different page in the simulation depending on which option they choose. "They're really good for reluctant learners and places with high turnover," Aldrich says. "They're really, really bad for high potential or highly creative people, who resent like crazy having to make these forced decisions."
While the engaging media of these systems, such as high-quality video, may be just the thing to lure in new bank tellers and discount chain employees, or update the skills of call center reps, they might not be fulfilling for an up-and-coming corporate executive or advertising design wunderkind used to the-sky's-the-limit thinking.
What Aldrich calls "interactive spreadsheet" simulations, on the other hand, are more suited to high achievers. These programs feature competing individuals or teams who start out with a set amount of simulated resources, such as a specific amount of money or real estate holdings. From these starting blocks, players must tackle a challenge like growing a business or winning market share.
Though capable of being played thoroughly online, Aldrich says the game is usually led by a facilitator who meets with players to help guide them through the process, by, for instance, discussing with them possible next moves or team dynamics. "The output of these kinds of models tend to be graphs and charts, which are really wonky," he notes. "It takes a special kind of person to get really excited about having something go up or down by three or five percent, but it's much more realistic in terms of how a CEO thinks about their own organization."
You might want to even consider whether your learners are more introverted or extroverted, says Sivasailam Thiagarajan, president and "resident mad scientist" of Bloomington, Ind.-based simulation and gaming workshop provider The Thiagi Group. For instance, while salespeople might enjoy simulation-based training delivered in a synchronous, competitive fashion, such as the "interactive spreadsheet" model Aldrich cites, accountants may prefer a simulation they can do on their own, maybe even one that allows them to compete with the computer rather than with another individual.
"The same simulation can be made to appeal to different types of learning styles," he explains. Thiagarajan says the same online role simulation game can be used on a group or individual basis. "We can create a simulation where I, the single player, have to react, analyze, interpret and respond to whatever the others players are choosing to do," he points out, "and the other players could be live players or it could be a set of pre-arranged, pre-programmed inputs inside the computer."
A blended approach
As powerful a learning medium as simulation is, combining it with more traditional methodology will make it that much more effective. At The Children's Place, for instance, after each simulation vignette is completed, the associate will be expected to print out the exercise and review it with a "learning partner," an in-store manager or peer, who will ask the associate to demonstrate in the physical world that he or she understands the concepts presented in the simulation, McCleary says.
They might, for instance, have to show the proper way to put away dangerous items, or the learning partner might ask the associate questions about a policy on shoplifting or safety, which the learner has been instructed to print out from the exercise.
The blended approach, in which simulation-based training includes physical world practice when necessary, is essential, says Vincent Thomasino, vice president of simulation and training for Somerset, N.J.-based integrated communications agency and simulation provider D2 Creative. Some skills, such as the safe way to lift heavy boxes, or how an emergency worker dressed in bulky protective gear must maneuver his fingers inside thick rubber gloves to operate a technical device, require real-world practice, Thomasino says. Strictly doing such tasks virtually may result in what Thomasino refers to as "negative training," or what occurs when an employee is led to believe a skill is easier than it really is because he has only "done it" by pushing buttons on his computer. D2 was faced with just such a challenge when it designed a fully immersive simulation for emergency workers training to conduct rescues following a terrorist attack.
"When you're inside these suits with those thick rubber gloves, one of the huge challenges is understanding how to manipulate all the devices you use to do evidence collection," he says. "Those were things that just did not translate to this medium very well, so instead of wasting a lot of time trying to recreate that, we ignored it completely," Thomasino explains, "and we established as part of our blended curriculum not only instruction on how to use those devices, but little stations whereby they could go and practice those skills individually, and master them before they got to simulation." The physical requirements of what trainees would be expected to do understood, simulation, he says, could place more emphasis on skills like team building.
Ventilator manufacturer Newport Medical Instruments in Costa Mesa, Calif., had Philadelphia-based simulation provider Equipment Simulations create three interactive virtual representations of its products for customers to train on that also includes three instructional videos. But the company doesn't underestimate the need for hands-on practice, says director of clinical education Cyndy Miller.
"This is not a standalone training; it's a training aid," she stresses. "No one is expected to use a piece of life-support equipment on a patient after only practicing with an electronic simulation." Trainees should spend time with a person who can serve as a live instructor, she notes, as well as study an in-depth operation manual Newport provides. The company also makes use of the simulation at live training sessions in which the traditional classroom setting is given a boost by students who follow along with the instructor using their interactive virtual ventilators.
Some companies, like Somerset, N.J.-based outsourced pharmaceutical sales, marketing and compliance solutions provider inVentiv Commercial Services, go a step further, making the technology just one part of a physical simulation. The company uses DialogCoach, a scenario-based sales and call center rep simulation from Coopersburg, Pa.-based training software provider ASERT, to complement physically-based role-playing.
The training, which seeks to replicate a day in the life a pharmaceutical sales rep, physically simulates the office or hospital environment these workers make their calls in, says vice president of training and development Peter Marchesini. Mock offices are erected in a ballroom with overhead announcements prompting participants through the process, explains Bryan Horveath, executive director, professional development group. Students come into the "meeting" with everything they would typically bring on a call, including promotional materials and background information on the organization.
Pitches are made to live individuals, including actual physicians and other inVentiv employees such as district managers, playing the customer role. " 'Role-play' is an overused term," Marchesini says. "This is as close to 'real play' as we can get for them prior to sending them out, when they're actually dealing with live customers."
The software component of inVentiv's simulation program, Dialog Coach, is used as an ongoing training tool that reps access whenever they, or their managers, feel extra practice is necessary. It consists of a series of online, videotaped scenarios with voice-activated microphone, Horveath says. A simulated talking, moving physician in the upper right hand corner of the screen appears, which the rep must have a sales conversation with using their headset microphone. Reps are given immediate feedback on how they're doing. "If you say the right words, you're able to move on in the call," Marchesini says. "If you're going totally down the wrong way, it'll end the call."
Schneider National, a transportation and transportation-related services company in Green Bay, Wisc., also believes the blended approach is key when using simulations in training. While it has three varieties of truck simulators, including one full-scale model of a truck with motion capacity, live instruction is intertwined throughout.
In addition to the presence of an instructor beside students in the simulators, trainees spend two to three weeks on the road with a living, breathing teacher along for the ride. Simulations allow the company to train drivers for such hazards as adverse weather conditions and emergencies such as tire blowouts, but are far from a panacea, says Don Osterberg, vice president of safety and driver training.
"Simulation-based training is certainly effective, but it's not a replacement for instructor-led training. The over-the-road component of training with a certified instructor remains critically important, and the technology isn't going to replace that."
Like any e-learning technology, all your grand simulation plans will be laid to waste without the right partner to sell you what you need. Once you're sure of who your audience is, what their learning needs are and what mix of technology and classroom-based coursework is necessary to achieve your goals, you can start the vendor selection process.
When you get down to the contenders that seem worth scheduling time to speak with, start with a 10-minute conversation on the project you're considering, says Michael Bean, president of San Francisco-based simulation provider Forio Business Simulations. High points to touch on include the obvious, such as the type of learning material you need to cover and audience characteristics to the perhaps not-so-obvious such as number of learners the system will need to serve, and for how long these pupils will be using it. "And also blue sky things, ideas you have about the simulation that you think would be neat, but you don't absolutely have to have in there," Bean says.
If you're still interested, ask the vendor to then show you demos of three projects similar to your own, with emphasis on "similar." In the case of simulations that doesn't mean roughly in the same category; ideally it should mean the same type of program (i.e. multiplayer competitive strategy-oriented fare) as well as the same industry you're in. Though less crucial than making sure the vendor has familiarity with developing the kind of program you have in mind, it might make the process a little easier if they've worked with others in your field, Bean says. "If you're building a marketing simulation, and your vendor doesn't have any marketing simulations to show you," he notes, "then that is probably a red flag."
As eager salespeople flash their technologically advanced wares your way, don't get deterred from your mission, says Adam Nelson, vice president of product development for San Francisco-based simulation provider Ninth House.
"A big mistake is putting form before function," he says, adding many are drawn to the bells and whistles products have. "It's not clearly analyzing what it is you want to get out of it and pairing the solution with it." To sidestep this pitfall, Nelson advises self-discipline and not to be shy about asking the vendor the questions that will keep you on track. "The primary driver should always be, 'What effect is it [the simulation] going to have on my business and how am I going to measure that?' Ask them for past information, and compare it against what is you want to achieve," he says of asking vendors about their record of creating the kind of simulation you want.
Thinking about the vendor's potential to serve as a long-term partner is also important. Malvern, Pa.-based business equipment and supplies provider Ikon Office Solutions, for example, has signed on with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based e-learning vendor NETg for the creation of a new scenario-based simulation program that will most likely launch by summer's end. One of the reasons the company chose to work with the vendor, say Inga Swearengin, manager of learning technologies, and Donna Venable, vice president, human resources and shared services, is the good job it did creating other e-learning courses for Ikon in the past. "Working with an existing partner allowed us to take advantage of the knowledge we already had of each other," Venable says. "If you are able to, identify a vendor that you can build a relationship with."
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