Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Simulations: Keeping It Real!

A few years ago, one of our clients asked me to review an online training simulation and provide feedback on its effectiveness. The simulation was titled ExperienceCSR, developed by a Toronto-based company called ExperiencePoint. It takes a participant through a process of planning and implementing a corporate social responsibility program within a fictional organization. You have to make key decisions, get buy-in within the organization, and work with limited time and money toward pre-defined goals. The program provides feedback on user decisions throughout and lets the user know how close he/she is getting to the goal, and how much time and money are left.

Long story short: six hours flew by before I knew what happened. What I thought might take me an hour or so turned out to take most of the day. Why? Because I was totally engaged. Remember, I had no motivation for reviewing this simulation other than doing a client a favour. I was not getting paid to do this, I was not getting any credit, and the topic was not one that I probably would have signed on for of my own account. However, I completed the whole program in one go because it was interesting, it made me think, I could immediately see the results of my decisions, and I had the competitive motivation of seeing if I could reach the goal before my time and money ran out (story of my life).

That experience really reinforced for me the power of simulations. When done correctly, simulations can foster active learning. They are a great way of moving beyond the tell-and-test approach that unfortunately passes for most training these days. Learning becomes internalized because learners are actively engaged in making decisions and solving problems.

I recently had an opportunity to interview James Chisholm (above), a Co-founder and Principal of ExperiencePoint...

RN: Why does your company focus on simulations? What is it about this type of learning experience that excites you?

JC: ExperiencePoint's mission is to help executives and managers make better decisions, faster. We believe that the best (most effective, quickest) way to learn something is through experience. We believe that the best way to learn how to negotiate, for example, is to create an experience where participants must negotiate. We've created a variety of simulation learning experiences over the past 10 years - both computer-based and paper-based, large events (>500 people) and single-user self-directed experiences. We've built a reputation, however, as a leader in merging the worlds of video games with business learning.

I grew up playing video games. I always found it incredible how engaging, and frankly addictive the experience was (and continues to be). You don't need fancy graphics or 3D environments. Some of my favourite games were Commodore 64 games. It is a very exciting time in the industry. We've written about our current take on the industry in our newsletter in an article titled "Simulation's Perfect Storm." (posted below)

RN: When making action decisions in your ExperienceChange simulation, which I tried recently, I couldn't help but imagine all the possible responses from the system to my decisions (depending on what I picked and when). In planning out these simulations, how do you keep it all straight in terms of which decisions produce which responses and when?

JC: The simulation uses a fuzzy logic engine that says there is no single right time to implement a tactic, but rather shades of grey (in terms of appropriateness). This gives us almost 1.5 x 1050 possible combinations - a very big number for sure. However, only a very small number will result in success. When building a simulation like ExperienceChange, it is important to have subject matter experts at the table. They can help shape the initial model. What is more critical, we've found, is to be continuously integrating feedback from participants into the engine. The web-based version of the EC simulation was first released in 2000, and now we are at version 4 - and over 25,000 users. Every release "feels" more realistic because of input from the previous users.

We use an engine approach to all of our games. Much like Quake has a graphic rendering engine with editable maps, we store all of our game content in a database. This allows us to very quickly change the content or model and have the game play differently - right away.

RN: How many people where involved in building the ExperienceChange simulation? What were the key roles? How long did it take to develop?

JC: The precursor to EC was created for CD-ROM in 1996-1997. It was a classic "garage" startup. We are very lucky today to have an incredible development team. We strive to keep a tight-knit shop - 1 lead programmer, 1 creative director, 1 sim architect, and then contract out additional work as required. We now have several "experience" engines that we can build upon when developing new games. To create an engine takes a long time - upwards of 1 year. However, to create a new simulation based on an existing engine is quite quick. We can create an ExperienceChange-like simulation in as little as 10 weeks.

Note: We are lucky to have James as a special guest in our upcoming webinar titled Using Simulations to Bring Your eLearning to Life, to be held at 12:00 noon Eastern on Thursday, August 10, 2006. Here are sign up details.

Simulation's Perfect Storm
James Chisholm and Greg Warman, ExperiencePoint

In any industry, it is the combination of felt needs and appropriate solutions that produce a vibrant marketplace. Until recently, the business game industry had neither in sufficient supply. At best, the simulation market was a peripheral blip on educators' radars. Affordable solutions were produced by hobbyists. More robust, professional simulations were the purview of management consultancies and cost millions to develop and deliver.

The picture today is quite different. In fact, the confluence of several forces is driving the increased demand and subsequent availability of simulation games for business education:

1. The Video Game Industry: Digital fun is big business! Worldwide video game software and console sales surpass $30B annually. And the traditional stereotype of the average user has proven inaccurate. Indeed, a typical video game player is 30 years old and socially functional. Nonetheless, recent years have seen sales soften in this market of core constituents and video game makers are exploring new strategies to bolster the bottom line. One strategy receiving particular attention is the development of "serious games."

2. The Serious Games Movement: In the past two years, the intertwined themes of 'learning' and 'video games' have been explored in the popular works of academics, business thought leaders, and pop culture analysts. The "Serious Games" movement was born from a desire to leverage video game makers' skills in educational applications. Chief among the new products are high fidelity business simulations - games that are meeting the increasing need for rapid Executive Development.

3. The Need for Rapid Executive Development: In the next 4 years, 25% of the workforce will reach retirement age. By 2016 the number will reach 50%. The looming "experience gap" necessitates swift and meaningful action by organizations to avert a crisis in the coming decade. Because simulation games accelerate time-to-competency, they will play a critical role in Executive Development. Concurrently, the traditional barrier to simulation's broader uptake - cost - is slowly eroding with the advent of new technologies.

4. New Technology: Online games are available to users world-wide. This simple fact dramatically changes a business game developer's calculus - access to such a broad user base with minimal administration and marketing costs enables offering products at lower per participant price points. And with respect to custom simulations, the vanguard of business game development companies have produced a variety of game 'templates' that can be inexpensively populated with an organization's unique industry/company data, best practices, and management wisdom.

This perfect storm requires one final catalyst - the "Killer App" - a business game so indispensable, it achieves rapid and universal uptake.

Like most disruptive technologies, the "Killer App" business game is already here in disparate pieces and its synthesis is on the near horizon. And upon arrival, it will come to define the next generation of business simulations for Executive Development.