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Training has long stood as a major pillar for improving employee skills and performance, from getting a new employee up and running to moving a promising worker up the ranks. These trainings have traditionally been held as lectures, presentations, workshops, and eLearning seminars, but new and improved trainings are being created every day to more effectively develop employees. Among these (not so new) developments are training simulations, which are virtual representations of real-world activities in a digital environment. They are usually tailored to a specific task, such as fitting golf clubs to a particular golfer’s characteristics and preferences, or repairing an enterprise server. Simulations may seem intuitively appealing over alternative options but there are very clear advantages to simulation training over simpler trainings, which are discussed below.
One of the most important factors in employee performance is employee happiness. In a recent study byMark Crowley, employees cited lack of meaningful, challenging work as the most important reason they were looking for a new job. This complaint can permeate across all aspects of an employee’s work-life, and training can be a major culprit. Professional development and career training opportunities don’t have the best reputation among employees. This is due to a disconnection between the degree of challenge, the meaningfulness of the task, and the lack of control experienced in these environments. Passively sitting through a presentation and then being asked to answer multiple-choice questions fails to engage learners and thus fails to educate learners effectively, wasting everyone’s time in the process.
Simulations can provide an authentic, challenging environment where employees can face new scenarios in a safe context. Simulation training gives them the skills, confidence, and control necessary to tackle problems in a personally meaningful and engaging way. This learner motivation translates to a wide variety of benefits including retention, integration, and buy-in, which open the door for the success of the training.
Bloom’s taxonomy is a framework for understanding the complexity and richness of various cognitive activities. This framework can be used to better organize and structure learning tasks from easiest to hardest, allowing for a smooth increase in difficulty without any large steps where learners might have difficulties. These tasks organized from lowest-order to highest-order are: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Analysis, evaluation, and creation are considered to be the highest order cognitive tasks, and these are the most important when improving employee performance. Employees’ everyday work requires a mixture of simple and complex tasks, but repetition can often put them into a rut without the opportunity to break out of these routines and integrate a wider breadth of information. This rut can have downstream effects in the willingness of employees to seek out new tools or methods for performing their jobs.
Rich simulations and digital environments can engage employees in higher order thinking across a variety of new topics and scenarios that ask them to make judgments, weigh possibilities, and create solutions that push them further than traditional presentation-and-quiz based training. These simulations provide experiences that better prepare employees to tackle the much more ambiguous and challenging problems that arise in their real jobs.
If you’re like most leaders, you see the great importance of creativity in the modern workplace. Technologies are evolving, new communication channels are emerging, and fresh features roll out daily. Creative teams are the ones leading industries in crafting innovative and effective practices, thus moving the field forward. Creativity, contrary to popular belief, is a skill that can be improved through meaningful effort and time. Current workplace cultures tend to leave very little room for experimentation outside of solutions that are “good enough” for any given problem. Brainstorming sessions come to an end as soon as most people are on board with a given solution, but the best solutions aren’t the first acceptable ones. The best ideas often require iteration and experimentation outside of the expected solutions. Teams that lack creativity and the space to develop their creative skills won’t be prepared to take initiative, leaving them behind the competition.
Real-world problems are rarely as easy as right-or-wrong, which in itself shows a major weakness in traditional, linear training. Simulation training, however, provides a rich interactive experience that creates opportunities for employees to try new things and experiment with ideas while removing the potential cost of a risky tactic. These risks, when contained within a simulation, provide many opportunities for the employees to learn from their failures, which is a much more effective learning experience than that of a traditional training. These simulations have the power to boost employee creative confidence and infuse innovation into any organization.
Most work and learning tasks are driven by some sort of extrinsic motivator, including praise, certifications, and bonuses. Unfortunately, extrinsic motivators have proven to be ineffective long term and their motivating power depletes over time, slowly becoming the new “neutral”. These extrinsic motivators also have a negative side effect in reducing intrinsic motivation. People are more likely to perceive a task as being inherently negative if they see extrinsic motivators attached to it because of the subconscious rationalization that if there is some compensation attached, this task must be inherently undesirable, or unrewarding. Granting employees and learners a degree of autonomy and ownership in their development allows them the opportunity to find intrinsic reward in the work and ascribe their own meaning and purpose to it.
A well-designed simulation provides a clear alignment between the simulated task and the desired competency, whether it’s doubling sales, reducing time-to-completion, or ensuring compliance with regulations. This alignment creates structure, but the true power of simulations comes from the stories that unfold as employees make their own decisions and face those consequences in a safe environment. Storytelling as an instructional tool has proven to be very powerful, and simulations provide a unique opportunity to place the learner at the center of their own story. These simulated experiences create a space for learners to form conceptual connections between ideas, actions, and consequences in a manner that feels personal and meaningful. Experiences such as these, that align purpose, self-direction, and personal improvement over time, are the most effective ways to maximize employee performance.
People often fail to reflect on the things they do and how they do them. Finding a solution that is “good enough” can be the death of improvement. Feedback is a critical element in the learning process that allows “good enough” to be a starting point for excellence. Training often begins and ends before a learner has the opportunity to practice their new skills. Instead, they’re only tested at the end of a presentation with a multiple-choice quiz. These assessments fail to deliver insight into the thought processes that might be resulting in an incorrect answer, and without this insight learners will be tempted to brute-force the system with multiple attempts at finding the correct answer. This design fails to improve the employees’ capacities and frustrates the learners with a fruitless task.
Simulation training can provide realistic feedback at every point of interaction, giving the learner a large variety of information to process and integrate into their mental models, resulting in a more nuanced understanding of the learning objective. This organic feedback is an emergent property of a simulation that mirrors reality, providing subtle cues for self-correction and improvement in a consequence-free learning environment.
The information age is often touted for its many grand quality of life improvements, but it also brings with it many more responsibilities for managers to keep up with the competition. Productivity is no longer a commodity to be expected and harvested by an organization. Instead, it’s the much more nuanced effort to tend to the human needs of employees and cultivate the highest sustainable output with workload management, compensation, training, respect, and empowerment. Traditional forms of training and development have left managers to steer the boat blindly and miss out on many opportunities that could be helpful in identifying tweaks or improvements to training and workplace performance.
Until now, managers have mostly operated on personal experience and gut-feelings that are difficult to quantify. However, simulation training and digital environments provide an unprecedented opportunity to measure, track, and improve employee development. Data-conscious designers and analysts can collect a wide array of data from simulations that can unlock avenues for continual improvement of the training and employee performance over time.
Across all of these topics, a story emerges. Authentic simulation training allows employees to buy into the training task; they approach the task with a degree of ownership and freedom that encourages experimentation. This is met with immediate, organic, and realistic feedback leading to real improvements in performance. Simulations lie at a sweet spot where learning theory and business pragmatics come together to maximize the effectiveness of training.