Performance simulation solutions—which immerse learners in realistic performance environments where they are able to succeed or fail—are well known to learning professionals today. Performance simulation is an engaging learning modality that measures its success not on the completion of a course or curriculum, but on how effectively it changes the behaviors of the targeted learning group so that workers actively support strategic objectives and overall business performance.
Performance simulation solutions have many unique characteristics:
- People learn by doing in a risk-free environment. Learners are encouraged to experiment in realistic scenarios. Learners drive the experience—if they become disengaged from the experience, it stops until they are re-engaged (unlike an instructor-led class, where simply “showing up” is too often enough to pass).
- Along the way, learners get realistic and individualized feedback—similar to what they would receive when actually performing the tasks on the job—from a simulated supervisor or co-workers, or from customer reactions and actual performance metrics.
- Rather than completing a final exam or test, learners must demonstrate mastery of certain behaviors and higher overall performance to pass the course.
Performance simulation solutions have helped many companies achieve dramatic performance results: a 16 percent increase in customer satisfaction, a 15 percent increase in sales per hour and a 10 percent reduction in call handle times. In some extreme cases, there have been up to 200 percent increases in sales. Compared with other forms of learning, simulations also result in less on-the-job follow-up training, as well as compression of overall training time—in some cases as much as 70 percent.
Performance Simulation Components
A performance simulation solution has three core components: simulation, remediation and reference. In the simulation, the learner is given a realistic and compelling business goal. To accomplish this goal, the learner may be called upon to complete analyses, conduct conversations and justify decisions. A remediation engine supports the learning experience. A coach provides individualized remediation specific to the learner’s work, pointing out trends and areas of improvement. The coach may also encourage the learner to visit specific sections of the reference layer to close a knowledge gap. In the underlying reference layer, the student can learn about the basics, explore theories, facts and figures, and visit the glossary or listen to an expert. When the learner has closed his own knowledge gap and feels ready, he can continue completing the task at hand within the simulation.
This is a learner-centric model—meaning that the experience is driven by the learners themselves. (See Figure 1.) They can go to any area of the simulation at any time—to whatever will help them accomplish their goal. The experience stops when they stop, unlike classroom and Web-based training experiences, where one can stop listening as the lecture moves forward.
What’s New in Performance Simulation?
The value proposition of performance simulation hasn’t changed significantly in the past decade or so:
- It enables organizations to build expertise in a large and geographically dispersed group of individuals, with varying levels of existing experience.
- It leverages experts and best performers.
- It lowers the risks associated with on-the-job errors.
- It keeps ongoing training costs manageable while minimizing time away from the job.
What has changed is that performance simulation is now available to almost any organization, regardless of size. Previously, many organizations looked longingly at the impressive business results delivered by performance simulations. Today, however, with maturing technologies, Web-based delivery and better development tools, performance simulations can be developed faster, at a lower cost, and with better accessibility and usage.
Web delivery also has eased many of the security concerns that hindered greater take-up of performance simulations. Executives used to have justifiable concerns about putting competitive secrets into a simulation. Making sure everyone had the latest version of the training was also a challenge. Today, learners log in over the Web to access fresh content—increasingly, granular content delivered in smaller chunks tailored to an immediate performance need—and their experiences and attendance can be tracked, regulated and administered instantaneously.
The maturity of the performance simulation field also is reflected in the ways in which media are utilized. Rather than layering in multimedia—the glamour of which wears off rather quickly, especially if it slows down the experience—designers are more prone to use multimedia in a more focused way. No one argues that an experience in which learners put on virtual reality goggles and immerse themselves in a learning situation isn’t cool. It’s just not realistic to produce, deliver and maintain that kind of experience on a consistent basis to keep up with the ever-growing learning demands.
On the other hand, some “gaming” elements are essential. Videogames are considered dramatic because there is a goal to reach and because it is possible to fail. Similarly, failure in a performance simulation—combined with the rich feedback given to a learner as a result of that failure—offers a dramatic advantage over other computer-based training products that employ a “right or wrong” approach with a link to an online textbook. The learn-by-doing approach encourages learners to explore, take risks and face real-world outcomes.
Understand the ‘Fit’
Perhaps the biggest key to success with performance simulations comes from knowing not only when to use them, but also when not to use them. The following criteria are important elements of a strong business case:
- A critical business goal is at risk due to existing or potential gaps in workforce performance.
- A large and probably geographically dispersed workforce is involved (such as a sales organization or a call center), potentially with high turnover and long existing times to achieve basic proficiency.
- The job roles involve complex decision-making, where errors can lead to high risks.
- Only a few experts throughout the organization have critical knowledge and abilities related to specific aspects of the workforce’s performance.
- A large amount of on-the-job and hands-on practice is required to reach competency.
Understand the Higher-Level Issues
Performance simulation not only must be part of an entire blended learning experience, but also must be blended with a higher-level, more strategic approach to workforce transformation. To what business end are you investing in workforce enablement? What do you need your workforce to do to differentiate your organization and help it achieve high performance in the long run?
Even in industries that continue to struggle with operating budgets, organizations recognize the need to transform their operations if they are going to drive business success and sustainable competitive advantage. Human performance elements are increasingly recognized by executives as critical. The linkage between improved capability and effectiveness in individuals and improvements in business performance is now better understood. As Wachovia Securities noted in its recent report, “A Guide to the Approaching Boom in Human Capital Solutions,” “There is a growing realization among successful companies that talented human capital with a strong performance ethic is crucial for success.”
Research on the bottom-line value of customer relationship management (CRM), for example, has shown that four of the top five capabilities with the greatest potential impact on financial return were related to improving human performance—customer service, motivating and rewarding people, attracting and retaining people, and building selling and service skills. According to the research, improving these four capabilities by 30 percent can add an additional $45.5 million annually in pre-tax profits to a $1 billion company.
Performance simulations applied within the context of workforce transformation can be a powerful tool throughout three essential components of workforce transformation:
- Performance management: A well-designed performance simulation can contribute to more effective performance management through the use of metrics in the simulation that provide learners with feedback on their performance, how their actions impact others, how they have achieved business goals and how that influenced overall company performance.
- Performance development and enablement: This is the “sweet spot” of performance simulation, enabling the workforce to live out the performance environment and, at the same time, helping to shape the behaviors needed to enact new strategies to keep the organization nimble. The tone and culture reflected in the personified coaching provided in the simulation gives a consistent voice to a company’s performance review and coaching model. The experience itself drives toward higher levels of performance and the development of new and complex skills and decision-making abilities.
- Workforce management: Performance simulations can even reflect and reinforce workforce management themes and messages and are used by some companies to assist with induction and succession planning challenges.
In the end, the workforce transformation model keeps everyone “honest” as to what’s really at stake with any workforce performance initiative, including performance simulation: aligning people and activities to the overall enterprise key performance indicators, including customer retention, cost-effectiveness, speed to market or whatever is most important to the ongoing viability of the business.
The Importance of Internal Marketing
Effective performance simulations are launched like major marketing campaigns. They have a branded look and feel, a slogan and a pizzazz that captures not just the minds, but also the hearts of learners. There was a time when people thought that creating a dazzling simulation was enough and that people would run to take it. We’ve learned that simulations are subject to the same realities of other learning modalities, and boosting accountability is an ongoing challenge. Performance simulations should be augmented by meaningful personal interaction, including pre- and post-simulation touch points, and follow-ups that reinforce discussions with coaches and managers. Incentive programs are also something to think about, although some of the most successful incentives can come from a simple e-mail from a senior executive: “I’m writing to let you know I’m looking forward to meeting with you in person next week to discuss your recent experience with our latest performance simulation training.” In the face of that kind of pressure, who’s not going to take the training in advance?
Understand the Role of Trust
Finally, don’t overlook the importance of the trust factor in effectively implementing performance simulations. Simulation depends on the learner’s failure, from which important lessons are gleaned. But if your organization, even with the best of intentions, wants to track learner interactions with the simulation to find out general trends, you will succeed in gathering data only at the expense of trust. You’ve told the learners to go ahead and fail, but if they know you are watching them, you may undermine the experience and jeopardize the business value delivered by the performance simulation.
The Road Ahead
Recent research into high-performance learning organizations has demonstrated that most learning executives believe that the use of technology to deliver employee learning will increase by as much as 30 percent over the next five years. Performance simulation may represent much of that increase. As organizations discover that simulations are within their price range, and as they personally experience the high performance that results, performance simulations will become increasingly mainstream.
Tim Ringo is a partner with the Accenture Global Human Performance Service Line. Eren Rosenfeld is a senior manager in the communications and high-tech industry group for Accenture and oversees the company’s performance simulation practice and capability development. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Filed under: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery, Measurement, Performance Management, Technology