Most learning professionals like smaller, simpler topics, the sort that can be handled in an afternoon, for two reasons. First, we can become an expert on a little topic. Second, our natural inclination is to break big topics into small ones that are more digestible for both instructor and participant.
That works often, too. When a content area is actually a set of smaller problems, we can present them one at a time. Business law is like that. For instance, contract law does not overlap much with intellectual property law. We can easily break down the subject and train around the pieces.
But what do you do when the topic is something wide and deep, such as how to run a business? Not accounting, marketing, HR or production — the whole shebang.
With some topics, we have the problem of the three blindfolded men describing an elephant by touch. It’s big, it’s diverse, and trying to understand the whole by focusing on one piece at a time is likely to confuse participants more than help.
Enter computer simulations. Much of the progress made in the past 30 years with big, systemic problems is due to computer simulations. Ecology, weather, strategy, climate, economics, battlefields — computer simulations make them understandable.
For learning professionals, computer simulations make these big, systemic topics teachable. They take the elephant and shrink it down to a size that participants can see all at once. They put the elephant in slow motion, or they speed it up. They make it easy to see how the parts fit together — the trunk goes here, the ears there.
Most trainers are leery of teaching all-inclusive topics such as “business.” For that matter, most Ph.D.s in business schools are leery of teaching business in a general way. Instead they teach accounting, marketing, finance, HR or some other narrow discipline. Educators are keenly aware of the depth of their ignorance outside their specialties.
But corporate trainers and professors alike are delighted when they discover that they can teach a business simulation. Here is what frequently happens.
Educators play with the simulation. In the process, they observe that their specialty has been reduced in size and complexity to a few key elements, typically the elements that affect other parts of the simulation. While they feel some regret that their complex domain has been “oversimplified,” they immediately see the benefit — relating their specialty to others.
More importantly, they discover that the other specialties also have been reduced in complexity, often to a level they already understand. Even if they don’t, tooling up to the required level of understanding is not difficult.
The emphasis shifts from depth to breadth. Instructors do not have to be an expert in everything. They only have to explain how the parts fit together and the purpose of each part. Best of all, they have a simulation that they can use to explore that integration.
In fact, participants often say, “I learned more about business in the simulation than I learned in business school.” This is not true, of course. They simply saw the entire beast at once, instead of the trunk or the leg.
Equally important, they discover they can distinguish must-know topics from nice-to-know topics. We have watched as entire curriculums were revamped a few years after a business simulation was introduced.
Simulations make it easy to teach complex, integrated subjects. Instead of the classic method — teach the dots and let learners connect them on their own — a simulation takes a top-down approach. Start with the proverbial elephant, and then drill down into the parts. “Let’s have a closer look at the ear on this beast. We know what it is for now, but how does it work?” And to their delight, participants are interested in learning more about the ear, as well as the elephant.