Robert Lennon, a consulting engineer in Parsippany, N.J., walked into a client’s facility to demonstrate how to run a routine diagnostic of a fire protection water pump system. When the client started the pump as part of the exercise, water began to gurgle into the system as expected. Suddenly, a valve unexpectedly activated and started leaking, causing the pump to remain on. Pressure built in the system, triggering alarms that caused the building’s elevators to shut down as part of the facility’s safety systems. Lennon had never encountered this situation in the field before. What should have been a simple systems test rapidly turned into a nightmare.
Lennon quickly got the elevators running again and drained the system so it could be reset, before the issue became more serious. “Without the SimZone training it would have been difficult for me to react that quickly and confidently,” he said.
Lennon works at FM Global, a commercial property insurer that follows a business model built on engineering practices. In 2011 it created the SimZone, an experiential simulation classroom designed to create confident, quick-thinking engineers who help protect nearly $8 trillion in insured properties worldwide.
Using simulation-based lessons featuring real-world scenarios involving common risks such as fire, ignitable liquid, construction, equipment malfunction and electrical hazards, the SimZone equips engineers to identify and assess risks immediately. The SimZone can create thousands of possible property risk simulations that offer hands-on opportunities for the company’s clients and 1,800 engineers to apply their knowledge and critical-thinking skills to protect business property from disasters.
A Foundation for Learning
Since it was founded in 1835, FM Global has found ways to help clients reduce property-related risk through science. Roughly 1,800 of its more than 5,300 employees are engineers. While other insurance companies may rely on actuaries to estimate the likelihood and cost of potential damage, FM Global uses engineering as its foundation for loss prevention.
To keep up with demand for its services internationally, FM Global hires between 75 and 150 engineers every year who all need training. These engineers must be able to identify risks to the company and make recommendations to eliminate or mitigate them. Providing each engineer with the best training is essential. With 177 years of engineering experience, FM Global puts significant resources into facilitating knowledge transfer, ensuring each generation learns from those before them.
FM Global estimates it invests upwards of $350,000 in the first 18 months of training for each new engineer to arm him or her with the knowledge and self-confidence needed to provide clients with the best advice.
Given the volume of trainees and the breadth of skills they need, in 2005 company leaders realized the only way to truly ensure a consistent and accurate understanding of its approach would be through experiential learning platforms, which required a commitment to enterprise learning.
Prior to that, FM Global trained its engineers in the traditional classroom style. Although blackboards were eventually replaced with whiteboards and overhead slides gave way to PowerPoint, education was one-dimensional. The hands-on component was missing until engineers were at a client’s facility, potentially experiencing things for the first time.
To address this, FM Global leapfrogged established classroom technologies and developed an online training offering in 2006. The number of users for online learning grew exponentially, and in 2011, more than 67,000 of the company’s engineers and clients took advantage of a variety of online training media, including webinars, podcasts, video podcasts and seminars, all dealing with how to mitigate a range of natural and man-made perils.
For all the value online training and seminars provide, however, they do not allow an FM Global engineer or client to fully experience the various property risks that may affect the company’s 274,000 insured client locations in 130 countries. To provide engineers and clients with deeper insight into potential risk, FM Global created three-dimensional risk and hazard assessment training. Its approach is much like the simulated flight training pilots take to provide safe, hands-on experience.
Dennis Anderson, a 35-year company veteran, embraced the opportunity to make such a facility a reality. Anderson, vice president and manager of engineering application training, said he started by asking, “How can we adopt the airline pilot training approach and expand an engineer’s knowledge base as quickly and efficiently as possible?”
In 2009, he petitioned senior management for permission to build an experiential learning laboratory, the SimZone, at the company’s Center for Property Risk Solutions in Norwood, Mass. His proposal was approved, and FM Global invested $5 million to build the “classroom of the future.” By the time the SimZone’s doors opened in September 2011, Anderson and his team had built a 12,000-square-foot learning center.
Through the SimZone, FM Global engineers get a thorough grounding in fire protection methodology — fire is the No. 1 cause of commercial property loss — including water supply testing, fire pump installations and sprinkler systems, so they can effectively and confidently discuss with clients property exposures and what can be done to prevent related disasters. The engineers need to do more than just offer clients ways to better protect their property — they have to help them understand the why and the how of the risk.
Engineers also gain a direct understanding of how particular construction materials and building designs can make a structure more or less vulnerable to wind and fire. Thousands of potential property risk simulations can be created in the 10 learning stations in the SimZone.
“These stations allow our engineers and clients to apply their knowledge and critical thinking skills in a controlled setting that simulates more than 90 percent of the property risks scenarios common to all clients,” said Jay Cannon, assistant vice president and manager of the SimZone.
Engineering New Learning
FM Global also reimagined traditional course material to align with the SimZone’s interactive nature. Tablet computers with cameras make the experience more engaging and memorable. Replacing 11,000 pages of printed reading material housed in three-ring binders and weighing more than 30 pounds, FM Global has transitioned course reference materials into an electronic format. The insurer made an e-book for tablets and created exercises that allow the student to use the camera to identify errors in simulations, keep notes and take tests. The course content is easily updated, trackable and enables engineers to get information whenever and wherever they need it.
Since the SimZone opened, more than 200 new engineers have gained knowledge by working at its stations. Of those engineers, approximately 40 percent are based outside of the United States, with generally four to five continents represented per class.
Unlike many companies that evaluate corporate performance quarter-to-quarter, FM Global takes a long-term view. Accordingly, it measures the long-term impact of enterprise learning through annual audits of engineering effectiveness in company offices around the world. The results of these audits allow the insurer to determine regional engineering differences, spot emerging trends and develop ways to deliver services more consistently. Though it’s too early to measure the impact of the SimZone qualitatively against the engineering audits, managers of the newly trained engineers have noted the program’s effectiveness in improving skills.
“The new field engineers have covered in a week at the SimZone what used to take two intensive years in the field to be exposed to,” said David Hartelou, operations engineering manager, FM Global. “There, the field engineers also have the luxury of manipulating protection, construction and electrical items that most engineers have only seen in theory prior to the SimZone. That has been invaluable to our operations in terms of knowledge, boosting confidence and credibility in front of our clients.” Through the SimZone, FM Global is building a workforce of next-generation engineers with experience and know-how that affords them a new level of confidence when advising clients. Functioning as trained business continuity agents, they can create comprehensive risk assessments and get the most out of every moment they spend in a client’s facility.
“The SimZone gave me the opportunity to witness things that I have only seen in pictures — to touch, understand and ask questions. It was extremely helpful,” said trainee Nicole Trabalka, consultant engineer in Malvern, Pa.
Karen Freedman is chief learning officer for FM Global. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.
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