The latest advances in training technology see staff being immersed in real-life situations, without ever really being there.
There's something comforting about the fact that airline pilots have to complete regular simulation training days in which they must safely fly through or around turbulence, cope with unexpected technical difficulties and make problematic landings.
After all, if the first time they ever faced such conditions was up high in a plane full of passengers, then we'd probably opt out of flying with them.
So it is with organisational training. Would you prefer your managers or staff to only learn from the mistakes they make in the marketplace, in front of clients, customers, colleagues and other stakeholders? Or is it a better idea for them to stuff up and learn in the safety of a simulated environment?
Many organisations are taking advantage of a new training offering known as 'simulation training' to better prepare staff for whatever the market, or the organisation itself, may throw at them.
Just like the training for pilots, simulation training for business involves immersion in a very real world created with computer graphics. Phones constantly ring, memos are sent and received, managers exert pressure on staff, office politics develop, personalities change under pressure and every decision has invisible impacts. However, in the simulated environment, these invisible impacts are laid bare.
Michelle Gibson, Global Adviser, Leadership and People Development with Rio Tinto, is an Australian currently working in London. Her employer has utilised simulation training systems from IDRIA, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Australian Institute of Management Victoria and Tasmania (AIM Vic/Tas), and she says it's an amazing use of technology.
"IDRIA's simulations are quite unique and exciting to participate in," Gibson says. "They are computer based and highly visual. A learner will sit in front of a PC with, typically, three or four team members to form a project team. Their screens will simulate their office, including incoming phone calls and emails and meetings with other staff and management teams."
Rio Tinto, Gibson says, uses simulators throughout its business, from management training to truck driving.
"There is never a need to convince staff of the benefits of this kind of learning. Society is tech focused, but once you're immersed in the simulation it's actually got very little to do with technology.
"It's all about seeing a project through by making the right people-management decisions. You also see the effect of the decisions you make. Back in the real world this impact can have negative consequences, but in the simulated world, it's safe."
Learning from doing
Another user of simulation training is Fairfax Media. Frank Reed, General Manager Staff Development, says simulation training is an essential part of their development model. Other ingredients in the training recipe include the use of case studies from which trainees can learn, as well as the analysis of models and tools. But the segment that best allows users to test everything they have learned in other training modules is simulation training, he believes.
"A simulated environment allows you to make everyday business decisions that affect your customers, your people, your management, finance and the resources around that," Reed says. "Most importantly, a simulation allows you to work in a safe environment and get reported outcomes from your business decisions. It's the ultimate way to learn from doing."
Most easily compared to immersive video gaming, simulation training can be customised for specific organisations and particular business environments.
Strong learning outcomes
Susan Heron, CEO of AIM Vic/Tas and Executive Chairman of IDRIA, says simulation offerings result in strong learning outcomes that can immediately be applied in the workplace.
"This means return on investment for the organisation and the individual is significantly increased," Heron says. "There is one module that is about induction, for example. We know from our own training that the two main areas of expenditure for training are occupational health and safety and induction training. We are working on a simulation right now that is specifically targeted at induction training. But simulations can be as specific and specialised or as broad as they need to be."
The real value, Heron says, is that the learning is experiential, with real-world results, outcomes and impacts caused and felt in the simulated environment.
"Experiential learning is incredibly valuable because it reinforces a message in a language and in a way that people understand," she says.
At Fairfax Media, Reed says, staff perceive simulation training as an enjoyable way to practise their skills. Some staff become healthily competitive about the outcomes but the organisation recognises more value.
"Simulation training is a proven tool and it works for us. It's not the answer on its own - learning is about using a variety of opportunities - but it is very much a vital part of the learning facility."
Simulations allow people to use and test their new tools in varying scenarios, Reed says. Participants can run the simulated program repeatedly, each time experimenting differently and facing new challenges.
"You might find you get a budget cut," Reed says, "[or] face a time situation where if you can meet a deadline your potential for getting a better result is increased. So you decide not to have a meeting with one of your stakeholders and you meet your deadline, but you haven't got your collaboration right and you lose points for that. What do you do next time?
"There are so many of these scenarios that we regularly face in real life that simulation training can prepare us for. When it's called upon in the real world, that preparation is priceless."