Training for the Real Thing

Article excerpt


An engineering group is on edge. Some of its members are leaning over a conference table, kneeling on chairs, studying diagrams, and drawing figures. Others are pacing and shouting ideas.

A woman enters with a piece of paper and announces that the marketing department has changed the specs again. The group lets out a groan. "How are we going to meet the deadline now?" somebody asks. Someone else yells, "Get someone from marketing in here now! We'll see who's going to change the specs."

That scenario is a true story, but the situation wasn't for real. It took place as part of a simulation of a typical product-development process. Managers were asked to look at their own behavior during the simulation to watch for any similarities to their behavior at work. After recognizing the similarities, they began experimenting in the simulation and discovering how to change the ways in which they communicated and worked together.

Simulations produce powerful experiences, providing insight and skills for participants to use as a basis for changing their behavior.

Barry Oshry, a developer of simulations, says that the power behind simulations is that you experience something, rather than just talk about it. When people are asked to take action, they tend to become totally involved in what is happening. And when an experience touches people's minds, hearts, and bodies, they are more likely to change in response to it.

Simulations have been around at least since World War 2, when the United States used "war games" and operations research methods to model complex combat situations. Perhaps the first civilian application was a simulation called Monopologs. Developed by Rand Corporation, it was originally used to model inventory changes in the U.S. Air Force. Simulations using computers were developed in business schools in the early 1960s. Next, simulations were developed widely for educational purposes, particularly to teach social studies.

Within the last 10 years, with help from personal computers, simulations have reached individual consumers. PC games and simulations have been surprisingly successful. At the same time, more and more businesses are using simulations of organization dynamics, as change tools. Many companies, including General Electric and IBM, use simulations in their management development programs. Consulting and training firms have also discovered the benefits of organization simulations.

More than a game

Most trainers and consultants are familiar with experiential learning games that engage participants in working together and having fun in the process. They include survival games, such as the kinds that ask groups to choose items they would need to survive an event such as a crash on the moon. But organization simulations go further than experiential learning. They model actual operating systems and conditions that participants confront in their jobs.

Some simulations focus on a strategy of a specific enterprise. Others ask participants to balance finance, marketing, and other components under various market conditions. Many simulations include manuals, computer scoring, and printouts to reconstruct the environments in which participants operate.

Noncomputerized simulations focus on behavioral conditions in organizations. They may include a variety of props and materials--items such as in-baskets, detailed scenario and role descriptions, and children's building blocks.

Some companies use computers to help create realistic atmospheres. A computer's ability to crunch numbers and "interact" with participants can help simulate bottom-line results of business decisions.

For example, the American Press Institute uses a complex computer model to simulate as many as 3,500 decisions that are typical of the ones newspaper executives must make. …