Not real life, but real
Simulation isn't just for your minecraft obsessed 9 year old. Organisations keen to learn regularly use imitations of a real world situations, (or processes, products, systems etc.) and encourage teams to interact, experiment with and respond to them in order to improve.
When done well, simulation based learning has been shown to improve learning and performance more quickly and more effectively than other training methodologies (Woolliscroft, 1987; Smithburger, 2012). Simulations work because they integrate cognitive learning with emotion and action (Hofstede, Caluwé & Peters 2010) in a social environment. Well-designed simulations reflect the real world. They require players to adopt a multidisciplinary approach; bringing different types of knowledge together to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities. It is the fact that players need to take action based on their decision making; to test out the impact of choices, which is where simulations come into their own. Behaviour and social interactions, not knowledge or insight drive simulations. The immersive nature of the simulation coupled with immediate feedback from action (or inaction) allows players to experiment, collaborate, test, innovate - in other words it allows players to play.
In one of the very few papers on debriefing simulation games Peters and Vissers classify simulations according to four core objectives: training, assessment, exploration, and research. They suggest that each one poses specific requirements for debriefing (Peters and Vissers 2004). This is helpful in recognising that for skills development to be effective there needs to be clearly articulated learning outcomes (Issenberg et al, 2005) whereas if the objective is to test readiness for a large emergency for example, the facilitator should be aware that there may be unexpected learning or even unconscious learning. (such as socialisation into the organisation’s culture) which can be powerful and may need to be explored.
Simulations provide rare and valuable opportunities to ‘get into the shoes’ of other people and see the process, product or service from another point of view. I recently worked on an emergency response simulation where we asked the group to create a paper design for a food and household goods distribution. We then created a prototype and tested it in simulation. An experienced humanitarian worker who was part of the simulation team, taking the role of an IDP (internally displaced person) was profoundly affected by her insights into how it felt to be shepherded through a system. The experience highlighted for her the link between provision of clear information and dignity.
In his book Serious Play, Michael Schrage focuses on simulation’s role in innovation and organisational learning. He raises important questions for anyone running simulations, to be explicit about who the simulation is actually for; who will benefit? Schrage warns us that the organisational process or model that is being simulated is not neutral or devoid of meaning but is “a battlefield on which power relationships are enacted” (p158 Schrage 2000). Once the simulation is in action, technical problems are usually easy to solve, the challenge is to resolve conflicts that arise as a result of how the model or process is managed. Simulations will highlight where there are (legitimate) disagreements about organisational trade-offs that need to be made more explicit. Running a simulation means managing these relationships and power dynamics.
This can work well. A recent simulation I facilitated; to test decision making in the event of a global emergency, demonstrated the value of having the legal team in the room from the onset. Even in the initial chaos, their collaboration saved the organisation time, money and reputation.
Simulations are effective if designed and managed well but it is worth heeding Schrage’s warning that “simulations can have a bigger impact on the organisation that is does on the problem it is designed to solve”.
Hofstede, G. J., Caluwé, L. de. & Peters, V. (2010) Why Simulation Games Work—In Search of the Active Substance: a synthesis. Simulation & Gaming 41(6) 824–843
Issenberg, S.B., McGaghie, W.C., Petrusa, E.R., Gordon, D.L. & Scalese, R.J. (2005). Features and Uses of High-Fidelity Medical Simulation that Lead to Effective Learning: a BEME systematic review. Med Teach 2005 27: 10–28
Peters, V. A. M. & Vissers, G. A. N. (2004). A simple classification model for debriefing simulation games. Simulation & Gaming 35(1) 70-84
Schrage, M. (2000). Serious Play; how the world’s best companies simulate to innovate. Harvard Business School Press
Smithburger, P.L., Kane-Gill, S.L., Ruby, C.M. & Seybert, A.L. (2012). Comparing Effectiveness of 3 Learning Strategies: simulation-based learning, problem-based learning and standardized patients. Simul Health 7(3) 141-6
Woolliscroft, J.O., Calhoun, J.G., Tenhaken, J.D., Judge, R.D. Harvey (1987). The Impact of Cardiovascular Teaching Simulator on Student Skill Acquisition. Med Teach 9(1) 53-57