Sometimes, it’s obvious. Other times, you have to make a choice.
Simulations can be designed and run as solo activities, or as group exercises. In a group—or between groups—simulations can be done in a cooperative way or as competitive events. Different things push your choice as a learning professional in one direction or another.
Most simulations used to develop skill are done as solo sims—the learner does the simulation independently. This is relatively simple. The learner starts the simulation, engages with the challenges of the situation, resolves them, and gets feedback on performance. The delivery can be computer-based, or done on the job or in a classroom. Where there is scoring or competition, it is the learner against the situation, and not person-versus-person.
- Advantages: Targets specific skills performed by one person; relatively simple to design and deliver; appropriate for introductory and individual skills training.
- Limitations: Not effective for tasks performed by members of an interdependent team (sales estimation and contracting, for example, where the salesperson needs to get agreement from a technician); may not get the advantage of learning from others’ experiences, viewpoints, and ideas.
Variant: Partner Simulations
A very common variant on solo simulations is the partner (or role-playing) simulation. In this variant, the learner is practicing a task with the assistance of a partner. The partner takes a role or provides information that simulates the social interaction typical to the simulated environment. The learner is still practicing the skill alone, however. The partner is just there to allow for more realistic practice and is neither cooperating with nor competing against the learner.
Cooperative simulations are excellent tools for teams that need to pool their skills to achieve a successful outcome to a more complex task. (A simple example is a task where a heavy equipment operator relies on another person acting as a guide to move and work the equipment safely. A more complex example is an emergency response team where each member has a specific, critical skill that must be performed in cooperation with others’ tasks.) In a cooperative simulation, there is a benefit to each learner for working together. Challenges inside the simulation should include routine and novel barriers to communication, or competing incentives that replicate the competing pressures faced in the work environment.
- Advantages: Very effective for team tasks; can be very effective for individual tasks that benefit from collaboration or knowledge-sharing; easy to capture the benefits of social learning.
- Limitations: Often more complex and expensive to design and deliver; can be harder to program for computer-based delivery; desired learning outcomes must be defined at both individual and group levels.
Competitive simulations add the excitement and stress of competition, with learners competing against other learners for some limited resource. Sometimes, the limited resource is a status ranking on a leader board. Other times, the resources might be things needed inside the simulation to achieve the best outcomes. (In a competitive sales simulation, for example, learners might work in teams, but only one team will win the contract.) Because competition increases stress—and often with much less predictable results than other learning simulations—this type of sim should typically be used only when the task environment requires it. (Introducing competition for the sake of excitement or engagement when the real-world task environment is not competitive is a mistake I sometimes see.) The competition must be relevant to the task the learners are performing.
- Advantages: Essential for tasks where the learners must routinely deal with competition for limited resources, or where there is an opposing force resisting their efforts; allows trainers to help the learners explore and improve their reactions to success and defeat; easy to capture the benefits of social learning.
- Limitations: Often more complex and expensive to design and deliver; care must be taken to keep the competitive stress relevant to and within the range of what the learners can accept and learn from; can be harder to program for computer-based delivery than solo sims; desired learning outcomes must be defined at both individual and group levels.
Use the Right Tool for the Job
I always prompt my clients to use the right tool for the job. The intended outcomes should drive the choice of whether to use a simulation, and what kind of simulation it should be. To do this, we always have to ask, “Who are these learners, and what do they need to do differently on the job?” Getting very clear about this saves time, effort, and headaches. It lets us know when competition is needed, where cooperation is beneficial, and when we can get the most mileage from a solo simulation.
Use the right kind of simulation for your audience’s learning needs. If you would like a sounding board as you think about your specific situation, contact me. I’m happy to respond to questions!