A flight of fancy – The future of learning

First published in The Huffington Post on 7 January 2016

The world of business is missing a trick. The greater use of simulation to help improve people’s skills could lead to substantial improvements in performance. We should learn the lessons from other sectors.

The Paediatric Consultant looked around the ward. Things were quiet. Placing the child dummy on the bed he summoned the team across and started a simulation of how the team would respond in the event a child presented with a number of serious life threatening symptoms. They didn’t just talk it through, they got the relevant equipment out and went through the whole process as if it were real. They run such simulations a couple of times a month to ensure they are ready for when the real emergencies arrive. There are children alive today who owe their existence to treatment practised on a child dummy.

The real experts in this area are in the airline industry. Commercial pilots undergo regular checks in flight simulators to ensure they are capable of handling incidents that could occur during a flight. Holding a licence to fly depends on the successful completion of these checks. Simulation works because people get to practise what they need to do, free from the pressure of a real situation and are able to learn and make mistakes in training rather than for real.

In contrast to medicine and aviation, too many business’ learning and development programmes are classroom based. The closest they come to simulation is the use of abstract team development type exercises that are supposed to replicate business activities. But it’s a leap of faith to imagine that solving a puzzle with ropes and logs will make you a better team. Can you imagine trying to suggest such activities would help a neurosurgeon operate? It’s just as silly to think it will make people better at doing business.

Doctors use mannequins that replicate the human body in as life-like a way as possible for training. Pilots are trained in simulators that replicate the cockpit of the aircraft they fly. The emergency services practise incident management by simulating an incident. Businesses should practise the key skills in an environment that replicates doing business.

It’s your duty
In retail, the Duty Manager role is critical. It has responsibility for ensuring the store is trading safely and legally, i.e. meeting the requirements of trading standards in terms of weights and measures, the sale of alcohol and the safe production of food in their cafes, as well as making sure the building meets the regulations for the safe evacuation of people in the event of a fire.

Development programmes for such people should not be limited to a classroom based lecture on what the various legal requirements are, but a simulation of a fire alarm being sounded and the requirement to empty the store and account for all staff. This doesn’t mean you have to empty an actual store. A suite of rooms in a training facility could be setup to replicate a store with all the relevant muster points marked and a complete set of evacuation kit set up in a room in exactly the same way it is in a store. Delegates can go through the correct procedures as they would for real. The key, however, is that on return to their store they check out what the equivalent is for them in their environment.

Similarly, setting up a mock cafe replete with the most commonly made errors / mistakes will allow people to practise checking that everything is as it should be and what to do if it is not.

Simulation is not the solution for all learning and development needs. There remains a place for ‘chalk and talk’ to communicate knowledge. But flying by the seat of your pants in the heat of the moment is no way to test the application of your knowledge.

Anywhere everywhere
It’s hard to imagine an area of business where simulating what commonly happens is not possible. It needn’t be complex. An HR team could practise what to do if someone approaches them making an accusation against another member of staff. Senior members of the management team could practise what to do in the event of an incident at a facility including how to handle the media. Shop assistants could practise dealing with a customer upset about something they have bought. Finance teams could practise carrying out an internal investigation. The key principle is developing a realistic and relevant scenario and then practising the management of that scenario by actually doing what would have to be done.

From my own experience, I suspect delegates would enjoy such a development experience and be far more motivated to use the knowledge learned when compared to a more traditional programme.

Dominic Irvine © 2016 All rights asserted

If you are interested in more, read our case study for The Duty manager workshop here, and other articles on improving performance here and here

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