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November 29, 2006

Our Artificial Substitute

I'm one of those few people that doesn't mind artificial sweeteners at all, even diet sodas and diet "chocolate" protein bars. So, little wonder the idea of an artificial, though convincing, training experience via simulation appeals to me.

Simulation technology is still fairly pricey from what I understand, especially if you want to add streaming video to your branching story or leadership development "game show." But, it seems like a pleasant way to get the medicine of training down already-constricted employee throats, and, if it's done right, you might even save money in the long-run by not having to invest in the real thing--particularly if that "real thing" requires travel and multi-instructor facilitation.

But, unlike the other artificials of our existence (so many to choose from), simulation can't be enjoyed self-service style at its optimum best, I'm told. If it's a simulation-based game, for instance, in which teams of over-achievers are competing against each other, an instructor to help groups analyze their choices and effectively work together can be invaluable, as can feedback from an insightful instructor after the game is over.

Like so many compromises we capitulate to that take us waist-deep into the artificial, a cost benefit analysis is necessary. Since it's almost, but not nearly, the real thing, what am I giving up?  Some say artificial foods, fibers and airborne chemicals hurt your health over time; some say realistic-but-not-quite-there training poses risks to on-the-job employee performance. No doubt, a heart, lung and tissue transplant surgeon can't wholly be trained via a space-age computer terminal, and most would argue you also wouldn't want the engineer on your train tonight, or the people who built your car, taught solely by an interactive electronic avatar (even one that talks like your mechanical-speaking, real world instructor).

For job functions that aren't life and death like, say, reporter, are simulations alone okay?  For those of you who use simulations, how do you decide when it's worth investing in, and when, if ever, it's sufficient as a stand-alone training method?

See, one of the funny things I remember is my first encounter with simulations, my driver's license exam.  I (barely) passed the part where they put me in front of a screen that simulated a drive down a suburban street. And, the part in the car with the cranky old man directing me around Hamden, CT?  I passed that, too. The problem is to this day I don't know how to parallel park, drive on highways or change lanes too well. Luckily, I live in Manhattan, and, so, gave up my car over a year ago.

When it comes to training your up-and-coming managers, though, you may not have my fortune. If it turns out your simulation gave them a false sense of security that wasn't detected in the now-scaled back real-experience portion of your program, they may crash quite a bit before you force them to relinquish the wheel.


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