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Why does simulation bring change?

Simulation helps people to understand the consequences of choices.

Simulation for training

To use simulation requires a different approach to training. It requires more effort in the planning and learning design stage, requires more preparation for delivery, and opens up more possibilities for how a training interaction will unfold. Simulation brings a degree of uncertainty to training, as it readily accommodates different learning styles and stages of skill development. Simulation is learner centered, unlike lecture-style training which is trainer centered. It therefore requires the trainer to be more confident in their knowledge and assessment skills, as they will be led on a “journey of discovery” by the learner as the simulation stimulates memories, knowledge and ‘ah-ha’ moments. On the other hand, simulation training offers the ultimate reward for trainers, for the typical training ideals of engagement, knowledge sharing, proficiency and learning validation are “obvious”.

Simulation for decision making

Simulation forces us to think in terms of variables that affect outcomes and be open-minded about the results. It means we need to incorporate possibilities we hadn’t considered. It forces us to collaborate. It forces us to make decisions…how much…how many…how often?

Why might people find simulation threatening?

Simulation is confronting. It holds a mirror up to us and shows our flaws: it creates dissonance.

Simulation is often introduced into businesses to bring consistency, access and efficiency. It upsets the “status quo” of systems that have perhaps been embedded in a culture for decades or even centuries. It equalizes, and differentiates. It uncovers and replaces mythologies, disproves theories and redefines eminence. It revolutionizes. It highlights behaviours and forces acknowledgement. It measures results.

(These are the reasons simulation is a compelling training tool. )

Why are simulation programs so hard to implement?

Simulation is a network or complex entity, unlike a book or whiteboard. It employs narrative, requires data, pushes people out of their comfort zone and if technology is involved, there are software, hardware, electrical, hydraulic systems, projectors, screens and internet connections to consider. The acquisition, deployment and maintenance of simulations often extend beyond the control of the person desiring to use it.

If it’s sold as an integrated solution, it is now the subject of shared decision making.

Simulation targets behaviours, which

  • are the results of systems and symbols in a business. It touches policies, processes and procedures, through its establishment and its effects. Its reach extends far beyond its immediate use and creates a ripple effect of change. A ripple effect of dissonance. A ripple effect of opportunity. A swathe of overwhelming possibilities. Cans of worms.
  • means its use is likely to be scrutinized by industrial umpires to ensure the fair treatment of all.

Simulation requires skills that may not exist within the business. Skills for acquiring, skills for deploying and skills for maintaining. A ripple effect.

Simulation must fit into existing resources that were not originally designed to accommodate simulation. Learning materials, IT infrastructure, training rooms, budgets. A ripple effect.

What type of simulation to use? Thinking about taxonomy…

Melanie Worrall and I have been working on a research project about simulations and we have been chatting about the underpinning concepts that we are working with. On one hand, we have worked with a set of definitions and assumptions. On the other, we also reflected… what is the perception of our readers.

For example, Simulation Australia defines simulation as the act of exercising a model (a physical, graphical, mathematical or conceptual representation of a device, event or scenario) over time.

Often, there is a perception of a simulation as being a high end, high investment and high fidelity. However, if you are faking reality to learn something; you are probably using simulation. This ranges from sitting under a table with tablecloth (to replicate a confined space), through to doing a role play (live, online or in a webinar) to the high end simulations used in a flight simulators.

To be a simulation you need to have the components of a simulation. A simulation has:

  • A model; that is a a physical, graphical, mathematical or conceptual representation.
  • A scenario, context or story; this is the setting the simulation plays out, within this, there are rules. The rules outline what happens if something happens.
  • User input: the person in the simulation makes decisions and interacts with the model (as opposed to watching something happen).


Simulation expert, Elyssebeth Leigh (2003) has noted there is a “futility [in] trying to establish a single definitive categorisation system for all simulations and games. Understanding how they can be arranged in a variety of different relationships provides insight into their general features and helps in making decisions about when and how to use specific activities.”

So with this in mind and to try to understand the relationships, we have collated some concepts to help navigate this area and assist in making decisions about what to simulations use in your learning and development activities.

We will start with Duke’s (1974) starting point to think about simulations, Ask yourself:

  1. Who are your learners
  2. What is the problem
  3. What are they to do or learn
  4. What materials are available.

So, how do you make decisions about when and how to use them? We have put together some theories to assist you with this process in deciding what type of simulation to use.

My advice is to read through the descriptions first, spoiler alert – we will bring it together at the end of the blog with examples.

Step 1: Identify the level of immersion

First, think about your learning outcomes. What do you want the participants to achieve. This is to think about the way the participants are immersed in the simulation. Immersion is the depth of experience that a person immerses themselves into the simulation. Adams (2004) describes three types of immersion:

  • Tactical immersion: This when there is a tactile response to the simulation. For example, something you can feel and touch. When using a tactical immersion, then you are going to need to have some equipment to assist with this (eg a manikin or dashboard).
  • Strategic immersion: This is more cerebral and associated with mental challenges.
  • Narrative immersion: This is when people become invested in a story, like when you are reading a book or playing a game.


Step 2: Consider the complexity of the simulation

Now, think about how complex the simulation is. Think of this on a continuum from simple to complex.

There are two factors to consider:

  • Level of problem solving (Variables/outcomes and participants): Do you have a finite number of variables to cover (unintended consequences can be controlled) or is there an almost infinite number of variables (with all the unintended consequences). Imagine you are training someone to disarm a bomb, there are a finite number of choices (red wire, blue wire, green wire) and you can control the outcome (the bomb explodes or it doesn’t). Compare this with having a participant talk someone holding a bomb (with the objective to disarm it). There are almost infinite number of variables and unintended consequences.
  • Relationship between participants: When the participant starts the simulation, consider if they are alone or if they interact with others. If they interact with others, chances are it is a more complex simulation (the networked iteration of the simulated event involves synchronous interactions between heterogeneous entities). If there is no relationship to other participants (the simulated event has no co-dependencies with other participants), this best supports homogeneous learning outcomes. One way of thinking about this is the difference between a single player game or Xbox live.

If you are interested in technology enhanced simulations, less problem solving (the fewer variables), the easier it is to put online. The more variables, the harder it is to put online and the more complex the simulation is.

Step 3: Consider the degree of abstraction

A simulation can sit along a continuum from real (or concrete) to abstract. As a simulation becomes more abstract, the participant needs to ‘suspend their belief’ in the simulation and they start to fill in the gaps of missing cues (visual, auditory etc).

Step 4: Identify the model of simulation

Finally, is to think about the type of simulation you want to use. Searle and Brennan (2007) identify three simulation models:

  • Live: Live simulations involve real people, real equipment and simulated effects. An example of this would be a simulated emergency situation with real people, real equipment and fake blood and injuries (simulated effects).
  • Virtual: Virtual simulations involve real people in a simulated environment and simulated equipment.
  • Constructive: Constructive simulations involve simulated people, simulated equipment and a simulated environment which is stimulated by real people.

This is originally a defence taxonomy, but has application here. So let’s put it all together.

Pulling it together

Once you have worked out how simple/complex the simulation is, let’s pair it up with the level of immersion and bring in the type of simulation.

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Thinking about your simulation

This is our first pass at a taxonomy or way of helping in making decisions about what to use in your learning and development activities. We are writing a white paper about simulations generally and will make it available as soon as possible.

If you have feedback, we welcome your thoughts – email me at info@simulationagency.com

You can find out more about Melanie’s work here.

Adams, E, 2004, ‘Postmodernism and the three types of immersion’ in Gamasutra, pp 12-26.

Duke, R, 1974, Gaming: The Future’s Language, SAGE Publications.

Leigh, E, 2003, A Practitioner Researcher Perspective on Facilitating an Open, Infinite, Chaordic Simulation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Technology, Sydney, http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/research/handle/2100/308

Does your Change Manager need an “access all areas” pass?

Author Susan Scott used a tree metaphor to describe a process for delegating decision making in her book Fierce Conversations (2004). Scott suggests that like trees where changes at the leaf, tree, trunk or root level have a greater or lessor impact on the health of the tree, business decision-makers need to understand the affects of certain types of decisions on the wellbeing of the organisation. Scott’s ‘Decision Tree’ is a great model for thinking about how disruptive the change will be and what authority your change champion needs.

The least intrusive changes are initiatives involving leaf decisions. These are decisions with low impact, and that only affect the person who made the decision. In most organisations, people are generally expected to make leaf decisions and act on them without needing to tell anyone about it. Typical leaf-level changes might include creating a new folder structure in your personal filing cabinet or computer.

A communication strategy really smooths the process for changes involving branch decisions. These are decisions that have some impact on other people and the change needs to be communicated. Generally people making branch decisions need specific authority to make the decision. The authority might be documented in your role statement or might be expressly given as a direction from your manager. Regular reporting of actions from branch decisions is needed so the impact of the decision can be monitored. Examples of branch decisions might include changing the location of files (hard copy or electronic), changing preferred suppliers for low-risk items.

When change is impacting an organisation at the level of trunk decisions, it’s a good idea to really plan how the change will be managed, possibly even recruit a change manager. Trunk decisions often affect both internal and external stakeholders, and have the potential to cause damage to the organisation and as such it is important that they reviewed before being acted on. People making these types of decisions should report the decision to a higher authority in the organisation for approval. Trunk decisions will often impact more than one team, and include things like new/upgraded tools (software programs, equipment), changes to standard operating procedures, minor changes to product/service offerings.

Root decisions could devastate the organisation and should be made with contributions from many people. Decisions of this nature will likely impact the whole organisation and significant investment will be made in communicating and managing the decision and its execution. Root decisions include things like new industrial agreements, organisational restructures, changing legal entity status (eg membership organisation to non-profit company limited by guarantee), high-value/high-risk investments, major changes to product/service offerings (changing the technical core).



A perfect match: simulation and compliance training

Often compliance training is seen as a waste of time as it does not inspire changes to work practices, even though that’s where the real return on investment lies.

The value of simulation training comes from its ability to demonstrate, test and measure an individual or team’s performance. Training simulations are not generally designed to test the trainer’s knowledge or communicate volumes of factual information, yet assessment practices often end up testing how well those two things were demonstrated. Hence, the perception that simulators “don’t fit”.

While training concentrates on conveying information instead of changing behaviour, simulators will be limited in their ability to generate returns on the investment that are potentially achievable. Simulation training focuses on delivering outcomes that significantly affect on-the-job performance, above and beyond minimum legislated requirements.

Genuine competency-based training requires that trainers focus on what people actually do when they leave the training, as well as what they should know and do. Genuine competence is achieved by consistently practicing new skills over time. This is where simulation demonstrates its real value, as it allows trainers to effectively hold up a “mirror” and show learners how their performance differs from what is desired, and what they must do to achieve the required outcome. Again and again and again. This requires very different skills and knowledge for trainers than the traditional approaches commonly used in compliance training.

Think of a time when you realized you had to change something about yourself. A simple illustration is the word “um”. People might have told you that you say “um” a lot, but you didn’t worry about it too much. Then you saw yourself on video. Ouch! Seeing yourself “in action”, as such, makes you realize that you say it a lot more than you thought, and it really is quite frustrating to listen to. This discovery is a bit embarrassing, and makes you uncomfortable enough to do something about it. You may ask people for some advice, or look up some strategies on the internet, and over the next few weeks you really focus on removing “um” from your speech. You may ask someone to give you feedback during this time to help you.

  • What did it take for you to change your behaviour? Over what time-frame?
  • How much harder is it to coach someone through a change like that than simply telling them to change?
  • What skills are required to ensure the change can be acheived and sustained?
  • How do those skills differ from powerpoint-style delivery – telling people “stuff” that they can choose to ignore once they leave the room?

Top tips: 4 ways to get started with simulation

Simulation training works best when it leverages prior skills and knowledge to create dissonance, inspire learning and deliver change. For ideas about how to do this:

  1. Look for examples outside the your industry where simulation is used well, and think about how you can transfer those examples to your work. Some places to start are resources, health, defence, aviation, rail and emergency management. You’ll be surprised that many operational challenges are common and there are some interesting solutions. Examine how they design and apply their knowledge.
  2. Engage with organisations that are actively working in this area as they’ll have case studies and contacts who can help you. The Simulation Agency has relationships with many organisations who are knowledgeable about these issues. Several universities are also developing their capability to support training simulation.
  3. Talk to suppliers – if their current products don’t fully meet your requirements, they need to know. Demand creates supply.
  4. Go to simulation and training conferences as an exhibitor or delegate. This is an effective way for letting people know what your needs (simulation users) and offerings (simulation suppliers) are.

What is simulation?

The word simulation is often used to refer to a simulator. There is an important difference.

Simulation is the act of exercising a model (a physical, graphical, mathematical or conceptual representation of a device, event or scenario) over time. If you are faking reality to learn something, you are probably using simulation.
A simulator is the name given to a device that performs a simulation, for example a haul truck simulator, or a flight simulator.

Simulations are synthetic versions of reality; they place participants in realistic business environments where they are asked to complete tasks with legitimate business goals.

Simulation captures the essentials of a workplace environment in a way that allows participants to apply new skills, try different approaches and explore the implications of decisions and actions, risk-free.

Simulation can take the form of what-if scenarios and experiments or role-plays (such as mission rehearsals) for the purpose of learning a skill or informing a decision. A simulation may be, but is not necessarily, computer assisted. The Monopoly board game is a simulation (of a real estate marketplace). A fire drill is a simulation designed to help us learn and practice what we should do in the case of a fire. In most cases, we do not use a simulator as part of this process.

It is important to recognise that simulation and simulators are not just used for training. Some organisations are finding that simulators greatly assist both training and policy development. For example, the Australian Defence Force uses simulation to test military strategies, governments are using simulation to formulate policy, and in the resources industry simulations are used to optimize production and inform scheduling.


5 things simulations do better than any other training tool

Simulation, whether in its simplest or most complex forms, is recognized around the world for being able to:

  1. Provide a safe environment for learning and practicing skills, where the real environment is too high-risk.
  2. Reduce training costs, where the use of real materials is prohibitive.
  3. Accelerate learning transfer through making abstract principles concrete, and providing the capability to replicate a training activity exactly time after time.
  4. Provide learners and trainers with real-time feedback and a mechanism for debriefing the learning experience.
  5. Engage learners by providing an immersive environment, or by stimulating senses