Three Types of Learning Simulations

The word simulation has come to mean many things in L&D. We distinguish between three types of simulations that can change learner behavior.

Well-designed simulations offer an engaging way for learners to grasp new concepts, build skills, and transform behavior. Learning simulations utilize a safe environment modeled after the real world to enable learners to experience and evaluate the outcomes of their actions and decisions without risking business consequences. There are various types of simulations, each suited to different learning objectives. The most common fall into three categories: spreadsheet, branching, and scenario simulations.

Spreadsheet Simulations

Spreadsheet simulations are commonly used to teach business acumen and are particularly effective in making complex financial concepts tangible—cash flow, profit and loss, inventory, etc. Modern day “spreadsheet” sims have replaced spreadsheet-based gameboards with complex algorithms delivered via web-based applications. This new generation of spreadsheet simulations creates a safe space for learners to practice applying new strategies and tactics by modeling complex marketplaces that change in real-time based on the participant’s choices.  

For example, a spreadsheet simulation can be a powerful way to model a new product launch. Teams of learners are asked to allocate finite resources to R&D, marketing, human resources, and manufacturing while overcoming very real challenges, such as supply shortages, new entrants into the marketplace, catastrophic events, employee turnover, etc.

These simulations give learners the opportunity to fail forward by experimenting without experiencing real consequences. But don’t be fooled—the best of this class of simulations utilize competitive environments to create real tension between learners, which allows facilitators to identify learner tendencies toward unfavorable behaviors and to provide high-value coaching in the moment.

Branching Simulations

Branching simulations invite learners to explore and experience different decision paths, and in return, see how their decisions affect the outcome. Typically, learners are faced with a series of choices based on the concepts being applied. Like the choose-your-own-adventure books that many of us experienced as children, these simulations give learners the opportunity to discover the implications of their cumulative choices. Once learners have made their best choices and reached the end of the simulation, they have the opportunity to backtrack and see outcomes produced by alternative approaches—all in a safe environment.

Early generations of these simulations were based on hard-coded nodes, or choices, which made them very expensive and time-consuming to create. As a result, many learners experienced simulations with very limited numbers of decisions or faux branching techniques to create the illusion of a learner-controlled environment. Modern-day branching simulations utilize gaming engines to distribute nodes based on complex algorithms. Military-grade versions of these types of simulations deploy thousands of nodes to create highly realistic environments.

Branching simulations are an extremely popular alternative to traditional role-play and are regularly applied to a broad range of interpersonal skills challenges (e.g., leadership, coaching, customer service, sales, etc.). They offer the advantage of a predictable environment, which enables these sims to offer highly accurate and detailed feedback.

Scenario Simulations

Scenario simulations are the most versatile of these three common types of simulations. They can be used to explore a simple dilemma (how should a manager delegate work in a given project?) or a complex challenge (working through a complete Harvard Business School case study). Scenario simulations can be deployed to individuals or teams in synchronous and asynchronous environments; teams can collaborate virtually or be co-located. Scenario simulations have proven effective for developing a wide range of interpersonal and technical skills (e.g., emotional intelligence, leadership, sales, data-driven decision-making, alpha allocation, etc.).

The need to deliver scenario simulations to a hybrid workforce was the initial inspiration for Blueline’s ExperienceBUILDER™ digital learning design platform, which delivers highly immersive and engaging synchronous learning experiences to teams of learners regardless of their physical location. ExperienceBUILDER delivers simulations that induce thoughtful conversations, which in turn lead learners to share personal experiences, identify best practices, and uncover common failure points. Learners have the opportunity to build skills as individuals and as part of a team.

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What type of simulation is the most effective?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Choosing the right category of simulation depends heavily on the type of content and desired learning outcomes. Designing effective learning simulations requires a thorough understanding of the targeted business outcomes and supporting need for behavior change. Our ExperienceBUILDER digital learning design platform gives us the ability to combine elements from all three categories of simulation and makes it possible for us to deploy engaging and immersive training to a hybrid audience.

Contact us to learn more about how we can help you take a radically different approach to changing behavior that supports your critical business transformation.

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