What can we learn from the world’s best business schools?

What’s the one thing that everyone with an MBA shares? — One or more experiences with team-based simulations. They are perfect for the B-School environment:

  1. They facilitate team-building,
  2. They provide a quick and effective means to assess the strengths and weaknesses of other students,
  3. They are fun and engaging,
  4. They are an outlet for extremely competitive students, and
  5. They teach practical application of a broad range of skills: business strategy and finance, project management, brand management, leadership, market strategy, sales strategy and trust.

Until recently, these simulations ranged from “simply elegant board games” to sophisticated LAN-based computer simulations with unique information presented via “dash board” for each learner to analyze, make and communicate decisions.

Remote team-based activities and simulation

This summer, the Wharton School of Business presented a case about the effectiveness of team-based activities run remotely — either synchronously or asynchronously — at ASTD’s National Conference. Wharton’s experience (with their Executive MBA Program) was that, in addition to significantly reducing travel time and cost, learners retained more and were more productive when they had more time between sessions to digest and apply information. Their typical design approach incorporated a series of individual and group exercises. It included podcasts, webinars, white papers, remote office hours, and a remote group activity followed by a capstone live classroom experience.

While there have been notable exceptions in our past (e.g. broadly successful roll-outs of Simulearn’s Virtual Leader) historically, for most organizations, distance learning has meant delivering PowerPoints via webinar.

However, that’s no longer the case. Blueline recently launched: Enspire’s Business Challenge. Business Challenge is a web-based, single or multiplayer simulation in which participants take the helm of a virtual business and compete for market leadership. The simulation is set up and debriefed remotely via Webinar. At the client’s option, it can also be supplemented with a series of case-based elearning modules called Fluent in Finance. It presents a unique combination of elearning, simulation and virtual classroom in its design.

Today, we live at the intersection of technological innovation and learning. We feel that the ROI on remote team-based activities and simulation is so compelling, that we regularly include elements of it in the work that we are proposing and designing for clients this fall.

Managers Do Still Make a Difference

The point of all training provided by an organization is to improve people’s performance on the job. For this to happen, employees must use what they have learned when they are working. In their 1992 book, Transfer of Training, Mary Broad and John Newstrom evaluate the impact of three key resources on skills application – the facilitator/designer of the training, the trainee, and the trainee’s manager. Their analysis showed that the largest contributor to whether people actually use what they learn on the job is the manager. And the biggest factor was not what the manager did after the training (like coaching) but what the manager did before the training occurred.

Since Broad and Newstrom’s work was conducted nearly twenty years ago, and there have been a lot of innovations in how we deliver training, including eSimulations, virtual classroom, social learning, and mobile, I was curious to ponder whether  the role of the manager in learning transfer has changed?

Based on a three-year study of over 10,000 learners by KnowledgePool, not that much. Their research shows that “where learners receive line manager support, 94% go on to apply what they learned”.  Apparently, managers do still make a key difference

The question this raises for me is, as we move to more “bite-size” and ubiquitous training through social and mobile learning, how do we continue to ensure that we tap into this critical resource to ensure learning gets transferred? As stated above, Broad and Newstrom’s work indicated that what a manager does before the training session occurs is even more critical to learning transfer than what they do afterwards.

In 1991-92 its very likely that a manager would have had significant opportunity to interact with the trainee before a training session, if nothing more than to ensure there was coverage for their absence to attend a class. Even if the training was offered via elearning, it is likely the manager was aware of when the employee was going to take a particular course.

Now jump to today (and even more so into the near future). The trainee may be just as likely to complete a 5-10 minute mobile learning session while waiting in line at the cafeteria or bank drive-thru. Or perhaps, they’ve spent part of their lunch time browsing through recent postings in their favorite Community of Practice portal. Will the manager even know that they have engaged in learning? It may be that self initiated training like this will consistently have a high transfer of learning, but I think we are failing our clients if we don’t continue to find ways to engage managers and tap into the impact they have in ensuring that what is learned gets used on the job. Just as we are developing new and innovative ways to deliver training, we will need to find new and innovative ways for manager involvement.

What’s Your Goal?

What should be a training designer’s goal? The answer would seem obvious: design a training solution. While that may be the product the designer produces, it should not be the goal.

Recently I’ve been reading Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. While at Blueline we often find a serious game or game-like element is an effective part of a training solution, I’ve found that the lenses that Schell offers extend beyond games to training solutions in general.

In chapter two Schell states, “Ultimately, a game designer does not care about games. Games are merely a means to an end. On their own, games are just artifacts – clumps of cardboard, or bags of bits. Games are worthless unless people play them. Why is this? What magic happens when games are played?

When people play games, they have an experience. It is this experience that the designer cares about. Without the experience, the game is worthless.

I think we could easily substitute “training” for “game” in his statement and it would fit nicely. Yes, I’m fully aware of Bloom’s taxonomy and it’s importance in writing clear and specific objectives for a training solution. And I strongly support the theory that the ultimate outcome of any training should be a positive impact on business results. However, from a designer’s perspective, the goal should be to design an experience that leads to those results.

That’s why we say that at Blueline we focus on immersive learning experiences, whether they be simulations (classroom or esim ), virtual classrooms, learning visuals , or even large group communications events. To paraphrase Schell’s question, “What magic happens when Blueline training occurs?” it is the rich immersive experience that produces the results.

Keeping the learner’s experience in mind throughout the design and development process leads to a set of questions beyond just “was the content clearly communicated?” and “was ample practice provided for skill development?” Thinking about designing an experience that leads to powerful learning means continually asking questions like:

  • What frame of reference is the learner likely to have at this point?
  • How receptive to learning will the learner be? How can we increase that receptivity?
  • How have the previous elements or activities likely affected the energy and focus of the learner? How will this element or activity impact that focus or energy level?
  • How can we engage the learner’s interest, curiosity, and/or emotions with this material?
  • How might we have the learner “disagree” to incite more passion about the topic?
  • What methods can we use so the learner must actively engage with the material rather than merely serve as a passive recipient of information?
  • Would a “failure”or a “success” at this point be more likely to engage the learner? Increase the stickiness of the learning?
  • What situation can we setup so the learner actively creates his or her own learning? Or generates his or her own data?

When we design with the learner’s experience in mind, we keep the learner and not the content front and center. Developing a training that puts the learner at the center more often than not results in greater learning comprehension and stickiness.

Virtual Classroom Better than Real?

I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference with Bob Gerard from Accenture.

Bob gave a presentation that really opened the audience’s eyes to the true value of the Virtual World Classroom based on some research he and his team had just concluded.  Bob wasn’t lost in the allure of Avatars and 3D worlds, his research was aimed at evaluating learner engagement and proving positive returns.


Their theory was that virtual world classrooms are more effective than audio & slide virtual classrooms.  Feedback from the participants in the pilots seemed to overwhelmingly reinforce this theory.  Employees stated that the virtual world experience was more enjoyable, engaging, and collaborative than audio & slide based virtual classrooms.  Importantly, students reported that they learned more and could apply the learned content better than after an audio & slide event.  This is obviously bad news for WebEx and their cohorts.

However, when evaluated against a traditional classroom event the results were inconclusive.  Each approach had advocates and detractors.  On the one hand, there was a general bias toward traditional classroom events.  On the other, the advocates were extremely biased to virtual world classrooms.

So here is where this gets interesting for me.  In much the same way that Merrill Lynch was able to show a strong positive return on an investment in Mobile Learning as one mode of delivery for compliance training, Bob Gerard’s findings suggest we can, at least for a very specific population, improve knowledge transfer and retention utilizing virtual world classrooms instead of traditional classrooms.  I can easily see road weary sales executives, with a bias toward technology, appreciating effective new product training delivered this way.

I am anxious to get your thoughts and experiences!?

Does Your Training Help People Fail?

A few weeks ago while home from the University of Central Florida where he is studying Electrical Engineering, my son was working to finish up some physics problems before driving back to school. Most of the problems he blew through by looking up the appropriate formula and plugging in information the problem statements provided. One particular problem however, was giving him fits. After struggling with it for about 30 minutes he finally asked old Dad to take a look.

Now it has been way too many years since I took my last physics class. So I turned to Google and quickly located several pages of explanations on how to solve problems similar to his assignment. When he tried following them though, none of them gave the right answer. So much for Dad’s help! Later that evening he texted me to say that he had gotten back to campus safely and had solved the problem.

When home again a few weeks later, I asked him how he figured out the problem. Basically, we were interpreting one of the factors in the problem statement wrong, which led to us putting in the wrong variable. The rest of the story though, was him sharing about the test he had just taken. “Dad,” he exclaimed, “five of the ten questions on the test were related to that same formula and I know I aced them all!” When asked about the other questions, he admitted that he was less than sure about his answers on those and had to look up some of the formulas for those problems.

I think Austin’s experience bears out the conclusions of Nate Kornell, Matthew Hays and Robert Bjork, of U.C.L.A., from their recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. Learners remember better and for far longer when they don’t immediately get the correct answer, in other words — when they fail first.

For years, educators, and by extension some training developers, advocated “errorless learning” (first introduced by Herbert Terrace in 1963) where activities were designed to avoid learners getting an incorrect answer. The fear was that making an error (or practicing a skill incorrectly first) would lead to learning the error or inhibit learning the correct information or skill.

The research by Kornell, et al, reflects what we’ve seen in developing training experiences and simulations based on discovery learning. In our Blueline Blueprints‘, where table teams explore information based on a learning visual, the questions where teams have the most debate and spend the most time exploring possible answers create the most memorable learning. Questions where answers are too easily discovered don’t have nearly the same impact or retention.

We see the same in developing engaging and results-producing simulations (whether classroom or technology based). Post-simulation and follow-up testing often shows that learners retain best the material where they first made a wrong choice or incorrect decision. Of course, for the learning to be effective this must be immediately followed by some type of coaching, feedback and rationale for the correct choice.

Just like in my son’s case, when the learner fails first it often invokes a stronger emotional response to the material. Also, the learner spends more time processing the new information and aligning their original thoughts with this correct information. It seems reasonable that this increased energy, focus and attention would result in better learning and retention. And this is just what the research shows.

Of course, to be effective the experience should not just lead to failure willy-nilly. There are some guidelines to keep in mind when designing activities that provide the opportunity to fail.

1.There should be a reasonable path to the failure — The learner should not feel that they were tricked into failing. The given information or context should provide a reasonable frame for the anticipated incorrect choice or answer. However, the correct choice/answer should not depend on too nuanced a rationale. The response we want to generate once the correct choice/answer is discovered is Ah, “I can see that.”

2.Always provide feedback, coaching, or the correct answer — This should come immediately so that incorrect information is not retained. Part of providing this feedback or coaching is to giving a clear and succinct rationale for the correct choice/answer. In some simulation designs, the learner can call on a coach or mentor within the simulation before making a choice she is unsure of. While this may prevent a “failure,” the engagement, emotional energy and time spent processing the material is similar to what would have happened if the coaching had come after an incorrect decision.

3. Provide multiple opportunities for failure, but don’t overwhelm the learner — Look for critical content areas to make the most challenging. If every decision leads to failure the learner gets frustrated and probably will disengage. The most challenging situations or questions should be spaced throughout the learning experience to maintain high levels of engagement.

4.Ensure there are sufficient successes to maintain learner engagement and motivation — This is the corollary to #3 above. While the failures do seem to better ingrain new material, successes provide a necessary boast in energy and motivation. Typically, in designing a 90 minute Blueline Blueprint activity, that may consist of 20-25 discussion cards, I will look to develop 4-5 cards that I believe will generate significant debate about the “right answer.” These cards focus on the most critical aspects of the content. While the other cards are designed to generate discussion and engagement, they are likely to lead to consensus more quickly, and encourage a “yeah, we got that one” response. This response becomes all the more powerful and engaging precisely because the team has struggled and possibly “failed” previously.

Ultimately, all of our training efforts are directed toward helping people be more successful. And a few well-planned failures along the way may be just what it takes to help them ultimately succeed.