Adding Excitement To E-learning

Dec. 21, 2004
Simulation programs ease the cost, stress of training.

Fun and employee training aren't usually words that companies use in the same sentence. In fact, much of e-learning is e-boring, but several computer training companies are aiming to lighten up the learning process with games and simulations that are anything but dull. The learning curve for new employees at Century Tool and Gage Co., a Michigan automotive tool and die maker, used to be steep because the design software is so complex. Then Century Tool discovered Time Mechanic, think3's conspiracy game where trainees save a space station from enemy aliens by learning 30 CAD software processes. "People feel comfortable while they learn, so it speeds up the process," says Century Tool systems administrator Mark Milstead. Milstead said his company based its decision to lease think3's design software because Time Mechanic (then known as Monkey Wrench) is part of the deal at no additional charge. "The training software doesn't cover everything someone needs to know, but it's is a good first step. Somebody new to it can spend a week going through it without anyone looking over his shoulder. That was the biggest benefit for us because we don't have many people available to do training." A simulation doesn't have to be a game; nor does it have to be built into the program. When office furniture maker Steelcase Inc., also Michigan based, wants to train its employees on complex supply-chain management software, it launches a simulation created by SimuLearn that has no connection to the software itself. Using a screen that is identical to the real thing, the simulation walks trainees through a variety of functions, stopping them when they go wrong. When they go through the processes correctly, they see what a correct result looks like -- so they can later recognize when things aren't going so well. While the simulation isn't a laugh a minute, it's less stressful than training people on the real thing, says Brian Heath, manager of learning systems for Steelcase. "They get results, and it's a lot jazzier than it would be if they were working in a less-safe environment." Plus, Heath estimates that the simulations cut training time in half, and because they don't require separate servers, are about half as expensive. Simulations are also good for teaching the softer side of management. SimuLearn's "Virtual Leader," simulates a series of company meetings in which the player has to manage a complex network of workplace relationships. Players are scored based on how well they meet business goals while maintaining cordial relationships with customers and co-workers. Clark Aldrich, co-founder and vice president of SimuLearn, explains the software uses complex artificial intelligence routines to control the behavior of characters, including a library of almost 200 body gestures and facial responses. A character twirling a pen, for instance, could signal a high tension level. Managers playing the game can experiment with approaches to difficult employees before they have to deal with the real thing. Simulation-based training is also good for evaluating and improving production processes. Managers at Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems, based in El Segundo, Calif., were unhappy with a five-step development process in one of the aeronautical units. Everyone agreed that things needed to be done differently, and the most outspoken critics were all for ditching all five steps and starting again, says Ed Harmon, product development leader. But cooler heads suggested a simulation might help identify ways to fix parts of the process without retooling everything. Using software from High Performance Systems Inc., managers worked together to develop a simulation that included 10-second video clips as well as mathematical analysis of current and potential processes. With keystrokes and clicks, the team learned that by making only one small change, they could create significant cost savings. "The simulation allowed us to get financial people involved who didn't know a lot about production, and that led to much more rapid management buy-in," Harmon says. "It's just a tool, but it's a very powerful tool that really helps us look at the big picture."

Help With E-Learning Here are some companies that provide training simulation products. This is not intended as a complete list: GP e-Learning:www.gpelearning.comHigh Performance Systems Inc.:www.hps-inc.comImparta Ltd.:www.Imparta.comIndeliq Inc.:www.indeliq.comNinth House

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