Simulations and the Future of Learning

Clark Aldrich has written a personal story about developing a new genre of leadership development program. He takes you along for the ride as he becomes disenchanted with eLearning, quits a prestige job to find a better way, surmounts numerous hurdles, and ends up with Virtual Leader, a product you can buy today. Unlike most books on learning, Clark's is well written and witty; it's fun to read.

"What would the world be like if eLearning truly worked?" If eLearning could bestow understanding and the ability to control things, the training organization would be more important than the lawyers. I'd be bragging about last night's learning experience.

Of course, eLearning has not lived up to its potential. It's mainly virtual classrooms and online workbooks. The lessons have been degraded to the lowest common denominators of bandwidth, packaging standards, and generality. eLearning is sometimes no more than the pre-reading in a "blended" solution.

There is an exception: the learning of people who must perform. Life or death. Soldiers, pilots, nuclear power plant workers, and Wall Street traders. They learn from simulation.

Clark posits three forms of content: linear (most of what we're exposed to), cyclical (hitting balls on the driving range), and open-ended (with multiple paths and outcomes).

He recounts the early days of eLearning from his perspective as the chief analyst in that space at Gartner. Vendors visit with dog-and-pony shows, some tripping themselves up irrevocably in the first ten minutes. Hundreds of companies and not one that was sufficiently compelling to inspire him. Or others. eLearning is to learning as fast food is to nutrition. It's all linear. It's crap.

Next Clark quits his secure, prestigious job at Gartner to create exemplary eLearning, the best-of-breed that the eLearning vendors never showed him. He?s out to build a 'concept car' that will guide the industry.

His chapter on "The Myth of Subject-Matter Experts" skewers leadership gurus mercilessly. They don't have the three forms of content. They don't have very deep models. They have anecdotes. They want a fortune to have their grad students cook something up. At a leisurely pace. If you're thinking about taking content from nationally-known authorities, read this chapter first.

After months of research, reflection, blind alleys, and enough tid-bits to cover the walls with Post-It Notes, Clark and his mates arrived at a model of leadership that had the ring of truth. Leadership is "Getting a group of people to complete the right work." This is great stuff.

I should know. Six years ago, my firm's EVP told me our clients needed a program on leadership. Could I come up with a model that could be the foundation of a workshop? Something compelling. (Worldwide, a million bankers had participated in our workshops. We considered ourselves the crème de la crème of bank training.)

I jumped on the project with gusto, reading Bennis, Kouzes, von Klausewitz, Peters, Drucker, my former professor John Kotter, and dozens of others. Eventually I boiled leadership down to a model of leadership and management accompanied by a page of bullet points.

I appreciate Clark's model and methods because they are so much better than what I came up with. Clark would call my results "linear," the ultimate slur. Clark's model is good enough to become a Harvard Business Review Classic.

About a third of the way in, the book totally changes direction. Clark takes us into the nitty-gritty of constructing the Virtual Leader simulation. We learn about principles of simulation, set design, character creation, animation, speech generation, control of movement, and magically making the cast autonomous, like Pinocchio turning into a real boy and wandering out of Gepetto's workshop. Some of this was fascinating but other parts of it read like Popular Science. The story from the first third of the book had turned into a how-to talk. This section was well crafted but it wasn't what I wanted to learn.

The final third addresses what happened when they flipped the on-switch, the futility of grades, why there aren't more simulations, and < a href="">what's wrong with schooling.

Summary: Almost all training is linear. The world is open-ended. This is why almost all training fails. Simulations are open-ended. They are expensive but they work. Simulations are the way of the future.

Many readers will enjoy this book: there's a lot of substance. But I don't expect many people will enjoy it thoroughly. You see, it's more like three books bound in a single cover. Even though it's pricey ($50 at Amazon), I'd buy the book for the first third alone. Only a fool would try to create a sim without reading the center section. Were I either buying or marketing simulations, I'd read the whole tome but the last third would ring my chimes the loudest.

Thanks for letting us ride shotgun, Clark.

Posted by Jay Cross at November 11, 2003 09:57 PM | TrackBack

Yes true, old as world :)

Posted by: Big Naturals at July 9, 2004 05:28 PM

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