Simulate, Before It's Too Late - InformationWeek
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03:38 PM
Dan Keldsen
Dan Keldsen
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Simulate, Before It's Too Late

Gaming mechanisms like Spent aren't perfect corporate models, but they can deliver lessons with little to none of the ramifications of real life failure.

In my last column, "Are Collaboration Killers Roaming Your Halls?", I discussed what companies can learn from gaming environments, as well as "sandbox" environments in collaboration tools such as wikis. The gaming meme is gaining even more steam in the enterprise, especially the direct simulation variety. In this column, let's look at serious games, a specific genre that simulates dire situations, and the example of Spent, a poverty simulation game.

U.S. Census Bureau data released last month shows that the nation's poverty rate rose from 14.3% in 2009 to 15.1% in 2010, its highest level since 1993. Unfortunately, that's 43.6 million people who don't need to simulate poverty--they're living it every day.

For the rest of us, rather than thinking of poverty as some abstract thing that could never happen to us, the Urban Ministries of Durham (North Carolina) has created an online game called Spent that simulates living as a single parent with no job and having only $1,000 left in the bank, $7,000 in credit card debt, no place to live, and a goal to make it through a month. Can you make it?

I've played through the simulation several times, choosing different jobs and making different trade-offs on which expenses to pay, what to take a chance on, and whether to be honest or deceitful, kind or cold-hearted. It's a sobering simulation that I hope to never have to experience in real life. I urge you to take a few minutes to work through the simulation at least once.

You can "win" the game, but at what cost? No health insurance? No heat? No help for your kid to pass his classes? No food?

What can we learn from this and other such games? Simulations aren't perfect models, but they can deliver lessons with little to none of the ramifications of real life failure. And by being repeatable, they can help companies rapidly build a mental model of how an environment or application reacts, given various choices.

I used to cover business process management simulation solutions in the late 1990s, as well as overlapping e-learning systems. Like many enterprise systems at the time, they tended to be hideously expensive and took a very long time to install, configure, and create useful simulations.

But that's no longer the case. Any moderately skilled programmer can put together a simulation like Spent. And many open source and commercial game engines (see extensive list here) can be used to build simulations with mechanics similar to Spent (track income, expenses, decisions made that affect the balance in the bank, decisions made that trigger other reactions, such as being fired for having what seems like a trivial conversation). A simulation doesn't have to be "fully immersive" to deliver valuable work lessons.

Which situations within your own business can you simplify as a game-like model? You can use them to rapidly train new or existing employees to achieve a level of comfort that they might otherwise have to spend weeks or months to learn. By doing so, you can remove (or lessen) the fear of situations where failure can result in lost sales, poor marketing campaigns, overly complicated applications, etc.

Or avoid even more dire situations, like layoffs, lawsuits, even bankruptcy.

Is there a problem or opportunity for your organization to simulate--right now, before it's too late? I use these techniques in workshops I run, and they dramatically speed up learning. They make situations that much more real and directly applicable.

Are you already using simulations, whether digital or analog (role-playing sales scenarios, for example), to create rapid learning environments? If yes, what have your results been? If not, why not? Share your experiences and perspectives in the comments section below, or write me directly at [email protected] or via Twitter @dankeldsen.

Dan Keldsen is a partner at Human 1.0 (, serving as the enterprise client services expert, supporting the innovation and insights team. Previously, he was the co-founder and chief innovation officer at Information Architected for three years and has spent nearly 20 years in marketing and IT roles at AIIM, Perot Systems, Delphi Group, and Elan Pharma. He’s only just getting started. Contact him @dankeldsen.

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User Rank: Apprentice
10/30/2011 | 5:37:51 PM
re: Simulate, Before It's Too Late
Deb - agree - and even fairly simple simulations can teach quite a lot. The "immersive" simulations that were all the rage right around Y2K were (like so much of the time), far too expensive, complex, and wild guesses at where value could be found, and it's time to rethink the role of learning in 2011+ with smaller experiments that show value, quickly.
Deb Donston-Miller
Deb Donston-Miller,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/12/2011 | 2:57:22 AM
re: Simulate, Before It's Too Late
"Spent" sounds like a really powerful program/experience. Most people learn best by doing (or simulating doing). The applications for simulation programs in the enterprise are practically endless.

Deb Donston-Miller
Contributing Editor, The BrainYard
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