After Hours

Computer game teaches management skills

In 2004 SimuLearn won the title of "best online training product of the year" from T+D Magazine. Learn how this product can teach employees how to become managers.

By Kristine Hansen

As kids, most of us played computer games that lifted us into a fantasy-ridden state of power, whether we were shooting up aliens or Pac-Mans or robots. So it would only seem fitting that software designed to calm non-violent strife in the workplace be fun and utilize familiar thumb strokes. And while there may not be violence directed towards co-workers or boss' in this game, it does run on real-time and is three-dimensional, much like a modern computer game.

"As opposed to playing a powerful person in a computer game, how can you actually make yourself a powerful person?" asks Clark Aldrich, co-founder of Virtual Leader, a simulation game he developed with SimuLearn of Norwalk, Conn. Though somewhat a rhetorical question, and with answers that might differ for each individual, the game does follow the blueprint of a modern computer game. Virtual Leader takes users through five stages of a workplace scenario where they must not only make snap decisions, but also reflect on who they are as a manager or employee at their current company. Johnson & Johnson employees were one batch of users. The United StatesMilitaryAcademy at West Point is another user.

For the game, which Aldrich finished developing in the spring of 2004 and is now on version 1.55, he merged components of artificial intelligence and flight-simulation games to develop as close to a real-life situation as possible. As an analyst at another company, before co-founding SimuLearn, people often asked Aldrich for leadership training because they were unhappy with what was already out there, he says.

"As one who grew up playing computer games and spent a lot of time bored in classrooms, I was curious," says Alrich, and wanted to develop a better tool for assessing interpersonal dynamics in the workplace, and evaluating one's leadership potential.

Employees use the game individually then meet weekly with other users — who are their cubicle neighbors or fellow team members — to discuss how they can apply it to their lives. According to Aldrich, six months later, on average, there is a 20 to 30 percent increase in an employee's "360 appraisal" (a human resources term for analyzing an individual's performance). As the software developer, SimuLearn likes to be involved to monitor the employees' attitudes towards the game. Alrich says the company believes in training some of the employees — such as the first 40 users at Johnson & Johnson — to train their co-workers, because often peers respond better to their peers than an outside party.

The game is broken down into five main sessions. In the first is a one-on-one situation where the player is a new manager with a "legacy" (term for an employee who has been at the company for a long time) who tests his or her control over that employee. "The object is to establish rapport first, then set a motive," says Aldrich. "How you behave in really small ways makes a big difference in the impact of larger things."

In the next session, the player deals with two employees "who are at each other's throats," a common scene in an office, right? "You have less and less formal authority to lean on," says Aldrich. "You have to find common ground." Finding that all the workers are far too willing to go along with you, as the boss, in the next session is the game's climax. Given a bad idea, and asked to present it to the company, you have to modify the power structure in order to buy their acceptance, says Aldrich.

A moral dilemma is in the fourth session, where the player must pick sides in formal arguments. "It's a real fast-moving, horse-trading kind of environment," says Aldrich. And finally, in the last session, a crisis happens that erupts into a "fake resolution" meaning that the player has to lower the tension in order to wrap up the game.

Is the game complicated? In other words, does it require heavy-duty training? "If you played the original SIMS, then you're all set," says Aldrich. Even so, "it's not like on the Web where you do a simple download."

Usually Virtual Leader is brought into a company because one of its employees hears about it, Aldrich says, and not because there's been a major workplace conflict that needs some work. Upper-level management are then "sold" on the idea and convinced to try it, he says. The cost is $500 per student, which goes down when more students from a company sign up.

Virtual Leader is currently being translated into several languages. In 2004 the game won the title of "best online training product of the year" from T+D Magazine.

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