Organizations continue to look for ways to efficiently manage their businesses in a consistent and scalable way in an increasingly global economy. Escalating business costs, downward pressure on pricing, increasing regulation, and sluggish economic growth, make it critical for organizations to find solutions that can help them decrease uncertainty, mitigate risk, lower costs, and increase efficiency in their operations.

To meet these challenges, suppliers of complex enterprise applications are developing new and innovative software solutions designed to help organizations systematize the multitude of tasks and operations involved with running all aspects of their enterprise.

However, performance improvement and increased value derived from these systems continues to elude most organizations. For example, according to a 2012 study from Panorama, 50 percent of polled entities who’ve deployed ERP solutions have realized 50 percent or less of the projected benefits from their systems. But implementation success or failure of such large software systems rarely points to a problem with the software itself. Rather, organizations typically report that challenges stem from change management conflicts, adoption issues, or organizational dynamics.

There may be another cause, though. A 2010 report from Gartner finds that most organizations don’t have the time or resources to effectively educate employees on new technology. To be sure, there are likely general adoption issues, but they do not take away the need to conduct effective end-user training that integrates context into exercise—blending the “when and why” with the “what and how” of keystroke learning. Technologies are evolving to the point that these two activities can be blended together those with the skill set to design integrated solutions.

Enter Software Simulations

In an effort to support such large-scale software initiatives and have employees effectively use complex applications, a new approach to end-user training, help, and support is emerging. Productivity solutions capture how these tools and applications work from an end users point of view—transaction by transaction, process by process. They then generate software simulations that are easily consumed by end users

But simulations can be very powerful option due to the experiential nature of the methodology. Moreover, because the approach is driven by “experience,” the benefits from simulations can manifest far beyond the product or software. Experience is a key driver in the success of both individuals and organizations. The experiences of the respective groups, as well as what lessons have been learned from their experiences, are key determinants to the ongoing success of any organization.

Instruction Design Challenges

When an organization invests in building employee capabilities that enable them to do something new, the chosen method tends to revolve around instruction rather than experience. When one speaks about simulation, very often the widest experience base or interest relates to software simulation and the implementation of new systems or processes.

Software simulation, when the focus is on the keystrokes, is a manifestation of instruction. Although conceptually “simulation” is in the mix, there is still a focus on the correct way to execute the operation. There is no inherent context built into the exercises.

When it comes to learning, instructional design has developed philosophies and methodologies that have significantly improved learning. Instructional design has also influenced the development of supporting tools, of which software simulations is a component. However, per its name, instructional design is focused on designing instruction. As a result, the focus in software simulation is primarily on the hard aspects of learning—namely the “what and how” of the process being addressed.

Software simulation provides the information that participants need in an orderly and structured manner. The “what and how” are static, providing the correct keystroke sequence to accomplishing a software task, transaction, or process. This is very important for replicating best practices and reducing inefficiencies, errors, and omissions in the use of critical software systems. However, the real challenge that participants have is often with the “why and when” of a situation that does not manifest in the neat and orderly manner presented in the software simulation.

Instruction provides the necessary foundation of “what and how,” but many critical software processes are also influenced by other factors. Experience—and the ability to incorporate experience—has been a key element missing from many instructional design approaches when it comes to software simulations. Why? Because the technology to do so didn’t exist until recently.

Software simulations, which are so common today, lack the ability to provide the “what and how” in a manner that enables the learner to actually live the experience and see the results of the choices they make in the context of the experience. A more dynamic approach is required when we need to demonstrate the “why and when.” This approach must take into account context, inter-relationships, and the application of critical thinking and judgment. In other words, what is required is a method for capturing experience and integrating it with the hard skills that can be deployed

Taxonomy of Needs

But in the training and simulation space there is no widely accepted taxonomy for these sorts of items. Figure 1: Learning’s Hierarchy of Tools uses the familiar paradigm—Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—to assert that in the world of learning tools and methods, software users also should follow a progression of needs.


Figure 1: Learning’s Hierarchy of Tools

spero figure 1


A strong foundation for any complex software application needs to start with the ability to deeply and broadly document that application, and deliver that documentation to end users. Historically, that was not possible as the tools and methods were not built for such scale. However, tools now exist that enable the laying of this fundamental foundation of “what and how.” Software simulations are a key component of this foundation, and tools exist to create these in the high volume needed for the foundation.

The Next Level: Experiential Simulations

While software simulations are a step in the right direction, they still do not always support the “why and when” or incorporate the ability for the learner to experience a situation. Experiential simulations offer the highest value for the right situation.

Experiential simulation applications are built using the metaphor of a decision tree and are focused on providing participants with an opportunity to exhibit three criteria:

  1. exercise critical thinking and decision making
  2. experience consequences
  3. receive feedback.

These applications place participants into a series of realistic scenarios in which they are challenged with decisions they must make, and then they experience the consequences of their choices by following that “branch” to where it takes them. These scenarios are, in essence, mini experiences whose impact is influenced by the depth and applicability of the exercise.

For our purposes, simulation can be defined as a complex weave of scenarios that are put together to capture a period of time in the life of a character and incorporate content (business processes, leadership, ethics, sales, etc.) with context (environment, people, task, software, etc.) so that it imitates life. This combination of content and context when placed within the flow of time, enables participants to experience an issue as it could play out in real life. Furthermore, it allows them to make mistakes and learn from failure in a constructive and developmental manner.

To bring this to life, the following real world examples illustrate situations in which knowledge of software “how and what” fall short of enabling the learner for the full experience. These are situations where there is what we call “experiential variability,” or simply put, the context of each situation can vary and can lead to different outcomes—some bad, some acceptable, some better, and some best.

  • A healthcare insurance customer service agent interacting with a distressed member on complex insurance coverage issue while using the company’s claims processing system.
  • A hospitality front-desk worker interacting with an unhappy guest while using the scheduling and reservation system.
  • An air traffic controller interacting with flight crews while using the complicated traffic management system.
  • A Doctor interacting with a new patient about a complex healthcare issue while using the Electronic Health Record system.
  • A purchasing agent on an urgent call with a vendor over an order mix-up affecting production while using the company’s ERP system.

Every day in every industry, situations like these occur in which the intersection of hard learning in the use of key software systems must be complemented by the situational soft learning of experiential variability.

Now reconsider Learning’s (Maslow’s) Hierarchy of Tools: The hard learning tools and approaches in the bottom half of the figure are well suited to the high volume of transactional situations where experiential variability is non-existent or very limited. However, these tools and approaches fall short for that subset of transactional situations where experiential variability increases. Some of an organization’s most influential results occur in situations with high-experiential variability.

Bottom Line

As with most things in life, it’s about the blend of the right tool and approach in the right situation. Tools exist that enable the building of a strong foundation for software learning by enabling the “how and what” at volume levels not previously feasible. Tools also exist that enable us to leverage this foundational content into more productive learning distribution via e-learning.

Finally, tools now exist that allow workplace learning and development professionals to move beyond the hard learning of “how and what” and capture the experiential variability of real life situations—the “why and when.” It is this last order of learning that will benefit organizations in the most critical situations that can have lasting impact on that organization’s effectiveness.