The Rock Pool Method™
This explores my design methodology and how it meets learning needs in a lean and agile manner. This methodology won the best paper award at the 2005 ABSEL Conference.
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Developing business simulations for management development and business training presents particular software design problems. On one hand, like all software development, there is a need for a rigorous, structured approach. But, equally, creating a business simulation that delivers learning in an effective, efficient, consistent and engaging way is a creative process.
The "rock pool" metaphor was chosen because my design process is like exploring rock pools on a beach after the tide has receded.
Each rock pool represents a stage in the design process and the design involves moving progressively from rock pool to rock pool. Within each rock pool, individual rocks represent elements of that stage's design. But, the sequence of movement within a rock pool depends on learning needs and business issues and so varies from simulation to simulation and, as the design evolves and develops, an individual pool's rocks may be revisited several times (replicating the way disturbed critters move between rocks).
The Rock Pool Method™ provides a means of rigorously structuring the design process while retaining and ensuring creative freedom and agility.
This approach is documented in a paper (Computer business simulation design: the Rock Pool Method) that won the best paper award at the ABSEL (Association of Business Simulation and Experiential Learning) Conference, Orlando Florida USA March 2005. (see http://www.absel.org)
A second paper (Designing the Training Challenge) explores the design of an actual simulation - this paper was presented at the 2012 ABSEL Conference in San Diego, California where it was nominated for the best paper award.
The Rock Pools
I'm a firm believer that the starting point for business simulation design is a definition of learning objectives, audiences, duration and way the simulation will be used. These four areas are not settled on in any specific sequence - some may begin with defining learning objectives, for others audience, duration and manner of use.
Once your learning needs have been defined you can decide whether you should use a business simulation or another learning method, whether an existing simulation exists, whether an existing simulation can be customised or whether a new simulation needs to be created.
My Churchill Fellowship Study explored why companies used business simulations and from this I developed a five dimensional model - to explore business knowledge, to develop and hone skills, to motivate & engage, to assess & evaluate and to enhance adult learning. Financial Analysis, my financial planning simulation was designed to give business-people an understanding of a company's final accounts (Profit and Loss/Income Statement, Balance Sheet), measures of financial performance (ROI, Capital Gearing/Financial Leverage, etc.) and, most importantly, how managerial actions impact financial results and performance.
Learn more about Learning Purpose
Specify Target Audience(s)
As learning needs, prior learning, experience, knowledge, maturity and expectations needs differ between participant groups we need to specifying who is going to participant in the simulation. For example a business simulation designed for university students will probably not be appropriate for business people. Even if it is appropriate for junior staff, it will be inappropriate for more senior management and, totally, inappropriate for senior management. The university students are likely to know theory bur business people need the simulation to help them do things better. PriceWise, my value based pricing simulation was designed for SMEs (Small and Medium Sized Enterprises).
Learn more about audiences
My paper Chalk and cheese?: Executive short-course vs academic simulations explores this in more detail.
I have found that duration is a key, perhaps the key constraint. Time spent training is costly but, unfortunately, if you provide too little time learning will no happen and so there can be a disconnect between learning objectives and duration. My Product Launch simulation was designed in response to a client request for a two hour simulation to get people to think about business. The starting point for my SEED simulation was university students (at Imperial, London)
My paper Complexity is it Really that Simple empirically explores the relationship between complexity and duration.
Presented at the 1994 ABSEL Conference it won the best research paper award
Define Manner of Use
When used to by companies business simulations are used in a variety of ways each of which have different design needs and constraints. Also, besides being used in the classroom, they may be used at company conferences, on assessment centres, to promote an organisation to existing and prospective customers. The starting point for the first three simulations in my Challenge Series were developed for a promotional contest - the Benson & Hedges Management Challenge.
Learn more about ways to use business simulations
My paper (based on my Churchill Fellowship study and my experience designing and using simulations) can be downloaded here
At the end of this stage there is a need to examine how the elements relate to each other and resolve any conflicts. For instance, the target audience coupled with learning objectives for the SEED simulation meant that its scope would stretch the knowledge base of the participants. Because of this, it would be necessary to build in significant participant support (in the form of business advice). Further, the short duration (a day) coupled with the Learning Objectives would cause a major development problem. And, this was amplified by the fact that the simulation would be run in a single, undivided session. (If the simulation had be spread, in separate sessions over several weeks, the participants would have the opportunity to reflect and, possibly, budget extra time.)
This stage involves taking the Needs Specification and using it to develop a detailed specification for the new simulation. As for Needs Definition, these areas are not decided sequentially. The starting point and the sequence depends on the simulations.
Decide Business Scenario
For adults business people, learning must be relevant to their job and them and this is a major consideration when deciding the scenario. For example a generic manufacturing simulation will not be appropriate for retail, service or banking management etc. as it will structurally wrong and raise inappropriate issues. However, the simulation should not try to replicate your company exactly - there is an opportunity to invent an engaging scenario.
My Service Launch simulation was designed to explore basic finance and marketing concepts. As the service offered had to be different (and engaging) I invented Chucker Cabs - the floor to door cab service for party animals - a cab with a hoseable rear cabin to bring the sozzled home safely!
My paper The Scenario - The Business Modelled explores this in more detail.
Define Issues and Problems
During the simulation participants will be making decisions to deal with business issues and problems. For example, for my PriceWize simulation participants faced two issues (how to assess price sensitivity and how to change values appropriately) and two problems (how to make full use of capacity and how to forecast demand). Other issues might be how to manage cash flow and liquidity or how to stimulate demand.
Thus defining issues and problems was the starting point for my PriceWize value based simulation. This was because I wanted the simulation to explore the pricing issues and problems facing SMEs. Next, for this simulation it's short duration meant that I decided on a direct use simulator type.
Business Simulations divide into two classes - where participants use the software themselves and where the tutor uses the software and each of these are subdivided further.
Simulations used by participants themselves (Direct Use)
Simulations used by the Tutor (and, where, teams of participants compete directly against each other) (Tutor Mediated)
When developing my Global Operationsstrategy simulation I decided that the simulation needed to be used by the tutor as exploring strategic development necessitated participants assessing competitors strategies, strengths and weaknesses and positioning the business take advantage of opportunities, minimise the impact of threats and to differentiate from competitors.
Direct Use simulations involve teams making decisions asynchronously can have short durations, but they require a computer and printer for each teams..Tutor Mediated simulations require teams making decisions synchronously and this lengthens duration, but only a single computer and printer is needed.
Decide Delivery Mode
Here we are deciding whether the simulation is used by online or in the classroom
Online use is likely to involve individuals rather than teams of participants and it is likely to be difficult for the tutor to manage learning and thus are best suited to help academic students gain knowledge.
Classroom use involves several small teams of adult learners (business people), where the process is managed by a tutor and thus are best suited to develop business wisdom - the ability to successfully deal with today's ever changing, complex and uncertain world.
I feel that simulations used in a classroom is by far the best delivery mode for adult business learners where the objective is to develop the wisdom needed to be successful in today's complex, uncertain and ever changing world.
Learn more about the issues associated with different delivery modes..
You may need several versions of the business simulation to handle business terminology differences, to handle different languages or to handle different uses. Commonly I provide simulations in English and American not just because of spelling differences but also business terminology differs between the UK and the USA.
My Challenge Series simulations were originally designed to be used on a promotional contest but when designing them I also wanted the simulation to be used elsewhere to develop business acumen and financial appreciation. Substantially a version was been developed for use on assessment centres. Primarily, these differ in terms of the reports produced and their timing but might differ in terms of the decisions made and their timing.
At the end of this stage the key structure of the simulation is defined and specified. This may be used to search for and select a suitable existing simulation to be used as is or customised or as the basis of the development of a new simulation (as was the case with the SEED simulation).
Now is the time to start the design of the software. Although I list five tasks these are visited an revisited throughout design. Throughout this process there you need to bear in mind learning objective and issues and problems (learning) and the impact on complexity and hence duration. It is all too easy for the designer to get carried away by the creation process and design in aspects because they are cool, elegant or real - aspects that are irrelevant, confusing and lengthen the simulation!!
Also, this rock pool is twinned with the next (Simulation Development) as, commonly, I move back and forth between the two - just as a child I would move between adjacent rock pools on the beach when I saw critters scurry form one pool to the other. Also, typically, each rock in this pool is visited and revisited multiple times
Here the decisions to be made are decided. This should take into account the importance of the decision, its ambiguity and granularity.
This was starting point for my Prospector - Stage Gate simulation as these defined what was done at each stage in the stage gate process.
Here the reports produced by the simulation are decided. These fall into three groups
This was starting point for my Financial Analysis simulation was deciding the financial reports that needed to be provided to replicate the final accounts produced by a company. Following this I decided the decisions necessary to drive these reports and illustrate how management actions impacted profitability, liquidity and growth.
Here the models (algorithms) linking decisions to results are created first. This was starting point for my PriceWize simulation where the purpose was to explore value based pricing.
Learn more about how to link decisions, models and results
Create Validation & Quality Support
This involves capturing data created by intermediate calculations and using this to produce reports that explain the accounting, operations, market models to assure quality and aid design. For example for my Training Challenge simulation, of the 195 different reports 124 (64%) served this purpose with the remainder used during simulation use. Besides capturing intermediate data and having additional reports, it is useful to use small spreadsheets to investigate complex algorithms.
Learn more about Quality Assurance.
Develop Preliminary Documentation consists of the documentation associated with the use of the simulation (Simulation Briefing, the Participants' Manual, the Tutor's Manual and Online Support) and documentation associated with design (description of the algorithms, explanations of quality and design support, technical information about the simulation).
I've found that these summarise my thinking and provide a way of checking with clients (sponsors) that the simulation is what they want!
At the end of this stage an alpha test version of the simulation exists ready to refined by the next stage into the beta test version. At this stage, the documentation's purpose is to support the designer rather than for use by the participants and the tutors. Thus, later, it must be modified and refined to be of use to the participants and the tutors.
This stage takes the initial build of the simulation forward - making sure that it works (testing) and responds appropriately to decisions (calibration and ramping).
This involves ensuring that algorithmic logic and program code are correct. If logic (the algorithms) are incorrect the simulation this will affect learning and if the simulation is incorrectly coded results will be calculated incorrectly and, even worst, the software may crash. The quality and validation support (above) help with this process but for a complex simulation it is often necessary to develop a series of spreadsheets to reconcile results. And, for financial validity, the Balance Sheet must balance and this tests the accounting models
Learn more about quality assurance
This involves ensuring the realism of outcomes and balancing results. In particular the balance between the ability to generate profits (profitability) and cash flow (survival) is crucial. Also, for SEED it was important that no particular plan was obviously the best. This was both to ensure adequate discussion and to ensure that the teams had to face the problem of deciding when they should choose which plan they were to go with
Ramp Workload and
Central to designing a business simulation is creating a learning journey and this involves in designing the temporal-topical progression of the simulation.
Learn more about the Learning Journey
Learn more about Temporal-Topical Progression
& Tutoring Support
This involves defining reports, help texts and decision screens that provide information to reconcile the results, advice & explanations, knowledge support (for tasks) and identification of strengths, weaknesses and possible problems.
This involves taking the draft documentation created in stage 3 and editing it to improve clarity, remove omissions and incorporate the parameters determined during calibration (4). And, now the major development work is complete,it is appropriate to finalise the a Power Point brief.
At the end of this stage a beta test version of the simulation exists ready to be validated and refined further.
This stage involves live checking that the business simulation meets the learning objectives in the planned time, the tutors who will run the simulation are brought up to speed and any problems are identified and dealt with.
Here you use the simulation with the tutors who will use it on a course. Typically a pilot will involve the tutors participating in the simulation and, following this, a equal amount of time is spent on discussing the simulation an deciding where it and the documentation needs to be refined and modified. I've found that for a simulation lasting up to a day, a single pilot is sufficient. Where the simulation is complex then several pilots may be necessary. Besides piloting, it can be helpful for the designer to shadow the tutors on their first run with participants.
Refine & Modify
The pilot may show that there are areas of the simulation model and associated decisions and results may need to be changed.
Refine & Modify
The pilot is likely to show that documentation needs to be changed and clarified.
This involves checking that learning objectives are met and the simulation's duration is right.
At the end of this stage a fully operating simulation exists and all that remains is packaging and dissemination.
This involves finally turning the simulation into a learning product.
This involves editing the documentation to improve accessibility (readability, spelling, layout etc.) and incorporate the changes made during the validation stage.
This involves the final completion of the software. For instance, after the pilot of the DISTRAIN simulation, the reports for the trainers and the participants were modified to match the requirements of the people who were to run the simulation.
Marketing the simulation to the organization, to trainers, to participants and perhaps via the academic community, press releases, printed and electronic materials (such as a website) etc
A complete simulation package.
Most recent update: 27/07/15
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