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Learn and lead by doing.

Leadership in Action, online, 2002, Forio Business Simulations (415-440-7500, www.forio.com), $495-$18,400 annual subscription. Leader guide, PowerPoint slides.

Simulations are one of e-learning's most promising areas. They provide a learner with an engaging, practical experience in a forgiving environment. The user can learn from his or her mistakes without fear, cost, or harm. This reminds me of an old (but bad) training joke, "You can teach a monkey to fly a jet fighter provided you have two things: (1) enough jet fighters and (2) enough monkeys." It's no surprise that flight simulators have become the classic example of simulation-based training.

Ripe market

However, simulations are extremely expensive to develop, which is why they were initially reserved for situations where actual practice was too costly or too hazardous or both. The e-learning market is therefore ripe for inexpensive off-the-shelf simulations. Leadership in Action, by Forio Corporation is a project management simulation in which the user is a project leader making weekly decisions about a project. The decisions include team size, hours spent in meetings, hours spent in coaching, and personal tasks to delegate. After the user enters the weekly decisions, the simulation gives feedback: an array of indicators, statistics, and detailed analytics. Although the decisions appear finite and straightforward, their implications are not always immediately obvious or clear. Put another way: make a careless choice, and you quickly tank a smoothly running project.

It's all about tradeoffs, and, like the real world, some tradeoffs are wiser than others. The feedback can be a little sobering, but learning from experience is the point of a simulation.

Realism is the critical characteristic of a simulation. But realism is especially tricky for soft skills such as leadership. A simulation operates according to a set of rules, or an algorithm, that determines which choices are optimal, good, or poor. If the algorithm is too simple, the student can break the code, win the game, and learn nothing. If the algorithm is too esoteric, the experience becomes too arbitrary and frustrating for the student.

For an algorithm to be credible, it must be grounded in validated behavioral research. According to Forio, Leadership in Action is based on research originally done at MIT's System Dynamics Department on software development projects. The approach is described in detail in the book, Software Project Dynamics: An Integrated Approach by Tarek Abdel-Hamid. As a result, Leadership in Action is a fairly robust simulation that nicely mimics what I wryly refer to as the "80-20-80 rule" of project management: the first 80% of a project takes 80% of the effort, and the final 20% of a project takes another 80% of the effort.

The quality of coaching is an equally vital ingredient in simulations because the simulated experience itself merely tells you what happened whereas coaching explains why it happened. The coaching should provide the student with the appropriate context before, during, and after the simulation. Often the "Aha" learning moment occurs when one takes a step back from the experience.

By design, Leadership in Action is not a stand-alone product with respect to coaching. Although the simulation provides detailed information regarding trade-offs in specific decisions--for example, the pros and cons of increasing or decreasing team size--it does not provide the richer background discussion about when and how to change the size of a team. For this learning, other materials, not to mention a good facilitator, are essential.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Instead, Leadership in Action is designed to be part of a broader project management or leadership curriculum. Forio provides some wraparound training materials for a facilitator: a PowerPoint presentation, a facilitator guide, and an administrative tool to track student progress. These can be integrated into an existing in-house program. Forio also offers a turnkey training solution through their partnership with Isvor-Dilts, a leadership development consulting company. In this review, I evaluate only the simulation component.

Learner interface

Leadership in Action has a well-designed learner interface. The screen layout is attractive and easy to navigate. Help screens are readily accessible. In terms of working the simulation through each "week," it is a straightforward process to enter decisions.

The simulation is full of data for decision making. Most noticeable are a set of four "stoplight" style indicators (i.e., green, yellow, red) that change color and sometimes blink, from week to week. The leader also receives comments from the team such as, "You're not communicating with us enough!"

For more in-depth analysis, there are six separate tabs with project data: Team Info, My Workload, Project Info, Coaching, Summary, and Graphs. Each tab has a screen full of indicators, and even more in the case of Graphs (seven separate charts). At the end of a session, the simulation is rated in terms of an overall score up to a maximum of 1000 points plus ratings (one to five stars) on project cost, deadline, team attitude, and personal productivity. At the end of the simulation, the user can enter strategy or lessons learned for future reference.

Drawbacks

The main drawback, in my opinion, is information overload. Perhaps the simulation does reflect reality in that there is too much and somewhat contradictory information to respond to. For example, you can be faced with a situation that indicates both "high productivity" and "project behind schedule" or "good team morale" but with "excessive stress." Perhaps this is mitigated with the wraparound training and coaching, but after playing this simulation several times it is still unclear to me which indicators are key and which are subordinate or extraneous. Again, without the proper context, this can be a lonely and frustrating experience.

For future releases, I recommend that Forio focus on enhancing the end-of-simulation feedback. Basically, the current end feedback is just a scoreboard, with little guidance on what could be done to improve next time. I have no objection to the numeric score itself. This is a great psychological hook, especially in a competitive training situation. However, it can become a double-edged sword if it ends up overshadowing other feedback.

One specific suggestion is to provide a weekly recap of all decisions entered throughout the simulation so the user could make the link between specific past decisions and the results. This information is not captured currently, and I doubt whether the blank form that is used instead is adequate for this purpose.

Pricing

Leadership in Action is a good value for the money. Pricing ranges from an annual fee of $495 for 500 simulation runs ($0.99 per run) to $18,400 for 100,000 runs ($.018 per run).

Recommendation

Leadership in Action is a contender for anyone looking for project management or leadership training. From the practical perspective of a typical team leader, it compares very favorably with project management certification programs that I'm aware of. I certainly recommend giving it a close look, especially as an interactive component of existing classroom-based programs. For those without such a program, the Isvor-Dilts leadership training is also worth considering, although I have not evaluated it myself. I do not recommend Leadership in Action as a stand-alone or self-paced program.
Leadership in Action product rating

Holds user interest Very good

Production quality Very good

Ease of navigation Very good

Interactivity Good

Value of content Very good

Instructional value Good

Value for the money Outstanding

Overall rating Very good
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Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Arnold, Ed
Publication:Training Media Review
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:1219
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