Simulations in Corporate ExecEd Programs

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1 Simulations in Corporate ExecEd Programs Bruce Nichols spent more than 30 years as an organizational specialist and manager doing training and education and well as consulting at Southern Company, the parent company of Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power, and Mississippi Power. He has Bachelor s and Master s degrees in business.while at Southern Company, he used many simulations as well as more traditional types of training programs. After retiring, the Dean at Samford University s Brock School of Business asked him to become Director of Executive Education. Essentially the Dean said I want you to help market my faculty to the business community. You understand training and education and you understand the business end of the environment, so I want you to market us. What particular characteristics of a corporate program opportunity lead you to recommend the inclusion of a management simulation to the client? The first thing that I do when we have client contact is try to review their environment and try to determine exactly what outcomes they re looking for. Frankly, I don t always recommend the simulation. It depends on what they re trying to accomplish and what kind of an impact they re trying to make. When do you recommend simulations to your clients? Once we look at what the client is trying to accomplish and what their anticipated outcomes are, we sit down and say will the LINKS Simulation accomplish that? We look at how we might adapt a simulation to a particular industry. We also look at if we need to do the simulation differently than we have done it in the past. The client may be looking for a certain outcome that is different. We work with Randy all we can to adapt a simulation to the client s environment where there is a solution just for a particular client. We try to look at each company s environment and ask what are we trying to do? What is the day like for you guys and what are you trying to accomplish? What are the issues you are experiencing? Then we determine if this simulation will help them tackle those issues. We want them to come back to us and say this was a real world experience. We did a simulation a few weeks ago for an individual client who had 26 participants. One of the outcomes they wanted was to understand better what Executive Management had to experience on a daily basis. By going through the simulation, these participants were able to walk out of there and say We have a totally different perspective of what Executive Management has to do Page 1

2 because the simulation requires you to do all types of things finance, marketing, strategy and all those kinds of issues. We sit over in our cubbyhole and sometimes we don t even know or sometimes we forget what the big picture is. We understand better how to run a company and we understand a lot of the decisions being made. We understand interfaces better than we did. What sort of responses do you get from your participants and what sort of feedback do you get from your clients regarding simulations? At Southern Company, we did simulations all the time. I thought when I came here that it would not get any better than I have seen in the past but I m surprised. LINKS is better. It is more real world than anything I have seen in the past. It has more flexibility than any simulation I have ever seen. The participant says I feel like I ve been there. I ve run a company and I ve had to look at all the different functions and that s an experience that s as close to reality as I can get without actually having done that. And it s a safe reality. The mistakes you make in a simulation might come back to haunt you in terms of getting an award at the end of the simulation but it doesn t break the company. Are your clients just interested in the end result or do they feel that their people take back something else when they use the simulation? Frankly, they re more interested in the take back than they are the end result. Most of the time we bring in the Executive Management from a client and let them participate in the final hour or two of the debriefing and, without exception, management is always impressed with what they hear from the debrief. But what they leave there thinking, more than anything else, is that their people have put their heart and souls into the simulation and they believe their people now have a better appreciation for the business function and what they need to go back and do. These people have learned to interface better than they ever have before. They learn leadership. They re excited that they may win the simulation but they re more excited with the potential of what they will actually carry back to their work. What kinds of objections and concerns are typically raised by a client when you recommend the inclusion of a management simulation in a custom ExecEd program? One thing is you never call the simulation a game. Never, never, never call it a game to the client; call it a simulation. If you call it a game, you have lost them and the client will think it s a Nintendo 201 that s the first problem. Page 2

3 Secondly, and this is true with everything we do, don t try to sell them anything. Show them what the simulation will do, show them what the potential outcome is, give them some examples of what has happened with other simulations with other clients. If you can do that and show them exactly what they are going to get, they will go for it. Several weeks ago we had a client who was adamantly opposed to doing a LINKS Simulation. He said We don t play games in this company. We didn t even mention games to him, but we said Right, let us show you what this simulation does. And when we got through, he said we need to add more time to the course and add the simulation. The first key is the client has to know that I have their best interest in mind, and I m not trying to sell them something. I am trying to provide them a value-add and trying for them to look at outcomes. Interestingly, even though the client wants outcomes, sometimes it s difficult for them to sit down and state what will success look like at the backend of this experience. My favorite question to the client is what will success look like? and what do you want them to do or be that they re not doing right now? Another thing is to show them that the simulation is a business application, it is not a game and here are some of the things that they re going to be learning in that application. It is an investment in company time. And what kind of learning transfer can we anticipate happening and what are the opportunities for learning transfer. If we can get them thinking like that, then you will probably win them over. Another key component is if you can get the executives to come in and kickoff the simulaiton and, in particular, come in at the end of the program and listen to presentations from each team and the debrief. I have never seen this not be a very positive experience. Invariably what these participants will tell you is they learn from the exercise and learn from each other, but they will invariably talk about its application back on the job and what they are going to take back to work. For top executives that is music to their ears. Are there specific industrial and/or business needs that are commonly addressed by businesses and organizations you serve? What you try to customize is a LINKS simulation around their industry and around their issues. Once you ve done that you re going to look primarily at leadership and how students conduct themselves in the simulation and what kind of carry-over there is going to be back on the job Page 3

4 Simulation participants also learn to address conflict, negotiations, teamwork and they learn to make presentations. A final presentation is required and this offers development of those skills. Has the scope of your program changed in any way in the last few years given current economic conditions? We had a real downturn for about the last two years but it has picked up significantly. The feedback I get from the better companies is even if my revenues are not as good as I would like I ve got to develop future leaders and I ve got to do something and consider looking at it as an investment, not a cost. There has definitely been a downtrend. But it s coming back up. The best clients are some of the larger corporations and the progressive organizations--the ones having a premium on developing leaders. This has focused clients into thinking What am I going to do to get better? and How am I going to meet the challenges of the downturn? and Where does training and education fit into that investment? Bad news is turned into the good news by the good companies that say, I still have to do something. Some small companies often never put a premium on training and education. That attitude has cut them out completely in this environment. They will suffer for lack of development of their employees. What you end up with is the cream of the crop doing programs like this. It is a pleasure to deal with some of the companies we re dealing with now. Their leadership is so enlightened. The attendees are so excited about the program and attending it. They re so engaged. One of the issues with the LINKS Simulation is getting people to go home at night. They re so enthusiastic about the simulation, they invariable stay late. But that s a delightful problem. Not all companies have employees that are like that. I d rather have business from 10% of the best rather than business from 90% of the worst. Page 4

5 What are the main differences in your custom programs compared to open enrollment programs and are there specific reasons businesses will tend toward choosing one or the other? The big advantage of open enrollment is you can mix the teams and they learn from each other and from different industries. The biggest disadvantage, is that you obviously can t customize it around any particular client s needs. You have to look very closely at the version of the simulation that you are offering and it makes it a little more challenging to us to make it meaningful for everyone. But you get a lot of good feed-back about how they learn from someone from another company. I spoke to a company very recently and they want us to do another simulation and add some other companies together with them again because they said we continue to learn from each other. They even have a corporate objective now that any type of training and education they attend in the future, they want to be mixed with other companies in the area. It doesn t have to be the same industry but with anybody they think they can learn from other companies. Once you do a good job the clients will come back and ask for more. Can you summarize your objectives? In summary, the key to our success has been trying to listen to the client and telling the client what we think and not just trying to sell them something. We try to customize what we do to meet their needs. You might get away with giving them something that looks good on the surface but doesn t work well once, but you won t get away with it twice. I want to see repeat business. I want companies to see us as an organization with integrity. I hope we underpromise and over deliver. That s what we try to do. The feedback we have gotten since we ve been doing this has been phenomenal. I attribute it to the fact that we are trying to be straightforward and we don t promise them something we can t deliver. We have a great faculty presenting everything. The faculty here is constantly trying to do better and put their best foot forward. They care. We get those kinds of comments all the time. The comments are about how dedicated the faculty is and how closely they work with the teams and the organization, and how well they present the simulation and how well they had done their homework to make it as customized as they could make it. I hope we can maintain that thrust of hard work and honesty. The bottom line is serving Page 5

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