One of the greatest differentiators between top performers and average performers is optimal decision-making in diverse situations. Knowing what to do is rarely enough; effective performance requires learners to develop the skill of recognizing how to apply knowledge in real-world situations in order to witness results.

Practice and coaching are the best methods to develop these skills. While effective, this skill acquisition process is difficult and expensive. However, virtual technologies can help scale practice and coaching across an organization.

Knowing Is Rarely Enough

Imagine walking into a new training center for automobile mechanics. It has modern rooms with computers, where trainees are working away on a modern LMS with interactive text, pictures, car diagrams and videos. You may ask, “Where are the cars?” What if their response were, “Cars? Oh, they’ll see plenty of those when they finish the program, and they’ll be prepared”? Sounds crazy, right?

When applying knowledge is situational and constantly changing, learners need practice, because applying that knowledge optimally is a skill, and mastering the skill leads to real behavior change. Interactive text, pictures or video – no matter how impressive – do not emulate the real situation. Trainees must feel like they’re in it, deciding what to do next.

The Evidence For Effective Skill Mastery

After decades of research from the military, medicine and other disciplines, it’s generally accepted that highly realistic simulations are effective training tools. Research shows that realism is required for efficacy. Simulations are deeply rooted in cognitive science principles and create real-world behavior change.

However, there’s another important reason to use a simulation for decision-making skills: Situations are rarely the same. If you train for “when this happens, do that,” and the situation is not quite like “when this happens,” there is a disconnect. There is no framework for the trainees to adapt. All they can do is learn from trial and error in a real situation – which is exactly what you are trying to avoid by using training in the first place.

How Simulations Work

Simulations are designed to enable the learner to construct a mental model that can detect patterns and then practice responding optimally:

  • Pattern Recognition: Humans are phenomenal pattern recognizers. It’s one skill that machines still struggle to emulate. We need the learners to recognize patterns of good decision-making.
  • Mental Models: How does a simulation help learners create their own mental model? They first find experts and extract their mental models. For example: What are their options? How do they choose among them?
  • Practice: The simulation contains the expert mental model and is, therefore, an intelligent responsive tool. Now, learners can make decisions in different realistic situations and receive coaching and mentoring that guide them to recognize and experience optimal decision-making behavior.

How to Create a Simulated Experience

One-on-one encounters with a coach involve the same types of activities. For example, the coach can construct a situation, role-play with the learner and mentor them as they make decisions. Over time, the learner will start to recognize optimal decision patterns. This learning is accelerated by the coach’s mentoring feedback. This feedback is not just correct/incorrect responses; in context of the decision, it helps reveal the coach’s expert mental model.

There are two elements needed to make a simulated experience work. The first is expert coaches who know how to optimally respond to diverse situations and, therefore, possess an expert mental model to use. They can construct realistic scenarios and mentor the learner to recognize patterns. The second is time. This process requires a time investment on the part of both the expert coach and the learner, but it will yield performance results, so there will be a return on that investment.

How to Scale Practice and Coaching with Technology

Many organizations do not have enough expert coaches to implement coaching across their organization. Others have coaching teams that are at capacity. This is a scale problem, and the right technology can be the answer.

An online seminar with the expert coach does not work. It’s passive, it’s not personalized and it does not satisfy any of the educational design goals for skill acquisition. Video conferencing eliminates geography constraints but does not solve the time or scale issue.

Simulation technology can provide virtual practice and coaching in a scalable way. Even if an organization has enough coaches, using technology strategically (to cover more common practice gaps, for instance) can free up coaches so they can impact in more pressing areas, creating a compelling ROI.

Let’s say you have a handful of dynamo subject matter experts in your organization. Let’s also assume that you have several common practice gaps that all learners need to master to increase their performance. This situation creates an immediate scale problem. Doing nothing will result in no performance gains. A virtual simulation can allow learners to practice decision-making in real situations with dynamic coaching feedback.

Just as training car mechanics should involve real cars, training in optimal decision-making should place learners in realistic situations with challenging decisions. If the situation is a conversation, the virtual experience should be an interactive conversation. Effective coaching is nuanced and should be conversational and in the context of each decision. Passive videos are not a simulation (plus, they’re hard to modify), and interactive text dialogues are not immersive.

Simulations with virtual humans are a great fit here, provided they are conversational and the solution embeds cognitive science methodologies and the attributes derived from simulation research. Analytics are another critical aspect to look for in a solution, so you can measure how your learners are performing across the organization.

The Hidden Skill Behind Performance: Situational Decision-Making

Optimal, situational decision-making is most often the key differentiator between top performers and average performers. Because it’s a skill, organizations can improve average performers by enabling them to practice decision-making in diverse situations. Expert coaching rapidly accelerates this skill acquisition process. Virtual coaching technologies can provide a way for organizations to implement more strategic coaching to increase knowledge retention and, thus, enhance performance.