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Masters' Q&A - Will Thalheimer

Experts Answer 5 Questions on Simulations - Will Thalheimer

Will Thalheimer Photo

This is the FOURTH in my series of interviews with experts in our field of learning, development, performance, and business acumen. Today, it's Will Thalheimer, Consultant, Speaker, and Researcher at Work-Learning Research. Will is an internationally renowned expert in workplace learning and performance improvement. He focuses on empowering learning professionals to get the most from learning and helping organizations build strategic learning and performance practices.

Will speaks at conferences, teaches workshops, coaches learning professionals, and provides consulting services like research benchmarking, learning audits, learner surveys, and learning and evaluation strategies.

His greatest hits include his book, Performance-Focused Learner Surveys: Using Distinctive Questioning to Get Actionable Data and Guide Learning Effectiveness (now in its second edition), an innovative next-generation training evaluation model called the Learning Transfer Evaluation Model (an improvement over the Kirkpatrick-Katzell Four-Level Model), launching The Debunker Club (One of my favorites), and countless research to practice writings, postings, conference sessions, and interviews.

DAN: Why do you think leaders at all levels get so much from learning in simulations?

WILL: Leading question! SMILE. While I am a big believer in simulations for leadership training— and once led a whole leadership-development product line based on simulation-based training — I would caution people that not all simulations are effective. They must first be based on validated content recommendations. There are many fluffy recommendations we have for leaders and managers.

Simulations must also align with people’s real work situations. They must be well conceived from both a learning and engagement standpoint. They must provide realistic practice.

DAN: How have simulation participants demonstrated their learning back on the job? What’s the return on this investment (financial or non-financial)?

WILL: In my simulation days, we did NOT do good evaluations, so I don’t have definitive results to share.

DAN: What makes learning through a simulation experience unique and meaningful?

WILL: Well-designed simulations can help individuals think differently about the leadership situations they face in their work. However, I see a new role for simulations—or at least for simulation-like decisions. I think scenario questions can be used to help leaders and frontline workers and all those in between develop a deeper understanding of each other’s perspectives.

One of the biggest problems in most organizations is a lack of awareness of how others see things. Leaders especially become blind to employees’ feelings and perspectives and manage ineffectively from this place of ignorance. By presenting a well-crafted scenario question or set of questions (forming a simulation), people from throughout organizations can learn from each other. This would improve organizational functioning while making it much more likely that employees' voices are heard. [Dan's Note: See Klas Mellander's Expert Q&A post for more on this point.]

DAN: Some Talent Development Teams partner with Finance leaders, HR leaders, Project professionals, or even senior Operations executives on topics in their area of expertise. How have simulators been adapted in collaboration with these subject experts? What have been the results?

WILL: When we built simulations based on the experts’ bodies of work, we found we had to take the experts on a retreat of several days to gain their wisdom. Too often experts focus on the principles they think others should know, but they have the hardest time thinking about what real people should do in realistic situations.

To build a simulation, you must build it up out of scenes and decisions and many experts are inexperienced in doing this. It was a step-by-step process—often painful for them—but they left as if transformed, seeing their expertise in the beautiful grittiness of real-world performing.

DAN: What energizes you about your work?

WILL: I’ve been restarting my consulting practice—Work-Learning Research—this year so your question is timely as I’ve been given a lot of thought to what I’m trying to do now. I also turned 65 this year, which also got me into a reflective mode.

What energizes me now is empowering learning and development professionals to get the most from learning while also helping organizations build strategic learning and performance practices.

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