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Exploring experiential learning

Exploring experiential learning

Product managers are often called upon to take control of a new brand having never ‘driven’ it before

“I’ve never flown one of these before,” the pilot confided to me as we walked down the ramp to the aircraft. 
“You’re kidding, right?” 
“Well, it’s not quite true,” he laughed. “I have 180 hours in the simulator.”

Settling into our seats, we were reassured that the man with the gold epaulettes had several thousand flying hours under his belt. In fact, the training for every new aircraft he flies starts in a flight simulator and research has shown that one hour in the simulator is worth two in the real aircraft. Some agencies actually allow simulator hours to be logged.

Nobody would take the controls of a Boeing 747 aeroplane for the first time without proper training, yet product managers are often called upon to take control of a new brand having never ‘driven’ it before. Although the potential for disaster may be different, the implications for success are the same.

To provide teams with the required skills, some companies are turning to business simulation to rehearse competitive or launch scenarios – a learning approach that can be extremely valuable.

The statement ‘people learn in different ways’ is often ignored when designing training interventions that are key to the success of a company.

In 1984, David Kolb published his research on learning styles. Building on the work of many others, he further developed the principle of experiential learning with a four-stage learning cycle. Under this process, Individuals progress through these stages as they learn, first experiencing something, then observing and reflecting upon it, then conceptualising it and experimenting. 

Kolb argues that because individuals differ in their perceptual and processing preferences, everyone has an individual preferred learning style based on where in the cycle he or she is most comfortable and experienced.

Kolb’s four distinct learning styles are Diverging (feel and watch), Assimilating (think and watch), Converging (think and do) and Accommodating (feel and do).

In practice, this means individuals choose their approach to a task or experience by either watching others involved and reflecting on it (reflective observation) or getting involved and doing it for themselves (active experimentation). Similarly, they choose how to transform an experience emotionally either by gaining new information from thinking, analysing and planning (abstract conceptualisation) or through experiencing the ‘concrete and tangible, felt qualities of the world’ (concrete experience).

Kolb’s model maps well on to other behavioural and personality models and implies that, whilst everyone can and does use all of the various styles, each has a preference for one learning style or another, depending on personality and a range of other factors.

In the pharmaceutical industry, there are discontinuities and unexpected events for which it can be difficult to prepare using standard training interventions. These certainly play an important role in development, especially when the focus of the experience is on the needs of the individual (a ‘Learning’ rather than ‘Training’ approach). The most effective training blends didactic and experiential approaches through demand-led learning and interactive content made available in all settings plus practical ‘on the job’ experience.  Effective learning must be timed to fit within a receptive organisational environment and to integrate effectively with the ‘day job’, but it can be a challenge to take account of all learning styles in one package. So, can more be done to enhance the depth and breadth of learning for everyone in an organisation?

Tailored training

Business simulation offers a highly effective way to learn new skills and to practise existing ones, where the type of simulation and its design is relevant to the task in hand and to the specific roles of the participants themselves.  As with any learning intervention, the timing must fit with the calendar of critical events and create a high degree of realism and competition.

With the right database, it is possible to create a high-impact, cost-effective, bespoke business simulation that incorporates an algorithm that supports competition, learning and scorekeeping. An IT participant interface can help learning objectives, although it is vital that the technology does not take over. Some of the best recent examples have used well-briefed and experienced company role players and minimal technology. A lot can be achieved with a few carefully chosen tactile materials and a well-planned scenario.

The range of potential applications for pharmaceutical business simulation is extremely varied and the decision whether to use a simulation platform should be weighed carefully based on the two key criteria of relevance and timeliness. A simulation has to have a clear purpose and a successful outcome is far greater if the simulation helps to prepare the team for a particular critical event.  Strong examples of such simulations include:

• Preparing an organisation for change
A simulation based on an organisational and competitive environment that rewards innovation or payer-directed campaign development and helps traditional marketers evolve new strategies of working with customers.

• Sharpening company competitive focus
A simulation that demands an aligned strategy and implementation plan, provides a range of unpredictable challenges and rewards preparation for competitive assault and contingencies.  This helps teams to develop their competitive capabilities ahead of anticipated competitor activity.

• Adopting a new sales & marketing planning process, system or tools
A simulation that emulates a new planning process, tools or systems and enables the organisation to conduct a test run, smooth any hitches, pilot the system and train its people in one go.

• Preparing a sales team for a new campaign launch
A simulation that emulates advocacy and market access, with rewards for levels of prescribing generated, is invaluable in practising a new campaign/e-detail/product launch. This can be with real or role-playing customers in a competitive cross-functional sales environment.

• Strategic scenario planning and event forecasting
A simulation based on an interactive competitor platform allowing competitors to interact and counter each other’s strategies (formerly known as war gaming) is an excellent way to plan strategy and counter-strategy and engage the cross-functional team.

Not only does a simulation mimic reality and enable teams to practise in a safe and realistic environment, it allows for the different learning styles of the participants. It ensures that there is something there for everyone, wherever they are on the learning cycle and whatever their individual learning style (Accommodating, Diverging, Assimilating or Converging).  It also takes account of the different skills and aptitudes of the participants (Analytical, Task-focused, People-focused) and their Belbin-defined team roles (such as Plant, Co-ordinator, Shaper, Completer Finisher).


Whatever the specific purpose of the simulation, it is vital that participants are encouraged to reflect on what they have learned and to ensure that there is translation of those learnings back into the workplace. This is generally best achieved by the line manager, who should also be encouraged to be part of the simulation.

Overall, simulation represents a valuable and innovative addition to any learning curriculum and is a cost-effective and enjoyable way to prepare teams for critical events without them having to take any unnecessary risks at 36,000 feet.

The Author
Jonathan Dancer
 is a managing partner at The MSI Consultancy