Using Simulation in People Management


Conversations about HR Analytics have got us thinking and talking about how we forecast, predict and model the future. The next step is for us to project ourselves into the future by simulating real world events in HR and People Management.

The concept of simulation in capability improvement work is not new, but real world applications are developing at an incredible pace.  Examples include doctors and nurses working in sim suites, racing drivers and engineers performing tests in a completely simulated environment and aerodynamicists working with computational fluid dynamics. In some of these settings the benefit is finding the ‘right’ or the ‘best’ way to respond to a situation that may arise in the real world and for which you would be given no second chance to respond. In other settings the value is quite the opposite: by responding to simulated events in different ways the value is in developing adaptability and embracing the principle that there are multiple legitimate responses to an event.

We know that in the world of HR and people management we face situations frequently where we need to take a decision in response to an immediate or future challenge or opportunity. Although the criticality is less obvious, there are similarities between the decisions we need to take and those of healthcare practitioners or airline pilots. We too are operating with numerous variables and unknowns, and often only have one chance to get it right. This could be in a hiring or negotiating scenario, a dispute or when managing the opportunity cost of pursuing one people strategy over another.

This is not completely unchartered territory. Many of us will be familiar with role play situations in which an actor will work with participants on a training course to enable them to test their skills. In these situations both the confidence of the individual role playing and of any observers can grow and develop. The practicalities though of bringing in actors means that this kind of activity is limited to set piece events and training situations.

We need to move beyond the idea of role playing a single event with an individual to an approach in which we work together to play out multiple versions of the future. Playing out simulated situations in this way unlocks our imaginations and casts aside the idea that the future is a single line with a single unfolding destiny. Although there are tempting links to be made with role play, the better link is with table top disaster planning. Anybody who has been involved with business continuity or emergency response planning will be familiar with being presented with a scenario and then developing the response. The difference is that those exercises tend to be used to test systems and processes rather than to challenge thinking and promote adaptability. They aren’t a bad place to start though so, if you want to try out a simulation, they can be a good model to follow.

So what kinds of HR and people management practice can benefit from simulations? Think about restructures for example. We will all have experience of thinking through options for structures until we arrive at the ‘right’ one but how far do we test those structures by simulating the kinds of challenges and situations that we know that structure may be faced with post implementation? What about communicating difficult messages or working through organisational change? How detailed is our thinking and how many different possibilities do we play through before arriving at a preferred one? Similarly, when it comes to variables, how many steps ahead are we thinking when it comes to responding to potential outcomes and next steps?

Beyond the advantages of promoting the use of our imaginations, rejecting underlying assumptions that there is a ‘right’ answer and developing adaptability, simulation also encourages discussion and collaboration. Running a successful simulation (or set of simulations) in an HR or people management scenario is utterly dependent on working as a team and replicating real world variables as far as possible through the encouragement of multiple voices and perspectives. In this way simulations ceases to be what it once was – a simplification of reality – and instead embraces its endless possibilities and complexities.






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