Let the Sims Begin: Next-generation Supply Chain Training

More companies are leveraging simulation training to keep key personnel on top of their game

By Jim Wexler

The adrenaline rushes as the snowboarder navigates the slopes, performing tricks and jumps with sharp precision. In the background, Nokia billboards attract the attention of the audience with images of the hottest cell phones on the market. Meanwhile, the pressure is on to win.

While the scene seems straight out of an extreme sports competition, the reality is that this is a different kind of race — a thrilling 3-D game, "Nokia Buzztribe," designed to educate sales reps in retail locations throughout the United States about the latest products from the Finland-based phone manufacturer.

Since when is on-the-job training so much fun?

Ask Arrow Electronics, Inc. A global provider of products, services and supply chain solutions to industrial and commercial users of electronic components and enterprise computing solutions, Arrow serves as a supply channel partner for approximately 800 suppliers and 130,000 original equipment manufacturers, contract manufacturers and commercial customers through a global network of more than 340 locations in 53 countries and territories.

Screenshot 1 of Arrow Electronics MAX!
Screenshot 2 of Arrow Electronics MAX!
Click on thumbnail image above to view screenshots of Arrow Electronics' MAX! global supply chain business simulation.
Arrow wanted to help its sales force recognize different supply chain customer segments and orient them to the power of consultative solution selling. Through MAX!, a global supply chain business simulation, Arrow challenges the sales force to identify, segment, close, manage and upsell seven discrete customers in various customer segments.

With Max!, Arrow reps work through the cycle of identifying potential supply chain customers, conducting interviews, segmenting customers to formulate solutions selling approaches, recommending appropriate supply chain services, negotiating customer contracts and managing accounts with an eye out for potential problems or further opportunities.

"We wanted to communicate this complex topic to our sales force in a more engaging way," says Bob Martin, director of supply chain solutions at Arrow. "Through the simulation, we can depict real client situations and provide our reps with a risk-free environment in which to learn."

Programs like MAX! capitalize on the fact that many sales reps and managers grew up playing videogames. The old stereotype of traditional video gamers is changing. According to the Electronic Software Association, 60 percent of Americans play video games; the average age of game players is 28; and 43 percent of game players are female. Americans now spend more money on videogames each year than they do going to the movies, and more time at home playing videogames than watching DVDs at home.

"Games and simulations are a key part of our culture and have always been part of the learning process," says Scott Randall, president of BrandGames, the New York-based agency that developed MAX! for Arrow. "Airline pilots can't fly multimillion dollar planes until they do hundreds of hours of flight simulation. The military, CIA and other organizations have all used simulations to teach hard skills, combat skills and basic leadership for years. Games have proven to be a winning platform. Now, these tools are available for the more practical, but equally important, job of training executives, sales teams and others."

The simulation approach is gaining popularity in the current economy, with the mandate to reduce travel, classroom and executive expenses. "One of the biggest benefits is controlling the message and delivering best practices," says Martin. "We extend our hard-won business practices across the enterprise through a shared experience of carefully designed scenarios that put everyone on the same page."

Farmers Insurance is testing simulation as a learning tool with Farmers HelpPoint call center employees. "We see 'serious gaming' as an ideal delivery system for a number of learning opportunities," said Mike Cuffe, vice president of learning at Farmers. The company is piloting IBM's Innov8 2.0, a 3D simulation game based on real-world business scenarios that challenges players to drive results for both the company and the customers they serve. The challenges include call center management and optimizing a company's supply chain.

As the nation's third largest personal insurer, Farmers receives more than 3.75 million claims per year — which equates to 10,274 claims a day, 428 an hour, or seven per minute. Its claims employees log more than 95 million miles in some 6,000 company vehicles, and its 3,000 Farmers HelpPoint call center employees respond to more than 5.5 million customer calls each year.

"Since my team redesigned Farmers claims' curriculum to provide a learn-by-doing focus, our employees achieve competence more quickly, serve our customers more effectively and compassionately, and are better prepared for advancement opportunities," Cuffe says.

Training materials that leverage this "next generation" learning paradigm earn improved engagement with the audience. According to an Arrow company survey, 82 percent of Arrow participants said that their understanding of the supply chain sales process improved as a result of the program, and 74 percent said Max! will help them be more successful at Arrow.

"A high percentage of Arrow's sales force agreed that Max! positively impacted their job performance," says Martin. "The feedback is for us to do more, to keep raising the bar. Business success depends on maintaining a workforce that is motivated, supportive and productive."

About the Author: Jim Wexler is a vice president with BrandGames, a New York-based firm specializing in talent communications issues. More information at www.brandgames.com.