Get to Know… Business Simulation Designer James Chisholm

Some of the most interesting people I know are not lawyers!

This is the premise underlying this, my first, “get to know” post. My intent is to introduce this wonderful community of legal thinkers to wonderful thinkers with something to contribute from other communities. I’d encourage other Slaw contributors to do the same. This is valid online social networking isn’t it? And is building links beyond our immediate social network not a path to greater creativity and knowledge for all?

My first subject is James Chisholm, business simulation designer and principal of ExperiencePoint. We became friends back in b-school in the early 90s, but when the rest of us went on to work in finance or package goods or to (eh hem) law school, James started a simulation-related project and then a business. James and business partner Greg Warman have since grown an organizational learning business with a world-class client base that includes the UN, NASA, GE, Nokia, and the US Military as well as top business schools like Rotman, Duke, Michigan, Cornell and HEC (Paris).

Ready to implement change at Lakeview Regional Hospital?

Ready to implement change at Lakeview Regional Hospital?

I’d like to introduce you to James because he’s the most creative entrepreneur I know – one with the kind of business mind that any good Slawyer would appreciate. James is also an established subject matter expert in organizational change, having been drawn into mission-critical change initiatives in big business and government for years. Change management, of course, has been noted here at Slaw and elsewhere as a critical competency for law firms today.

Here’s what James had to say last week about his background, organizational learning and the challenges facing law firms.

DM: So how did you guys go from business grads to simulation designers?

JC: Greg I met at business school. We both grew up as gamers in entrepreneurial families, and we both were passionate about learning and personal development. Back when we started in 1996, the idea of putting a computer game in front of a team of executives was novel, even career limiting! We grew the business one client at a time and learned a great deal about what works, and even more about what doesn’t.

DM: Do organizations get it today?

JC: Oh yes. Leaders recognize that, unlike musicians and athletes, business professionals don’t have the luxury of practice. Simulations enable practice for professionals. Recent books by Malcolm Gladwell [Outliers], Geoff Colvin [Talent is Overrated] and others have made years of research on performance and expertise accessible. These books all convey similar ideas. The great are made, not born, and it’s only through years of dedicated, structured effort that people can reach the top in their field.

DM: So is that what “perfect practice” is about?

JC: Perfect practice is from the Vince Lombardi quote, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only ‘perfect practice’ makes perfect.” Providing perfect practice is our mission.

DM: Okay, so what is it about simulation that helps accomplish perfect practice?

JC: Simulations – designed well – provide a structured experience that focuses the participant on personal development. Key elements of “perfect practice” are inherent in the methodology – things like explicit goals, experimentation, and instant feedback – and can be fine-tuned to create optimal learning in a condensed timeframe. Great simulations are also replayable – participants can tackle them multiple times and achieve skills mastery rather than game mastery.

DM: Are all simulations the same? What do you do that’s different?

JC: The word “simulation” means all sorts of different things to different people. At ExperiencePoint, we focus on a fairly specific niche – leadership and management development. The simulation experiences we create are also part technology and part human. Participants work in teams and the role and experience of the players around the table can greatly influence the degree and type of informal learning that occurs. We aim not only to impart best practices, we subtly prompt specific and important conversations. For the learning outcomes our clients desire, a simulation is a great mechanism for provoking conversation and sharing experiences.

DM: How key a role does technology play?

JC: Technology is alluring and sexy and the learning industry too often sells technology as a solution. For example, the concept of teaching interpersonal skills by placing a learner across the desk from a computer-based conversation partner is a terribly flawed one. These types of simulations offer up three to four pre-packaged things to say (each eliciting a pre-packaged response from the computer). We shouldn’t promote these types of games as useful for anything other than imparting the very basics of interpersonal interaction. Fortunately, this isn’t the final word on these type of games – the technology will improve – and perhaps someday we will see a game that recognizes and reflects human emotion. But at the end of the day, good simulations are learner-centric rather than technology-centric.

DM: Are you aware of the challenges facing law firms today?

JC: It certainly seems they’re facing a critical leadership challenge. I read Mitch Kowalski’s “2020 Vision” article in the Canadian Bar Association’s magazine and its description of what a successful law firm might look like in 10 years. It described some big changes, but who’s going to lead them and how? And frankly, from the perspective of someone who’s a consumer of legal services, the message in the article was very appealing.



DM: Have your professional services clients faced resistance in taking billing professionals off-line for development?

JC: This is a classic challenge that I’ve heard in almost every type of firm we work with. Sure professionals are billing for their expertise, but that expertise still requires time to develop. Everyone can recall going to some professional development activity and taking home little more than a binder for their valuable time. The challenge is to make the the most of that time investment by creating a developmental experience that’s highly relevant and immediately applicable.

DM: But how?

JC: This our industry’s challenge. We’ve seen movement away from three to five day “Just In Case” development programs to more focused two to three day “Just In Time” programs with direct application. And formal programs aren’t the only ways in which organizational learning is being delivered to professionals today. Blended [online with in-class] programs are fast becoming the norm instead of the exception. And using new approaches that incorporate social media in learning is hot. I would challenge the law firms to challenge us. These shouldn’t be only your problems, they should also be ours.

DM: Nice thought James. To wrap things up, tell us about the most exciting project you’re engaged in right now.

JC: We’re very excited to have partnered with one of the world’s leading design firms and are launching an innovation/design thinking simulation later this fall. It’s a topic that is very important for knowledge-based organizations. “Design Thinker” will teach the methods and sensibilities for (a) discovering hidden opportunities for breakthrough innovation, and (b) building solutions that are desirable, technically feasible, and economically viable. Our existing portfolio of simulations is focused on helping organizations implement ideas. Design Thinker will prepare organizations to generate those ideas.

DM: Thanks James. All the best!

I hope you found this introduction relevant. You’ll find the 2020 Vision article James referred to here and you can learn more about James’ work at the ExperiencePoint website and his LinkedIn profile.

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