Games Can Make a Difference

Innovation is often associated with high-tech companies in California’s Silicon Valley, but innovative learning strategies are also being implemented 125 miles east of the Valley in Sacramento, California’s state capitol.

The California State Board of Equalization (BOE) administers California’s sales and use tax and other special taxes and fees that fund a variety of state programs. To effectively administer these programs, its workforce is dispersed in several office locations throughout the state. The agency’s commitment to staff development is evidenced in its strategic goals, where “Invest in a skilled, motivated and diverse workforce” is one of four prominent areas of focus.

“I am always looking for innovative training solutions that will give our staff the best possible interaction with the public, provide more options for solutions, and create an environment where both the taxpayer and the Board are satisfied with the outcome of that interaction,” says Mark Walker, the training team lead for the BOE compliance and audit staff.

Piloting a Game

As it happened, Walker had been researching game-based learning for some time. His research uncovered some impressive results from learning games, so he began searching for a game-based training solution to teach the BOE’s compliance staff how to improve their communication and negotiation skills with taxpayers. He found a solution that seemed like a good fit.

“We piloted a learning game designed to teach negotiation skills in an online interactive format. We wanted to validate the concept prior to implementing a game based training solution throughout the

agency,” Walker explains.

The pilot was conducted over a five-week period.

Walker says: “Game-based training is implemented differently, as it is an online course played as a group or cohort. Each learner competes individually against the simulator, but results are aggregated in a cohort leaderboard, which introduces the concept of competition. Not only does this act as a motivator to do better individually, but it also generates positive communication between employees and between district offices located throughout the state.”

As the initial phase of the training unfolded, Walker tracked progress closely. “The vendor was very supportive before, during and after the pilot,” he notes. “Their staff was made available and assisted with the kickoff meeting for the initial cohort as well as the debriefing meeting. One of their learner engagement managers was assigned to our cohort and provided technical and supportive assistance to staff throughout the training. Regular contact was made with staff requiring support or encouragement, including both phone and email support.”

Then Came Debriefing

At the conclusion of the BOE’s pilot class, Walker scheduled a debriefing meeting, which evolved into a key learning event in the program. “The vendor helped create six mock case studies that simulate what our staff might encounter working at the BOE. In the debriefing meeting, the vendor representative conducted a group exercise where each group was given one of the case studies and was asked to create solutions. The participants were able to apply what they learned in the game and discuss it in an open environment with the other students and instructors. This exercise solidified and grounded the training into real-life situations that the students may experience and allowed them to see a new way to approach each scenario.”

The results were very encouraging, according to Walker: “The impressive results, combined with the overwhelming support of the pilot group, clearly indicate that game-based learning is an effective learning tool. I saw a difference in how the pilot group approached a scenario, applied techniques that were clearly learned from the course, and came up with win-win situations for both the agency and the public.”

One of the employees who completed the training said, “I felt once I completed the course, my skills to negotiate were improved by a large percentage. The negotiations with the different characters in the game prepared us to use the skills learned in different situations at the BOE, which made it more effective. It changes the whole approach on how to learn.”

Another employee adds: “The way this game delivers the content is better than almost any other class I have had. It also has a tell-show-explain methodology for skill development.”

From a learning transference perspective, Walker is impressed with the performance impact of the communication skills game. “Several weeks after the pilot was completed, I received responses from pilot participants that applied the skills they had learned. Several staff said they selected cases other employees were unable to resolve, and using the techniques taught in the game, they approached the cases from an entirely new perspective. They worked with the taxpayer to negotiate a solution that allowed the taxpayer to resolve their issues, and the state to clear the account. In all cases, the taxpayer expressed satisfaction with the outcome.”

Based on these positive results, the Board of Equalization has moved forward in a wider implementation of the learning game as the core of a blended learning program.

—Kathy Heldman wrote this article on behalf of Game On! Learning.

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