How game-based training and assessment helps the IDF grow better future leaders. Ran Rimon writes.

Major D. was staring at the penguin for what seemed like forever. The penguin stared back, and the seasoned officer was beginning to feel a tinge of frustration. He was supposed to rearrange the virtual playing board so he could slide the pesky penguin into a fishing hole at the center. He’d just solved a dozen similar puzzles but this one seemed impossible. The instructions clearly stated that “some challenges may not have a valid solution” and there was an “unsolvable” button he could use to skip the challenge and save precious exam time, but somehow, it felt wrong. It was a matter of character. While the officer deliberated, both his analytical skill and his persistence were being assessed. Playing games wasn’t at all something he was accustomed to. He had recently completed a last active-duty tour as an infantry battalion XO and was preparing for the command of his own battalion. The test he was facing was part of a profound personal development process designed to help him build better awareness and resilience, and ultimately make him a better leader.

In this article we’ll take a look at the challenges and rationale which led the IDF to adopt game-based learning and assessment as essential components in the training process of its command backbone, examine the benefits, and bring firsthand impressions of this process from both officers and OD professionals involved in the process.

Climbing a Steeper Curve

Brig. General (Ret.) Dr. Meir Finkel, head of the IDF/J3 Dado center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, says the ongoing geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East in recent years has forced the IDF to enhance its learning capacity at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. “A concerted effort is being made to provide IDF leaders at each echelon with adequate learning skills, especially in the fields of problem framing, understanding the gaps created between concepts, plans, current capabilities and emerging reality, and the design of solutions for those gaps”. According to Finkel, this effort includes a revised Brigadier Generals course, a redesigned Colonels course focused solely on learning skills, and changes in the education system – including the basic officer course, the Command and Staff College, and the National Defense Academy.

The “Alon” branch of the Command and Staff College is perhaps where this ongoing effort is most evident. The prestigious 9-month course grooms active-duty officers for the position of battalion/squadron commander. The course’s goal is to provide an arena for learning and personal growth, where officers can adopt the higher-order thinking habits required of the military’s mid-level leadership.

This objective presents considerable challenges, as participating officers arrive at the gates with extensive field experience and well-defined paradigms. They are products of the IDF’s strong, action-oriented culture, which emphasizes “on-job-learning” over theoretical, analytical, and reflective processes. Experiential learning theory, however, suggests that a strong, concrete experience is insufficient for meaningful learning. Learners must actively reflect on their experience in order to generalize it and construct concepts that are transferable to new situations.

Gathering Momentum

The above-mentioned assertion guides the “Tenoofa” program (literally - “momentum”) for personal leadership development for active duty commanders. The program’s core precept is that improved personal awareness among officers fosters better resilience, an enhanced sense of control and higher adaptability. These competencies, in turn, help leaders make better decisions in uncertain situations and result in successful command and a higher operational effectiveness.

After screening candidates by means of a rigorous assessment center, the innovative program lets each participant direct their own personal development process, tightly aligning individual needs with the requirements of battalion/squadron command. The program is divided into two parts: objective-setting and exercise. During the objective-setting phase, participants go through a process of personal analysis, which allows them to choose the most relevant developmental objectives in view of the challenges presented by their next role. This includes a comprehensive objective-mapping questionnaire, a role-analysis workshop - designed to investigate the relationship between the leadership role and the person filling it – and focused, 1-on-1 analysis sessions with an organizational consultant.

The exercise phase allows participants to work on their chosen personal objectives, providing them with an invaluable condition for reflection: free time. Officers were given four itinerary-free days called “momentum days”, which they could spend in whatever way they felt would best promote their personal development process.

 

Accelium game based self-analysis training

Accelium - a suite of game-based self-analysis tools using games designed to emulate a wide range of cognitive and emotional challenges.
Image credit: Mind Lab Group.

 

From Executive Training to Military Training

In order to maximize the effectiveness of the program, the IDF worked with several commercial talent-development solution providers and incorporated different state-of-the-art tools, designed for business executives, in the program. They looked for solutions which offered engaging, active learning experiences, which could provoke introspective processes and offer higher involvement than traditional, classroom instruction and exercises. Accelium – a suite of game-based skill development and evaluation solutions - had already been successfully adopted by the IDF basic officer course (see: MS&T issue 6, 2016). Accelium’s immersive learning experience yielded high involvement and satisfaction, and was therefore amongst the first components added to the “Tenoofa” course plan.

Accelium 360°, a game-based self-analysis tool, was used at two different milestones in the objective-setting stage. The test uses proprietary strategy games, designed to emulate a wide range of cognitive and emotional challenges and assess complex, higher-order skills: analytical thinking, strategic thinking and execution. After completing the three-part test, officers received a detailed evaluation report which explored their vital competencies and offered concrete observations and recommendations. The report aggregated 12 different sub-skills (such as systemic vision, focus, persistence, and adaptive thinking) into a personal skill-profile, enabling each officer to critically examine their personal strengths, unique pain-points and individual leadership style. Accelium 360’s cloud-based test is modular, so participants could access the tests from their mobile devices whenever their busy schedule permitted it. After the initial self-analysis and reflection, test results were reviewed in a 1-on-1 session with an organizational consultant, and were used to define each officer’s personal development plan.

Homing In

Using the insights from their personal analysis, officers were encouraged to focus their exercise phase on the development of specific skills that would best contribute to their overall effectiveness. During the “momentum days” they could choose to participate in Accelium PRO skill-development workshops, covering one of four core skills: problem solving, decision making, flexible thinking and situational analysis. At the workshops, officers tackled complex game challenges using Accelium’s virtual training platform, then gathered to discuss their experiences, learn game-based heuristics, share different concepts and perspectives and test their conclusions on relevant case studies. Workshop facilitators helped each participant adapt the strategies and concepts to their particular professional contexts.

Accelium’s online platform was available for further practice throughout the exercise phase, and additional 1-on-1 sessions could be scheduled as needed.

Dr. Motti Klang, who led the program’s organizational development team, says Accelium’s skill assessment provides a unique quantitative insight into “soft” skills like execution ability. He described the way officers reacted to the Accelium 360 evaluation: “classic assessment center tests stir up a lot of emotions as their influence on candidates’ future is considerable. Participants tended to be more receptive and curious about the feedback they got from the Accelium skill evaluation and that creates a potential for better dialogue”.

Major N. - a tough, straight talking XO from one of the IDF’s roughest infantry battalions – was excited to take Accelium’s game-based evaluation: “I was really intrigued by this analysis, I was curious to find out what it would tell me, and found myself taking the entire test in one morning, no breaks or anything. It was fascinating.” The appealing nature of the test had an additional effect beyond engagement: “Unlike the rest of the tests we take during the course, such as the assessment center, it’s easy to take Accelium’s test with a ‘clean-slate’ approach. You put things aside and just enjoy the challenge with no bias, especially since it’s fun, and there’s nobody else involved, just you and the computer. It simply doesn’t feel like a test.” Major N says the results’ accuracy surprised him: “The Accelium report was certainly aligned with the evaluation I got at the assessment center. They both showed that I had strong execution skills and both highlighted a gap in systemic vision- they indicated that I needed to pause more and consider more alternatives before acting.” N admits that getting similar readings from both evaluations made him take the results very seriously. “Accelium ‘captured’ my leadership style very well, and analyzing the report together with the organizational consultant helped me realize where I needed to concentrate my efforts.”

“Our participants come from a culture that’s all about performance, immediate action and improvisation,” elaborates Dr. Klang, “some of them are unaccustomed to the kind of ‘offline’ analysis and planning that’s required for their next roles. Accelium helps us turn the spotlight to those blind-spots and focus their personal development process.”

 

Game Based Leadership Training mobile display

Image credit: Mind Lab Group.

 

Looking ahead

By adopting game-based learning solutions as a pivotal component in the personal development process of senior officers, the IDF is acknowledging its unique power as an assessment and talent-development tool. Like commercial giants such as Toyota, Alphabet Inc., and Unilever, the IDF is discovering what game-based learning has to offer beyond fast, cost-effective training. As more units incorporate game-based solutions into their training plans, they benefit from valuable new insights about candidates’ “softer” skills - such as execution, adaptive thinking and persistence. In addition, the novel and immersive nature of these solutions help experts reduce learners’ anxiety and provide meaningful, personalized feedback. All these factors are driving an accelerated adoption of game-based solutions, making it likely that game-based components will soon be a fundamental part of most military training courses.

About the author

Ran Rimon is a user experience (UX) expert, who's been developing training and educational programs at Accelium since 2011. Ran serves as a reserve officer (Capt.) in IDF's Home Front Command.

 

Originally published in Issue 1, 2018 of MS&T Magazine.