Going Viral: What Ebola Can Teach Us About Organizational Learning

It’s been interesting listening to the news about the Ebola patient in Dallas. At times, it almost sounds like an ongoing soap opera, except that it won’t turn out to be a bad dream.

What was particularly noteworthy, though, was the news report that the hospital that incorrectly sent the Ebola patient home had just completed an Ebola simulation exercise. Assuming that the story is correct, this really makes me wonder about the simulation the hospital staff engaged in and its effectiveness at promoting organizational learning.

The problem, to be fair, with a great many simulations is that they are too scripted: the problems are presented with big flashing neon signs saying, “DANGER! DANGER!” and there is always a clear and correct solution. While this type of drill can be useful in basic skill development, it does not train people to handle real situations unless those real situations mimic the drill reasonably precisely. Effective simulations need to be more open-ended and ambiguous; people need to practice the much more difficult scenario of making decisions where the answers are not clear and the problems are indicated by flashing neon signs.

When I ran a pandemic bird flu simulation in Washington DC, I applied exactly those principles: the flu epidemic began quietly, the initial clues were subtle. Participants in the exercise, including doctors, military officials, businessmen, and politicians, initially missed the danger signs. No one wanted to be seen as Chicken Little, no one wanted to appear to panic or to be publicly wrong. As a result, they failed to stop the flu while it was still limited to only a few exposed people. Of the over 100 participants in the exercise, every one was exposed and over 60% “caught” the flu. Real changes took place after that.

Organizational learning is not just showing people what to do. Organizational learning is giving people the chance to practice skills in settings where they can experience success and failure, and where failure becomes an opportunity to learn and improve. That’s really what effective simulations are all about, at least if you actually want your organization to actually learn.

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