L’Oréal plays games with training

Cosmetic giant uses simulations, role playing to help product managers practice new skills

After three months on the job, product managers at L’Oréal Canada are given their own company and required to market their products to consumers around the world.

The company is virtual, the consumers are computer-based and the product managers’ success or failure is simply a simulation. But the learning is real, says the director of learning for development at the cosmetics giant in Montreal.

“One of the main things in training is practice and simulations are really the best way to practice a new skill that you’ve just learned,” says Marjolaine Rompré.

Employees work in pairs and play the “game” for four hours a week over six weeks. Each week, there’s an e-learning component where employees have to study a new topic, such as market segmentation, brand positioning and working with media. This is done online with a trainer and participants from L’Oréal offices around the world.

The next day the pairs go online and use the skills they learned from the e-learning module to make business decisions. Two days later, all participants go back online and, along with the trainer, look at the market share of their companies. This allows them to immediately see the impact of their marketing decisions on the company.

“We really strongly encourage them to take risks. There’s no danger here. It’s not a real product. If you’re going to learn and experiment, you might as well do it in a safe environment,” says Rompré.

Not only do employees see the impact of their own decisions, but they also see the outcome of other teams’ decisions, whether they played it safe or took a risk and how it paid off, which increases their learning.

After employees see how they’ve done, they have a face-to-face meeting with their manager to talk about how they can apply what they learned to their specific job at L’Oréal Canada.

“The objective of the game is to develop a really thorough understanding of their role as L’Oréal marketers and how we specifically do marketing at L’Oréal,” says Rompré.

Besides the marketing-specific knowledge employees gain from the game, which was created in 2003, employees also learn how to network with employees from around the world and this establishes a common, international marketing language, she says.

While the game could be done in a three-day workshop, having it spread out over several weeks gives employees the chance to really get comfortable with all the material.

“Learning takes time in order to really fully understand it, to actually put it in practice and really make sense of it,” says Rompré. “It takes time and it takes practice. What I like about the game is it allows the practice to really be done within the training and not only after.”

L’Oréal also uses the game as a recruitment tool with teams of university students from around the world playing the game online. Instead of the e-learning component, participants are presented with information on each of the topics and must make decisions based on that information. They are then evaluated.

The game allows L’Oréal to evaluate candidates’ business and marketing skills, says Rompré. It also gives recruiters and managers the chance to get to know candidates better than is possible at more traditional recruiting events, such as career fairs.

“We can have a conversation that lasts several weeks with some of the candidates,” says Rompré.

Along with other online simulations and business games, L’Oréal incorporates in-person simulations and role plays to train all employees.

“Simulation is the next best thing to reality. You’re simulating the reality and trying to put the person in a situation that is closest to the reality that they will have to work in once they’re back in the job,” says Rompré.

L’Oréal uses role plays extensively to train its sales force. Junior sales representatives and key account managers are given information on a product line and the potential clients, such as Shoppers Drug Mart or Wal-Mart. The vice-president of sales and sales directors play the role of the customers.

“They bring a lot of reality to the role plays,” says Rompré. “The fact that we really customize the role plays to the actual products that we sell and the actual clients we sell to, and that we use some of the people who have been in the field for years and actually know those clients, makes it a lot more credible.”

What makes simulations and role plays such a great training tool is the safe environment in which they exist. Employees are free to take risks and try different approaches without fear of losing a client or costing the company a lot of money, says Rompré.

While the training environment needs to remain judgement-free to give employees the security to try new things, it’s important to remember simulations are a learning exercise.

“Fair feedback is also necessary,” says Rompré.

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