AUSTIN, Texas — Back in 2000, Bjorn Billhardt was a student at Harvard Business School, where he was struggling to understand some basic concepts of macroeconomic policy.
So he built a simple simulation program that let him and fellow students experiment with economic variables outside of the lecture hall.
A professor liked it so much she asked for a simulation on supply chain management, where students could run a factory and learn as they went along.
It was such a hit that the business school hired Billhardt to create more interactive learning programs. With Harvard as his first client, Billhardt founded online training company Enspire Learning.
Today, Enspire provides online business simulations and leadership development programs to customers including the University of Texas, USAA, GE and Southwest Airlines. It has worked with 60 Fortune 500 companies, and has done simulations with Fortune 1000 companies in more than 20 countries, including the United Kingdom, Singapore, China and Iraq.
“People learn best through experience and practice,” Billhardt said. “You can passively listen to a management consultant, but you’re not going to become a better manager. Making mistakes and learning from a simulation is far better than failing in the real world.”
The most effective training, Billhardt says, involves competition. “If given the choice, who wouldn’t rather play a game instead of listen to a PowerPoint presentation? Having teams go up against each other is powerful motivator for people to test and hone their skills.”
In Enspire’s management development programs, which usually last a full workday, employees are broken into teams that compete against one another in a virtual world to build a successful business or launch a new product.
Players use computers or tablets to take part in the simulation, which includes interacting with pre-recorded actors playing employees and other workplace roles. The simulation selects from 60 potential responses, and gives the feel that the player is communicating directly with the actor.
One team’s decision to lower pricing or launch a marketing campaign will have a visible effect on other teams’ ability to sell their products and services. Along the way, challenges arise, including natural disasters, employee issues and other unexpected twists. Each team has a score card that earns points based on performances.
“It puts people in a safe, controlled environment to practice, to test, to question and to learn,” said Eric Greisdorf of Austin-based energy management company ClearResult, which is using Enspire to train employees who are moving into supervisory roles. “The people we’ve identified for leadership positions are very strong at their craft, but often they don’t have experience in leading people. The purpose of the Enspire program is develop that skill set.”
Billhardt, now 39, says it would have made sense to start Enspire in Boston, close to the company’s one paying customer.
But the Hamburg, Germany, native had done a student exchange at Pflugerville High School as a junior and returned to earn his undergraduate degree from UT. He wanted to get back to Central Texas.
“The environment in Austin was so much more supportive than any other place I had lived. I knew it was the only place I could imagine building a company,” he said. “So in June 2001, in the midst of a pretty big recession, all my classmates went off to their fancy consulting jobs and I drove a U-Haul from Boston and set up shop in an apartment on 38th Street.”