Richard Barkey, founder of Imparta, makes learning addictive by exploiting the lure of video games to produce interactive simulations of work challenges. Victoria Hoban reports
What do you get when you combine Tomb Raider with staff training? Answer: simulation game-based learning, which is a lot more fun than Powerpoint overheads in a conference room. And what do you get when you combine a strategy consultant, a hardware engineer and a glued-to-the-screen computer gamer? Answer: Richard Barkey, the 36-year-old CEO of Imparta, who with his advanced multi-media training materials aims to make learning no less than addictive.
If you believe the hype, e-learning is the new face of corporate training. With a predicted 96% growth in the next five years and dollars 4 billion European market by 2004, it will replace the classroom and cut costs drastically. However, only 8% of companies have fully incorporated e-learning into their training programmes. Could it be because much of this industry is simply selling old wine in new e-bottles?
Paula Young, director of learning technologies at PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the first corporates to embrace e-learning, admits that, at first, it was hard to be discerning. 'We saw a flurry of dot.com activity, got consumed in the hype and mistook reading for learning.' She echoes the views of many that developments have been technology-led - the needs of the learner being lost in the focus on what is technically possible. She describes most of the 'tell and test' products as 'click and fall asleep'.
In contrast, simulation game-based products provide something refreshingly different, and Imparta, set up by Barkey in 1998, is pioneering their development. Although accounting for only 2% of the present e-learning industry, simulations stand out as by far the most innovative products on offer. Instead of feeding users information, then testing them - the tell-and-test method - they take role-play to the next level, allowing users to 'experience' situations in order to learn. A bit like Sim City for corporate training.
Barkey initially worked in hardware engineering, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1994 as a strategy consultant. 'We'd do role-play exercises with clients where we got them to invent their own strategies, and found it amazingly effective. I also knew there had to be a better way to do training, and I loved computer games, so the three things came together in a moment of epiphany.' The result was his strategy simulation, Strategy CoPilot.
Barkey, who has an engaging touch of Professor Brainstorm about him, retained the intellectual property rights to his product when he left McKinsey to found Imparta. His company now offers three 'capability building' products that coach clients in strategy, sales and marketing. Animated narrated tutorials provide background information before the simulation submerges you in a fantasy business dilemma. Rather than using actors' voices dubbed over animation, Imparta films actors against a blue-screen backdrop, before placing them in a virtually real world.
This uniquely cinematic approach stood out for the company's first investor, business angel Maurice Pinto of Priory Investments. 'I liked the use of humour and the story lines. Barkey talked like a movie producer and had an intriguing, novel and quasi-proven approach.' Unlike a movie producer, however, he is ever cost-conscious, and filming takes place on site at Imparta's offices, in its own home-made studio.
The result is disturbingly effective. Characters stare out from the screen as if they can actually see you. The gruff chairman of the imaginary company in Imparta's 'Strategy CoPilot' - with the looks of Victor Kiam and attitude of Anne Robinson - is quick to rebuff a clumsy interaction. And don't think it will be forgotten next time you encounter him - it won't. The humanness of the characters draws you in much more convincingly than a classroom role-play. The result - a steep learning curve, or, as one user put it, 'a year's worth of experience in one day'.
This is a serious business. Imparta's list of clients - including PricewaterhouseCoopers, Abbey National and IBM - is evidence of the heavyweight success of its products. 'I was extremely impressed with every aspect of the software and the incredible value that can be leveraged out of it,' says a senior IT consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. 'I believe Imparta has positioned itself as a standard-bearer and benchmark for the industry to look at.'
The main criticisms of e-learning have been its inability to provide feedback and evaluation, and the way it has devalued face-to-face training. Imparta's products overcome the former problem with their unique built-in mentor, in the form of a cartoon boffin. He appears at the corner of the screen, assessing the amount of guidance required, adjusting his intervention accordingly and giving detailed feedback on the completion of each phase.
Barkey cites the importance of the mentor's role to the 'experiential learning cycle' of David Kolb, an academic who has developed the most established model in this area. 'To build management skills, you actually have to experience, practise and reflect. Knowledge is necessary but it's not sufficient,' he explains.
And just as the hype surrounding virtual reality a decade ago scared us into believing it would somehow replace real life, the fear that e-learning will replace classroom training is fantastical. Imparta, like most of the industry, has made 'blended learning' the new buzzword, a comfort to staid managers feeling threatened by change. Workshops offered to the client on-site, in conjunction with the products, optimises both old and new teaching methods.
Although branded as e-learning, simulations are not produced online but on CD-Rom, using the internet to provide customers with back-up support, including online tutors (Imparta's version is I-Coach). The limited bandwidths available on the net today restrict the quality of the product. And although online simulations will be possible in the future, not all companies are that patient. 'The internet has probably set us back five years in terms of quality of learning design,' observes Barkey.
Imparta's attitude to investment betrays its awareness of the pitfalls of the internet. 'Our ratio of revenue to capital is incredibly high, whereas most of our competitors have raised dollars 30 million to dollars 40 million and are still having to raise dollars 20 million at a time to keep going,' he says. In contrast, Imparta is about to go cash-positive, after an initial investment of only pounds 3.8 million and the pounds 2.5 million subsequently raised from existing investors.
This cautious business approach is in fascinating contrast to Barkey's risk-taking in his private life. Describing himself as 'uninsurable', he lists among his hobbies scuba diving and mountain climbing, and he holds a pilot's licence. New experiences 'shake things up and stretch out subjective time', he says.
Combine this with his first from Cambridge and an MBA with distinction from Harvard, and what might first appear to be caution is more likely to be the calculated risk of a business-smart chief executive who is acutely aware of the bigger picture.
Barkey's view of the e-learning industry is that what is visible is simply the tip of the iceberg, surrounded by a sea of slush. 'A lot of capital has been invested in a huge product that is probably going to be obsolete a lot quicker than anticipated,' he warns, and he is clear about where Imparta stands. 'There is an opportunity for us to fill that void in the area of quality.'
Barkey's next challenge is marketing. In the present climate of economic slowdown, it may take more than the dinky silver suitcase in which Imparta sells its 'strategy kits' to win clients over.
To adopt a mass-marketing approach would be to jeopardise quality, and Barkey is confident that prospective clients will be willing to fork out pounds 350 per kit for effective results. 'There is a strong crusade to run against mediocrity in e-learning,' he says, 'and getting the message across that it has more to offer is the main challenge.'
Imparta is offering MT readers a 15% discount on purchases of Strategy CoPilot(R), Marketing CoPilot(R) or Sales CoPilot(R) made before 14 December. Order a free preview disk by sending your contact details to Imparta Ltd, 14-16 Peterborough Road, London SW6 3BN, fax 020 7610 8801, or e-mail MToffer@imparta.com. Please quote 'MT Offer', include your name, company name and address, and specify whether you are interested in Strategy, Marketing and/or Sales. Visit www.imparta.com for more details. All preview disk requests will be placed in a Prize Draw on 30 November 2001 and five winners will receive a CoPilot kit of their choice.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR BUSINESS STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD
- Think like a customer. Good businesses go beyond the underlying customer need and tackle the other areas that cause delays, cost and hassle for the customer while using the product or service.
- Ignore the rules. Existing companies often have a set view of how the industry works. Bring a fresh vision.
- Redefine the customer - eg, sell to the user rather than the buyer.
- Meet existing need in a different way - eg, by cutting out the frills.
- Broaden the product's scope by finding alternative uses for it.
- Avoid using existing jargon - invent your own. It will reinforce the idea that you are offering something different.
- Don't be afraid to stand out. Don't jump on the bandwagon just for the companionship. Find key dimensions along which your message, image and actions can be differentiated from the competition's.
- Stamp your personality onto the business. Let it become an extension of yourself, with your own strengths and quirks.