Bring on the players

As role-play gains popularity in staff training, luvvies are getting in on the act. By Geoff Cotton

Role-play has turned professional. At a time when many companies are devoting increasingly large budgets to the development of their existing personnel, an old training technique has been given a new lease of life.

Some businesses have included role-play in their training programmes for years. But normally these sessions have been in-house exercises, using untrained staff, and many personnel professionals doubt whether they can be effective.

Sarah Macpherson, personnel development consultant at Commercial Union, sees consistency of role-playing as a critical factor. "By using trained, independent people who role-play consistently, we can assess all of the candidates on a level playing field. It's a more realistic scenario for the candidates if they've never seen the role-player before; it's also not cost-effective to use senior managers as role-players."

The growth in role-play suppliers has been stimulated by the Financial Services Act. The new financial services regulator, the Personal Investment Authority, has stipulated that all financial sales personnel must reach a predetermined level of competence by July 1997. This deadline is forcing insurance companies to assess their sales advisers to determine their competence and their potential to achieve the standard. In many cases, the assessments have been followed by restructuring and the development

of long-term training programmes.

Professional role-players have played an important part in these assessments. From its base in Oundle, Roleplay UK has supplied role-players in Britain and Ireland to several major companies, including Commercial Union and Liverpool Victoria. The company has also recently supplied the construction company Balfour Beatty with people for a management training exercise.

Steve Gray of Roleplay UK believes that the role-player must be a trained, independent professional. "If the role-play is between colleagues who work or train together, the psychological interaction between then is completely different from a real-life situation."

Gray foresees professional role-players being used in four key areas in 1996: assessment (knowledge and skills); development (existing skills); training (new skills); staff selection.

This range of applications for role-players is confirmed by another supplier, Roleplayers, based at the Nightingale Centre in south London.

Roleplayers devised the scenarios and supplied the actors for an exercise at the Cranfield School of Management, where MBA students were assessed on their ability to handle "difficult" interviews, which involved redundancy, disciplinary action and passing over for promotion. The half-hour sessions were observed by fellow students and the actors then participated in feedback sessions with the candidate.

Stephen Carver, the school's director of personal communication skills, says: "The professionalism of the actors made the interviews 100 per cent real for the students. This exercise would not have been effective if the role-players had been other students or tutors."

Many companies now use role-play to improve the "people" skills of their personnel. Midland Private Banking recently engaged Stopwatch, based in Southampton, to provide actors for training sessions. The Bank's field staff and sales personnel were observed as they conducted initial client interviews, with a view to selling investment products. The candidates were then given feedback sessions, with comments from observers and roleplayers.

Iain Coleman, the training and development manager at Midland Private Banking, sees many advantages in using professional role-players: "Roleplay is an inherently difficult process and external people make the scenarios objective; the actors are 'real' clients, in the sense that they match the profile and knowledge of our customers. They can also contribute to the feedback sessions, which represent an important part of the training."

Roleplay UK, 01832 275355; Roleplayers, 0181 673 5611; Stopwatch, 01703 780025.

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