Creating a Game-based Approach to Cultural Training: Q&A with Doug Nelson from Kinection
We recently sat down with Doug Nelson, Founder, and President of Kinection, a design and development firm specializing in experiential, game-based learning solutions to ask him a few questions about his recent collaboration with Aperian Global and his experience in the field.
Doug, your company, Kinection, and Aperian Global recently collaborated to design an online learning game for our global customers. What path led you to build a company that focuses on rich learning experiences?
I’ve always been passionate about learning and education, and I’ve been lucky to be able to integrate my interests in technology and gaming into my work there.
I started my career as a classroom teacher. As a teacher, you look for ways to engage learners and to get them to experience the fascination for the topic that you have. In the classroom, you have lots of ways to do that. One of the key ways is to move beyond the lecture model and find ways to have students explore, discover, and create their learning experiences. Project-based learning, group work, and experiential learning environments are great ways to engage.
Technology holds a lot of promise in the education space because it provides learners with greater access to and greater control over their learning experiences. Think about the access we now have not only to information but also to experts and mentors. But just applying technology to an existing educational approach can have dreadful results — dry videos of talking heads, repetitive “drill and kill” flashcard apps and excruciatingly boring Powerpoint-based e-learning courses.
So that’s where gaming comes in for me. A game-based learning approach can provide structure, challenges, goals, and rewards suitable to the topic and to the learner. Games are best played together, of course, and good learning games allow learners to explore and experiment together. I love building those types of learning experiences.
How does your international life experience help you to manage not only your company but also the many clients that you work with?
My first real international experience was as an exchange student in Japan in high school, where I lived with a family and went to school with my host brother every day. It was a very intensive immersion into a very distinctive culture. And it was a powerful lesson in accepting and appreciating very different approaches to things that I had thought were obvious or had taken for granted before. I made some very funny mistakes and got into several embarrassing situations, and I still appreciate the patience my host family and fellow students had for this blundering (if well-intentioned) American student.
Later when I worked at Apple’s regional office in Hong Kong, I spent several years getting exposure to the broader Asia-Pacific region, working with partners and customers in India, the Philippines, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. This opened up a whole new set of perspectives and approaches, and I spent a lot of time listening and learning about multiple ways of approaching situations. Of course, I still made a lot of mistakes, but I think by this time I was getting better at understanding what was going on.
So in terms of managing our company and clients, I try to bring those lessons to the table.
How can we really listen to our clients to understand how to best engage them, rather than proposing solutions that we like but that may not, in fact, serve their needs?
How can we organize our company’s structure and processes to allow our team members to contribute in the ways that are most effective for them?
At Kinection, you are most probably running multiple projects at the same time. What are your challenges when dealing with different stages of production and different target audiences within the same week?
My biggest personal challenge is trying to maintain an overall perspective of the project while also making progress on the smaller pieces that need attention every day. I have days where I’m great at looking at the big picture but neglect important tasks, and days where I get lots of work done on tasks that aren’t necessarily supporting our larger project goals. Adding in that we’re working on multiple projects and trying to maintain that macro- and micro-focus for each one is really challenging.
Which best practices can you share with us when managing competing priorities, particularly virtually?
Having spent a lot of time with the Managing Competing PrioritiesSM Learning Path this last year, I can tell you that I’m a big fan of setting reasonable expectations, maintaining clear lines of communication with the team, and being open about challenges when they appear. Of course, that’s easier said than done, which is what makes the scenario we created for the Learning Path so challenging.
As a technologist, I’m always looking for tools to help with this. Since we’re a distributed team, the tools that help the most are ones that enable our entire team to share challenges and opportunities, and to be transparent about what they are (and aren’t) getting done. I love Google’s office suite (Docs, Slides, and Sheets) since we can work on documents together in real time, and the commenting and revision tools are very robust. I’m currently enjoying Trello as a way to plan and manage the big picture while making progress on individual items. And I’m looking at a new tool called Tacoapp that aggregates your to-do items from over 30 different services onto a well-organized page, so you can see your items from Gmail, Trello, Zendesk, Wunderlist, etc. all in one place.
Of course, the best tools don’t help unless you’ve developed the trust and culture within the team so that sharing challenges is easy, and difficulties become an opportunity for the team to rally together to overcome them. That’s a best practice that I’m working on continuously.
About Doug Nelson
Doug graduated from Yale University and started his career as a teacher in Hong Kong, worked in marketing at Apple Computer’s regional Asia office in the days before Apple made phones or watches, and managed the Tokyo office of an educational software startup. After 10 years living and working in Asia he returned to the United States and in 2000 he founded Kinection to create experiential, game-based digital learning experiences.