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Using Business Simulation Games in Class: From Add-on to “add-in”

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Business simulation games are getting more and more traction in education, which from the point of view of experiential learning is a very positive development. However, important steps can still be made in order to fully reap the benefits of such educational tools. In this article, author Ed Weenk discusses how to really achieve seamless integration of business simulation games into education.

Business simulation games as an add-on

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a number of colleagues from the educational world at the POMS and LRN academic conferences in the UK. Beyond their specific research interests, most were in some way also involved in teaching Supply Chain Management and using business simulation games in their courses.

What we easily agreed upon was the great potential that business simulation games have for teaching and learning: getting a point across in a first-hand experiential way rather than just one-directional explaining, bringing more fun to the classroom and last but not least, achieving strong engagement by the learners. For the sake of clarity, we were speaking here about the use of games with clear educational objectives and not, for example, in the context of competitive events (where learning also takes place to some extent, but where the first focus is on the competition itself).

When talking to these colleagues, I found it interesting to hear about how they were using the ‘sims’ in their classes, but also to find out about those elements with which they seemed to be struggling a bit to make things work out in the classroom in the best possible way.

One common theme I found was that most of the teachers I talked to seemed to use the simulation game as an add-on to their regular courses, sometimes as the last activity within a course, almost as sort of a ‘final test’ or integrational activity, or sometimes even as a separate course as part of a larger program, thus complementing the other courses. This notion of ‘add-on’ could even be extended into their approach to for example grading:

  1. Teaching ‘theory’ in a more classical way, followed by grading ‘theoretical knowledge’ for example by means of an exam or a paper
  2. Playing a simulation game, followed by grading the game, for example by looking at the results that teams and/or individuals achieved in the gameplay

Of course such an approach can be used very effectively, achieving all of the established learning objectives in a way that is meaningful and rewarding for teachers and learners alike (don’t forget, after all I was talking with very experienced teachers with solid academic backgrounds and lots of enthusiasm for their subject as well as for the games). I am however convinced that it is possible to leverage even further on the combination of theory on the one hand and the use of business simulation games on the other. I’m then referring to not using games so much as a complement to something else, but to try and create true powerful and more direct integration between the theory and its application.

Business simulation games as an “add-in”

How to go from business simulation games as an add-on, to business simulation games as an “add-in” and how to extend this even into the grading of such integrated courses?

Obviously, theoretical concepts frameworks would in many cases still form the backbone, but those can be shared or ‘taught’ in very different ways, from classical masterclass-type lecturing to providing background books, chapters and/or readings for self-study as a preparation to the more practically oriented work in class. Whichever way, the trick is to connect those critical concepts and frameworks directly to the gameplay, making learners directly responsible for the application of the theory they’ve absorbed.

In this way they can experience firsthand that what seems easily understandable from paper or coming from the lecturer’s mouth, can turn into something complex when you suddenly become responsible for making it work and taking decisions yourself. In my classes I normally refer to this phenomenon as “simple but not easy”: simple to understand at the conceptual level, but quite complicated when it has to be applied. However, one should go one step further than the straightforward application in the pure gameplay and have students actively reflect on what they do, for example by having them write it down, or present it in front of their peers. By the way, this could then also be used for grading purposes. The more direct the link between the concepts and frameworks, i.e. the more it is asked from the learners to actively apply the concepts in the gameplay, the more integrated the course will become.

Let me give you an example from my own practice. In a typical basic course on supply chain management, normally the topic of corporate strategy and supply chain strategy will be addressed, referring to one or more of the well-known conceptual frameworks that exist. Then between rounds of gameplay, I would ask students to elaborate with their teams a plan for practical implementation of their chosen strategy in the business simulation game, taking as a starting point one of the frameworks touched upon. I’d introduce that for example by saying something like “Remember that earlier on we have spoken about supply chain strategies and the different typologies that exist? Now I’d like you to think about what you think such a strategy should look like for the virtual company you are responsible for in the game”. And then I’d ask them to use a specific template developed for the purpose.

In this way, they are more likely to carry out the exercise in a motivated way, since they make a useful step forward for the game, working on something they can use in the next round of gameplay. Secondly, they are in fact using theoretical concepts and frameworks in a very practical way, and, last but not least, it becomes clear to me as the teacher to what extent they have actually captured and interiorized the frameworks at hand.

If this activity would take place in class, I would ask the learners to elaborate their plan on a flipchart or a whiteboard, make a picture of it when done and send that over to me by email, so that I can use it to go into the grading of the course. Gameplay will then start again as soon as the pictures of all of the teams are in my Inbox, thus making sure that all teams will finish the activity in a reasonable timeframe and that they in fact do deliver their input to me. On a side note, having them develop the activity on flipcharts or whiteboard also helps to guarantee that their work is in fact ‘original’, since you can actually see it being created. Normally, I would also be walking around while they are working on it, opening up the possibility for asking questions (learners to me, but me also to them).

During a course or training program which has gameplay integrated, I would then have a number of such exercises, each touching upon different concepts and frameworks from theory. In a typical course, I might have 3-6 of such exercises, each of them going into the grading, and avoiding the need for having an exam to ‘test’ understanding theoretical knowledge. If desired, a final reflection paper can be added at the end, based on the gameplay and/or including the analysis of real-life companies in the equation. But always with a link to both theory and gameplay.

Many variations on this example are possible. Learners can be asked to prepare such exercises between classes, or instead of sending their input as a picture to my Inbox, I could choose to ask them to present it in front of the class. Of course, exercises can be in teams, but also individual. In any case, the basic thought here is to create a true integration between the basic fundamental theoretical concepts, their application using the business simulation game and the grading of a course.

When embarking on the journey, I believe the following steps are helpful in getting towards a truly integrated approach combing theory and business simulation games, thus achieving that the game becomes an add-in rather than ‘just’ an add-on:

  1. identify the critical concepts and frameworks from books and articles that you feel are strictly necessary within the context of the course at hand (à course content)
  2. establish direct links between those concepts and frameworks and the gameplay. I’m assuming here that the choice for a particular game has already been made on the basis of precisely the richness of concepts addressed, should that not be the case then these concepts become part of the list of requirements for the game to be chosen (à course methodology)
  3. find a good balance between ways to get the basic concepts and frameworks across to students (by explaining in class, by self-study, etc.), the application in the gameplay and supporting activities that can be graded (à course design and detailed elaboration of the corresponding course manuals).

Referring to my elaboration on the Learning Cycle of Experiential Learning in a previous post, keep in mind that for real learning to take place the cycle must be closed, in other words having students implicitly experience concepts and frameworks via gameplay can be very interesting but is not enough, because the results they score probably do not exclusively represent the degree to which they have learned about and interiorized the concepts at hand. Learners should somehow be ‘forced’ to make that experience and their learning explicit, for example by reflection, writing and/or presenting. And apart from the learning, the latter few activities can all be graded, which, whether as teachers we like it or not, is normally a compulsory element of any course in any school. 

A practical example: the power of a good integral supply chain teaching & learning methodology

For teaching and learning the many complexities of supply chain management, an integral methodology has now been developed that consists of materials for each of the steps of the learning cycle and which builds on The Fresh Connection business simulation game. The overall methodology has been put on paper in the book “Mastering the Supply Chain”, which is written in a way that it is useful to both teachers and learners alike:

  • First there are the basic relevant theories, concepts and frameworks. These theories, concepts and frameworks provide the conceptual (academic) backbone and refer to a large extent to the “usual suspects” in supply chain theory and even go a bit beyond the ‘pure’ supply chain. Concepts and frameworks have been clustered into three relevant dimensions of supply chain management: the business dimension, the technical dimension and the leadership dimension. This forms Part One of the book.
  • Then in Parts Two and Three of the book there is the direct link of the concepts and frameworks of Part One to the business simulation game. In Part Two there is a direct connection to the gameplay itself, where in Part Three it uses the simulation as a reference case, going a beyond pure gameplay(1). These Parts provide the basis for actively going through the learning experience, done through 80+ exercises and reflections that help learners look back and analyze what happened during the simulation experience and have them think about potential future scenarios. Teachers can use or refer to these exercises for their courses as in-class activities and/or homework and, at their convenience, use them for grading purposes as well.
  • Specifically for teachers who want to adopt the book and The Fresh Connection business simulation game, “Mastering the Supply Chain” comes with a large amount of supporting materials. These materials range from Powerpoints for in-class use to examples of course manuals and exercises. 

The abovementioned integral approach and many of the materials were developed in some form or shape over the course of various years in my own classes and courses before the book “Mastering the Supply Chain” was in fact there. Recent adoption of the book at numerous business schools and universities shows that it offers indeed a powerful approach to supply chain learning. It demonstrates through the case of The Fresh Connection, that business simulation games can indeed be much more than a mere add-on, they can become an integral element of courses and training programs, thus serving as a true symbiotic “add-in”.

 (1) A teacher recently expressed to me the concern that if students would have the book at their disposal during a course that uses The Fresh Connection gameplay, these students would be able to jump ahead of the pace of gameplay in class. My answer was that, obviously, this can occur. However, as I told him, there are a few reasons to not be so afraid of this happening. First of all, as most teachers know, if you prescribe reading Chapters 1-5 for a certain class, there will be very few learners who will go beyond that and read Chapters 6 and 7 as well. Secondly, even in the case of someone jumping ahead, I believe this wouldn’t be a serious issue. Like in other aspects of real life, those who work harder and prepare better might in fact jump ahead. But is that so bad? Honestly, I don’t think so. And if it’s in the context of a competitive game in class, they will certainly not tell their classmates about what they found in the additional reading they did, so the number of learners doing this will probably not be very high in the end. And besides, the book mainly contains exercises and reflections linking theory to gameplay, but it doesn’t contain answers. If my phrase of ‘simple but not easy’ indeed applies, then teachers should not worry too much about this.