April 25, 2011 12:28 am

Flights of fancy help replicate real business dilemmas

 
Leonard Fuld

Len Fuld, president of Fuld & Company – a Massachusetts-based consultancy specialising in competitive intelligence

Imagine you are an analyst at an international investment bank whose job it is to predict the daily price of a barrel of oil. What happens if members of Opec, the oil cartel, refuse to sell oil to allies of Israel or if extreme weather conditions hit Europe?

These are the “hypothetical events” of the World Oil Prices Game, a management flight simulator developed by IE Business School in Madrid. The simulator, an interactive model that reproduces real-life business conditions, aims to help students forecast supply and demand in the world petroleum market.

“We’ve always tried hard to put reality into the teaching, but it’s hard to do that with just words,” says Gayle Allard, professor of economic environment and country analysis at IE, who created the simulator in collaboration with professional oil traders. “In a case study, you can talk about possible outcomes and discuss them, but with simulators students can see events unfold before their eyes.”

As business schools seek to infuse more reality into classroom teaching, a growing number are incorporating management flight simulators into courses. They see these tools as a useful way of teaching new skills to a tech-savvy crop of students who came of age during the X-box era.

“This generation gets it,” says John Sterman, director of the MIT System Dynamics Group at the Sloan School of Business. “I am able to explain the rules and mechanisms of the new game in 10 minutes and they’re off and running.” But he concedes this is not always for the best. “The downside to this is that we have to get people in a frame where they’re not just pulling the trigger, they’re spending some time thinking through their decisions,” he says.

The goal is to avoid short-term bias, says Prof Sterman. “[With simulators] students learn to pay attention to long-term, whether they’re talking about safety problems in chemical plants, or climate change.” .

Brad Morrison, assistant professor at Brandeis International Business School, uses a number of simulators in his courses on systems dynamics and supply chain management and he believes they have advantages over traditional case studies: they enable faster learning because students quickly see the consequences of their decisions; and they allow students to do things multiple times. They also pose unlikely situations that better prepare students for business.

“Business schools for decades have been siloed. We teach by discipline: marketing, organisational behaviour or finance,” says Prof Morrison. “The advantage of a management flight simulator is that it goes beyond that, it forces students to integrate their knowledge from each field.”

Not everyone in the MBA world, however, is persuaded that simulators do a good job at capturing the complexities of business. Kenneth Freeman, dean of Boston University’s School of Management, worries that interactive models verge on “gimmickry”.

“I haven’t yet met a simulation that felt like real life,” he says. “Can we really simulate business? The closest we come, I believe, is the case study method. Simulators are all about accounting formulae. [Real business situations] are much more complex than that. It’s not one or two variables that are changing.”

Bob Hansen, senior associate dean at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, estimates about 10 to 15 percent of the school’s classroom experience is simulator or experiential based. But he acknowledges the limitations. “There’s no way you can capture the complexity of markets and economies in a computer programme,” he says.

“With flight simulators, you can capture physics pretty well. But when you’re dealing with people and how they behave you just don’t know.”

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