Business schools take a playful approach to leadership

From kidnaps to oil rig disasters, ‘serious games’ are helping to train executives
© Nick Lowndes

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Divining what employers want from executive education is increasingly easy. The message is clear: companies want business schools to loosen up, open their doors and use their imaginations. You could say they want schools to invite them over to play.

As the dean of a leading business school in the executive education market says, companies are less and less interested in paying for executives to sit passively in classrooms listening to experts.

Nor are businesses keen on paying for their staff to take online courses made up of video lectures. Employers can often organise those themselves — and anyway, why would they want to buy training that is similar or the same as at the next employer?

The future of executive education, says the dean, lies elsewhere. What the modern employer wants from cutting-edge business schools is less talk and more action — or experiential learning, as it is known. It is hands-on, it is demanding and it forces executives to rely on their wits. Most of all, it is fun. The main challenge for schools is to think creatively about how to stand out.

Plenty of business schools are doing just that. Learning through experience at this level can mean competing teams of hard hat-clad managers learning to tackle a crisis — for example, an offshore oil rig disaster in the carbon capture laboratory at Imperial College London.

Or it might be consultants pretending to be detectives on the mean streets alongside real police officers, courtesy of London Business School. The detective role play is great for learning how to delegate, according to the course leader and the (excited and possibly overstimulated) course participants, who spoke to Jonathan afterwards.

It would be easy for cynics to dismiss all this as little more than an expensive distraction — a good day out, perhaps, but ultimately of little value. Schools and employers, however, point to a string of big-name clients and real-world breakthroughs. Anecdotally at least, role play is an excellent way to solve problems.

These breakthroughs can be small scale, personal revelations. One of the London Business School executive detectives, who played a hostage negotiation simulation game with actors on the streets of south London, told how she shed her tendency for control freakery when she had to rely on colleagues to relay clear instructions using walkie-talkies. She took the new-found benefit of trust back to her day job at a London museum, she says.

© Nick Lowndes

But sometimes the breakthroughs that come from role play can be much more significant, wide-ranging and measurable. Grenoble School of Management in France is one of several business schools to offer deep experiential education: an entire laboratory dedicated to executive role play. Its Serious Games department encourages participants to solve specific management problems “in a playful way” — with simulations, virtual reality and even board games.

Hélène Michel, the school’s professor of Serious Games, says the aim is to find ways to engage jaded executives in complicated, perhaps even boring, tasks.

Renault, for example, invented a game to create better profiles of prospective customers in an effort to increase sales.

Disneyland Paris used the lab to help it crack a similar problem. For its third-party travel agents, selling a one-off family trip to the theme park was easy, but too many travellers saw it only as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In the safety of the laboratory, agents could experiment with games that segmented the customer profiles. By asking families questions about what they wanted to do when they got there, the agents were able to customise holidays and, in turn, sell more to the same customers.

The model can even be applied to risk, says Prof Michel. One example is changing risky behaviour among employees. Michelin’s human resources department invented a game to help it identify employees likely to take the type of risks that could lead to regulatory fines.

For business schools, this demand for executive role play comes at an opportune time. The traditional executive education market is mature, crowded and it is difficult for providers to find growth. Which is why standing out could be just enough to keep you in the game.

Letter in response to this article:

Role play based on real life delivers results / From David Browning, Huddersfield, W Yorks, UK

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