It's particularly surprising because simulations so clearly represent such a powerful example of one of the book's primary recommended solutions: experiential learning. See earlier blog post on Experiential Learning Environments for Business Education for the overall context, but specifically simulations can be a valuable part of meeting the eight unmet needs that the authors describe:
- Gaining a global perspective
- Developing leadership skills
- Honing integration skills
- Recognizing organizational realities and implementing effectively
- Acting creatively and innovatively
- Thinking critically and communicating clearly
- Understanding the role, responsibilities, and purpose of business
- Understanding the limits of models and markets
When talking about faculty developing new competencies, the authors recommend strategies that include developing "a critical mass of faculty who are comfortable with melding the worlds of theory and practice". Again, this is precisely what educational simulations are designed to do. Comparisons to medical students are made more than once, and medical schools represent an educational environment rich with computer simulations specifically designed to meld theory and practice. Medical environments showcase one of simulation's most powerful principles: the ability to practice without risk of adverse consequence. The same is true for business simulations -- even McKinsey believes that simulations may be preferable to "real world" experience due to their ability to hi-light cause and effect (see summary and link at Forio.com).
The book also goes into some detail on the challenge of the decline in student engagement at business schools. One factor cited is that employers largely rely on MBA programs for their 'screening and selection role', enabling them to hire students early during their MBA tenure with the result that students start to "check-out" of their coursework. I'm sure this observation bears truth. But could it also be true that the rote replication of 'paper case' preparation and debrief also begins to drain on the overall engagement factor? I've seen many second-year MBA students become completely engaged when immersed in innovative, powerful eLearning applications -- simulations among them. Those of us who work with simulations hope and believe that 'engagement' is not itself the only benefit to these tools, but we certainly believe that it is one of the beneficial side effects.
It's surprising to me that simulations wouldn't be cited more often considering their prevalence in use on the HBS campus. In addition to our product line of HBP simulations, most of which are used at HBS in addition to classrooms across the world within all tiers of business schools, the HBS campus includes several ground-breaking simulations not distributed by Harvard Business Publishing -- simulations that directly relate to some of the eight challenges listed by the authors. One would think they would be touted as examples of experiential education that should be replicated by other schools. These include the Venture Capital Game authored by Felda Hardymon, the upTick dynamic markets simulation developed by Josh Coval and Erik Stafford, the Tip of the Iceberg cultural team communication simulation developed by Tsedal Neeley. My point is that HBS is a hotbed of educational simulation activity -- if it's not going to be hi-lighted here as an example of the changing face of the MBA curriculum, then where?
The book does mention simulations a few times. One is a footnote within the chapter on "Meeting the Challenges of Globalization, Leadership, and Integration" (This is the footnote that cites Aldrich's 2004 book, Simulations and the Future of Learning). The footnote reads:
In a global world, leadership has become increasingly virtual -- those in charge of organizations and teams must often lead and influence from a distance. Simulations offer an interesting new opportunity to teach leadership by focusing on the leadership environment, speed, sensemaking in ambiguous environments, and managing virtual teams. Simulations also dovetail well with the learning styles of the current generation of students...
In this context in particular it's surprising that they wouldn't mention our Everest teams and leadership simulation -- the most popular simulation in our product line and a simulation used by thousands of business school students each year (including being used by all 900 first-year HBS MBA students as well as the HBS' executive education flagship Advanced Management Program). The book's co-author Garvin has even co-authored several cases and exercises with former HBS professor Mike Roberto, co-author (with HBS Professor Amy Edmondson) of the Everest sim (see this great article by Roberto on leadership lessons from simulation). Yet this entire passage omits mention of any teams/leadership simulations and is relegated to a footnote.
The Looking Glass Experience is given a few pages' worth of coverage in the book. This is a face-to-face simulation where the vendor (The Center for Creative Leadership) stages an elaborate mock business day for participants. According to the book the simulation "was behavioral and therefore deliberately low-tech". They are not given email access for fear that they will try and manage via email. Instead they must confine interaction "with anyone within or beyond the company by memo, by phone, or in person." I'm quite sure valuable learning lessons are gleaned from this exercise. But it sounds like a 1980s office environment. It sounds like the kind of simulation run and recommended by people who aren't familiar with today's online business simulations. I'm not suggesting that online is always better. But I am suggesting that creating a simulated environment that does NOT reflect reality risks reducing the value of the simulation.
An "MGEC Market Games" simulation is described as being used at Wharton and INSEAD. And the Executive Challenge simulation is mentioned as being used at Stanford. Executive Challenge is developed by Enspire Learning (see my interview with Enspire CEO Bjorn Billhardt). Harvard Business Publishing currently distributes their Global Supply Chain Management simulation and is planning on distributing additional simulations from Enspire in the future.
I understand that the authors are describing desired changes at the curriculum design level, not the product level. But I also think the book's content betrays that these authors see technology at best as an enabler (and sometimes perhaps an impediment) to "real" experiential learning, rather than an occasional exemplar of that pedagogy. I'm biased but I don't like to see a "blueprint" for changing the MBA curriculum that doesn't include a serious consideration of how eLearning and simulation can enable some of that needed change.