Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Students on the rack? Stretching final year marketing students in an industry simulation

Margaret McNeil
School of Management and Marketing
Curtin University
Business Policy games have been designed to allow students to make integrative business decisions in an environment which closely simulates reality. But do they really approximate reality? Their greatest weakness is the fact that they "prepackage" information and require students to analyse this. The author has written a business policy game which taps synthetic thinking skills. It has been trialled over two semesters in the capstone unit of the B. Com. for Marketing majors at Curtin University. The Industry Simulation has clear educational goals and these are measured in student self-report surveys at the end of each semester. The paper explains how the Industry Simulation works, charts the development of the Simulation, points to its strengths and weaknesses and suggests how it will evolve in 1995.

Designing the apparatus

Business games, which use computers to simulate decision making situations, have been around for almost 40 years. I first used such a game for a group of MBAs in 1992. The game engendered enthusiasm in the students and it taught them about the complexity of planning and decision making. The students also learned valuable lessons about organising teams of people. I was concerned, however, about some aspects of the student experience. In particular, students became highly competitive and the focus was on "winning" the game, with teams who did not perform so well complaining bitterly. As an educator I began to think closely about what the business policy game had really taught those students. My practical experience led me to ask the essential questions which were debated in the academic literature (Wolfe, 1985): "What exactly do business games teach and how do they teach these things?"

Students had learned to be competitive which came as no surprise, given that business games were "direct outgrowths of military war games" (Cohen and Rhenman, 1960:131) and had not evolved beyond this perspective as indicated in a 1993 article entitled "Oh, what a lovely war game" (Coy, 1993). Such a lesson seemed inappropriate in the 1990's where strategic alliances, networking and industry clustering were considered as being critical for the success of innovative companies operating in a global economy (Burke, 1990; De Bresson, 1990). In the computer driven business policy game students had also learned how to analyse information, a lesson well learned through other teaching tools such as case analysis. As De Bono (1994:110-111) observed: "Western thinking has been obsessed with 'what is right' rather than 'what can be'...with 'analysis' rather than 'design'....Universities are the worst, with an almost total obsession with analysis."

I realised that while I had talked to my students about right and left brain ways of knowing, the very basis of my assessment encouraged their competence in analysis but not in synthesis. I was not rewarding holistic and creative thinking. I realised too, that as long as I gave students quantities of information they would continue to analyse it. I needed to challenge them to "design", to construct a realistic industry scenario, to develop a company profile and to chart a path for this company, and all this with minimal prepackaged information from the instructor. The Industry Simulation idea had emerged.

I developed the Industry Simulation with clear learning goals in mind. Traditional business policy computer games encourage students to reach a number of these goals. They give students an opportunity to apply the concepts taught in Business Policy in a practical manner (Wolfe, 1976). There is also a need to work for strategic solutions under time constraints (Cohen and Rhenman, 1960). A third goal is that students can develop a working understanding of the interrelationships of different functional areas of an organisation (Sims and Hand, 1976). Students also learn how to organise people into a cohesive team and how to listen to and integrate other diverse view points (Wolfe, 1976).

The Industry Simulation which I have designed incorporates these goals into its design but it also encourages students to attain new goals. Firstly, students are required to search for diffuse information in a proactive manner. They are given scant information about their own company and no industry information. This is the antithesis of the commonly used Harvard-style business case which tends towards information overload. Furthermore, students are required to develop indepth knowledge of a particular industry something not typically needed in computer driven business games (Wolfe, 1976). Another new goal of the Industry Simulation is to show students in a practical way how the type of organisation in which they operate impacts on the development of strategy. Such a contextual approach has been central to the strategy literature since the mid 1980's, (Mintzberg and Quinn, 1991), and yet computer driven business games take no account of this fact. A related issue is that students in the Industry Simulation can be challenged to think about the nature of competition and how they respond to it. Rather than engaging in a pitched battle to "win" the game, they are judged on the depth and appropriateness of their strategic responses. Given their company profile, collaborative activities with other companies might in some instances be considered more appropriate than competitive action against other players. The Industry Simulation is also designed to meet another pedagogic goal, that of students learning to ask the right questions, such that they focus on critical issues. To this end the information briefs given to each company are kept deliberately broad and open and students are not told what to do with them. The Simulation is a practical demonstration of learning as a process, in that opportunities are given for student teams to learn from other "companies" and from their own decisions.

Technical description of the rack mechanism: How the industry simulation operates

The Industry Simulation runs throughout the entire semester. In the first class students are provided with a written overview of the Industry Simulation process. This includes a list of goals for the Simulation exercise, an explanation of the Simulation activities and a short company profile. I spend some time explaining to students the rationale of the Industry Simulation, as tertiary students should understand the pedagogic aims of the education we deliver to them. At this point too, students are organised into "companies" comprised of five executives. Students self-select their team and I counsel them to move beyond friendship groups and choose people with diverse skills.

The first task for each company is to develop a strategic plan. This requires indepth industry analysis and the sourcing of information proactively from a multitude of sources. Students are urged to consider their particular company profile and in this way they learn about organisational context when making planning decisions. Early in the semester, students present a written plan and make a presentation to the class about their company profile and strategic intent. After each presentation members of other groups are encouraged to question, challenge and ask for clarification. Students can learn via active listening.

At regular intervals throughout the semester, each company is given a confidential Information Brief to which it is required to respond in the next week's session. This response may take any form that the group decides. The responses are marked on two criteria: depth of analysis of strategic issues and appropriateness of the response to the strategic dilemma. Students are encouraged to consider their decisions in an integrative manner and not to artificially assign a problem to a particular functional area.

At the conclusion of the semester, students are required to fill in two assessment forms. The first is a quantitative evaluation of the Industry Simulation which measures the extent to which it has met the goals as stated at the outset. There is also an opportunity for students to give qualitative feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of the Industry Simulation and to suggest ways to improve the exercise. The second assessment is a Performance Appraisal conducted by members of each "company" in which they highlight in writing the contributions made by each member of the executive team and make judgements about whether team players contributed fully. Marks are then allocated pro rata according to contribution.

All lecturers working on the Business Policy unit are provided with an outline of the real identity of the companies being used in the Simulation. They also receive a matrix which shows the Information Briefs for each company in each of the four sessions. In this way they can understand more clearly my rationale in developing a stream of briefs for a particular company and they can also appreciate the dynamic interplays which I have devised for companies in a particular session.

On the rack: Victims or victors?

Quantitative feedback for my class from the Semester 1 assessment showed that 7 out of 13 goals were rated at 4 and above on a 5 point scale. In particular students reported the experience of having to work for strategic solutions under time constraints and they had learned the importance of organising people. My students had not learned so well how to develop indepth knowledge of the industry (3.7 on a 5 point scale). I made the improvement of this learning experience a clear priority for my Semester 2 class.

Qualitative feedback from Semester 1 was mixed. Some students were enthusiastic and felt that they had developed a number of competencies as the semester progressed. Others expressed concern about the short time frame for responding to the Information Briefs and there was an appeal from both students and a lecturer for more information to be disseminated. My response was to stand firm on the one week lead time for solutions to strategic dilemmas. I wanted students to face the challenge of organising their teams and thinking quickly, key attributes for the success of executives in a dynamic environment. The question of how much more information to give to students was a vexed one. After grappling with this I decided to give more key financial information in the company profiles and in an Information Brief with financial implications, but essentially to keep all other information at the same level. I held firm to my goal of having students "design" rather than "analyse". My rationale was that expressed by Cohen and Rhenman, (1960: 15): "There is a danger that the participants in these games will get used to having information come freely and easily from computers...This deficiency may be overcome by designing a business game in which great stress is placed on imaginative and creative behaviour in a realistic situation."

Quantitative feedback about attainment of goals in the Industry Simulation in Semester 2 indicated that I had, overall, improved my teaching performance. All but one goal were scored at 4 or above on the 5 point scale, 10 out of 13 goals were scored more highly than in Semester 1 and in particular, I had been very successful in increasing the students' understanding of their industry which had been my express purpose after reviewing Semester 1's feedback. Furthermore, students reported group learning to be much better than in Semester 1 and they understood better how company type affected strategic decisions.

Results for other lecturers varied by semester and by lecturer and I have the opportunity now of showing them trends, such that they can refine their facilitation of the Industry Simulation process. There was one disturbing trend, however, in that "learning from other groups" was low for all lecturers over both semesters. To solve this problem, I am currently engaged in a major rewrite of the Industry Simulation activity. The product portfolios of all companies will be more closely related such that what one company decides will impact more directly on other companies. I have some concerns that the Simulation might collapse into an exercise about "winning" under its new format but I trust that the focus it places on process will remain, via the assessment system and the active intervention of the facilitators (Certo, 1976). Perhaps too, the closer industry linkage between companies might create an opportunity for further collaboration, as was the case for the two top scoring companies in my class in Semester 1, 1994, who spent several weeks quietly negotiating a complex and creative strategic alliance. The students were surprised by their own earnestness, had lost their illusions that the other company would be a "walkover" and reported the development of new skills such as negotiation. They were excited. I was ecstatic.

The qualitative responses in Semester 2, 1994 showed an overwhelming belief that the Industry Simulation had been a practical and realistic exercise for students. Many students reported that they had developed an indepth understanding of an industry and had come to appreciate the interrelatedness of business decisions across functional areas. There were mixed feelings about organising people which were best encapsulated by one comment: "Working in groups is difficult but advantageous in learning how to cooperate." There were also wide ranging opinions about working under time pressure with only some students appreciating the rationale of the Simulation and others feeling too stretched. There were complaints too about the diversity in company profile. The group which performed least well in my class in Semester 1 was a small family company and the poor performer in Semester 2 was a large, multi product firm. Ironically, in both instances, students blamed their company type.

In the qualitative feedback in Semester 2, 1994, there was an appeal from a number of students for more information and a clear dislike by some of the need to make assumptions. The latter is not surprising given the pervasiveness of Platonic thinking in Western education. Plato's concern with absolute truth is echoed in our educational emphasis on "right" answers (De Bono, 1994). On the other hand one student described the Industry Simulation as: "Comprehensive. Allows for holistic thinking. Creative. Progressive". Other students echoed De Bono's (1994) attraction to "design" rather than "analysis" as a thinking mode. For example, one relished the opportunity to "build a company" and another wrote "I learned how to set up a company, how to make strategy and decisions and to take responsibilities."

Some students reported that they had learned much from their own experiences and from other players. It would seem that, for some students at least, the Simulation enhanced their understanding that learning is a process. For many others however, there was a plea for higher marks, more information and more guidance from the instructor with things being seen as "too vague". I stand firm on my decision to keep things broad because I want students to not merely discover the rules of the game (Cohen and Rhenman, 1960), but also to create them. One thing is evident, however, the facilitator plays a delicate balancing act in all of this. Students should not be left to flounder, but neither should they be spoon fed. The instructor needs to be very active (Certo, 1976), very clear about the pedagogic goals of the Simulation exercise and very committed to these. There are easier ways to teach. Turning the wheel on the rack is not my first choice of occupation. Some students will tell you there are easier ways to learn, as reflected in one comment: "One can hardly find time to look through the text for some serious study."

In the face of mixed response from students, I sometimes wonder if I should abandon the Industry Simulation and return to more traditional teaching techniques. It seems like the coward's way out. Even in computer driven games, rich in information, Wolfe (1976:50) found that: "Much of the learning occurred after play had ended and often through negative reinforcement" Maybe those students who regard the Simulation as a cruel tool of torture may be appreciative that they have been thus stretched when they face complex business decisions in future years. Furthermore, I have witnessed a number of companies grasp what is going on after initial difficulties, commit to hard work and begin to operate in a superior manner. They somehow managed to cast off the shackles of the rack and relish new found freedom from a position of greater wisdom. Other companies longed to be stretched, and revelled in the sweet torture of the Simulation process. These included a group of postgraduate students who had heard of the Simulation, wanted to form a company, negotiated with their employers for time off from work to attend a 9am class on Monday, as well as their normal postgraduate classes. One of these later described the Industry Simulation as: "Easily the most comprehensive assessment for any unit I have ever done." Such comments make my role as "torturer" seem worthwhile.


Burke, J. (1990). Networking and Industry Development. Australian Manufacturing Council.

Certo, S. C. (1976), The experiential exercise situation: A comment on instructional role and pedagogy evaluation. Academy of Management Review, 1(3), 113-116.

Cohen, K. J. and Rhenman, E. (1960). The role of management games in education and research. Management Science, 7(1), 130-166.

Coy, P. (1993). Oh, what a lovely war game. Business Week, Feb. 1, 34.

De Bono, E. (1994). Parallel Thinking. London: Viking.

De Bresson, C. (1990). Networks of innovators - Introduction and highlights of issues. Networks of Innovators - An International and Interdisciplinary Workshop. Montreal, May.

Mintzberg, H. and Quinn, J. B. (1991). The Strategy Process, (2 ed). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Sims, H. P. and Hand, H. H. (1976). Simulation gaming: The confluence of quantitative and behavioural theory. Academy of Management Review, 1(3), 109-113.

Wolfe J. and Teach, R. (1987). Three down-loaded mainframe business games: A review. Academy of Management Review, 12(1), 181-191.

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Wolfe, J. (1976). The effects and effectiveness of simulations in Business Policy teaching applications. Academy of Management Review, 1(2), 47-56.

Please cite as: McNeil, M. (1995). Students on the rack? Stretching final year marketing students in an industry simulation. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p172-176. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/mcneil.html

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