Business Experiential Learning – Past, Present & Future
29 Aug 2016

Business Experiential Learning – Past, Present & Future


categories: Experiential Learning

Although the concept of ‘learning by doing’ (rather than being taught) has a history as old as written records, its application to business learning began in the 1930s, and it really only got under way in the post-WW2 era.  So where did it come from, what state is it in now, and where is it likely to be headed?

 The Military Experiential Heritage

An often-overlooked pioneer was Mary Birshtein (1902-1992), who in Russia taught at the Leningrad Institute. She adapted military training methods to create a business simulation in 1932 based on a typewriter factory production line, to help managers to learn how to overcome manufacturing problems. She and her team went on to create 40 more production and distribution simulations before war intervened in 1940.

It would take until 1955 before the post-war use of experiential learning in military units crossed over into civilian business, in the USA. Rand Corporation copied an Air Force simulation to improve its logistics, and then 1957 saw the first independently-marketed product, Business Management Game, offered by McKinsey.

The Educational Experiential Heritage

The other, and much earlier, strand of experiential development was in education, and its pioneers included:

Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827)

Swiss pioneer of child-centric education, natural development and self-discipline.

John Dewey (1859-1952)

Author, ‘Experience & Education’; pioneer of experiential experiments and progressive education.

Maria Montessori (1870-1951)

Italian educator and believer in childrens’ initiative and practical play. She wrote:

“Scientific observation has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment”

Kurt Hahn (1886-1974)

Founder, Outward Bound and Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme.

arl Rogers (1902-1987), American psychologist who held that experiential learning generates personal change and growth, and is characterised by –

  • Personal involvement
  • Learner-initiation
  • Evaluation by learner
  • Pervasive effects

 Present Development

Today, experiential learning is in quite rude health – depending on your definition, a majority of students go through some form of simulation-based activities. The take-up in business is also high, but it is nowhere near as all-pervasive and there is plenty of scope for further development.

There is a large amount of scholarly writing about the subject, and many professional associations: we at ProfitAbility have sent many delegates to ISAGA, the British-based international group. I have picked out some key findings from the research that identifies key themes, and endorses the effectiveness of experiential learning programmes.

  1. Wolfe (1993):

Business simulation games can be divided into three categories:

  1. Top management games
  2. Functional games
  3. Concept simulations

Top management games make participants responsible for a whole business.

Functional games deal with main divisions of the business – production, marketing, finance etc.

Concept simulations are all about one specific operational area – stock management, HR, IT etc.

  1. Summers (2004):

New technologies allow the development of ‘learner-controlled learning’ on an individual or team basis. Asynchronous learning means that participation can take place on the user’s timescale.

  1. Adobor & Daneshfar (2006):
  • The authors demonstrated that Realism (the extent to which participants feel the simulation reflects their work) is positively correlated with their degree of learning. If a simulation is seen as trivial, or overly complex, it can be ineffective.
  • They also showed that Ease of Use of the simulation positively affected learning.
  • Finally, in a finding that goes against the idea of lone learners, the Exchanging of Ideas among team members increases learning. (We at ProfitAbility definitely hold with this view).
  1. A review of over 300 business simulation articles since the 1980s brings out 5 Key Topics that firms and consultants look to address via experiential learning:
  • the gaining of experience
  • business strategy
  • decision-making
  • overall learning outcomes
  • the teamwork experience

Future Directions

The advances in personal computing and improved graphical interfaces have certainly made a difference to mass educational applications. In actual business use, however, the challenges are often based on specific issues that are resistant to the application of an off-the-shelf computer package.

While much of the academic work on this subject focuses heavily on technical development, notably the possibilities for using new web-based simulations, there is in my view a need for a reality check.

It is quite possible now (and people are doing it) to use computer gaming software to create avatars with which you can explore your simulated business environment. There are ‘pervasive games’ that have no end, and can be played anywhere on multiple devices. It is certain that ‘Serious Games’ will get more and more sophisticated. But how is that to be controlled and fitted in with the real world timetable and requirements of a busy manager’s routine? It is more suited to a business school student than a senior worker in a corporation; adding another distraction to the curse of Facebook updates at work is not the way to achieve higher productivity.

ProfitAbility has adopted a hybrid approach, where we introduce tailored computer-based techniques to create more complicated scenarios for Senior Directors than board games can supply: while we hold fast to our elegant and deceptively simple board-based and manual construction-based approaches for mid-level teams. There is nothing like face-to-face interaction with peers – and the intervention of unexpected problems that have to be dealt with in real time, against the clock – to generate memorable, lasting learning.


Debriefing is a hot topic in simulation circles. Discussion of the learning and feedback from the participants forms part of all of our programmes: and it is an essential element in measuring the course’s effectiveness. I expect that research will generate new and ever-better ways of assessing the short and long term impact that is achieved. I am confident that ProfitAbility’s unique approach, involving the bespoking of our simulations to specific companies’ needs, will continue to provide industry-leading results.

And I invite you to experience for yourself how compelling live experiential learning can be, on 14th September at the Institute of Directors, London. It is a free, and very interesting day when you will take part in two shortened business simulations. Reserve your place now – spaces are limited.

Mark Haenel is a Director of ProfitAbility

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