a word or phrase, often an item of jargon, that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context.
The concept of playing business games as part of experiential learning is well established – albeit not nearly as universally as it should be. But whence did it come? And on the wider question, how did humans first come to play board games with each other?
To quote Wikipedia: “Board games have been played in most cultures and societies throughout history. A number of important historical sites, artifacts, and documents shed light on early board games such as Senet, found in Predynastic and First Dynasty burials of Egypt, c. 3500 BC and 3100 BC respectively; the oldest board game known to have existed, Senet was pictured in a fresco found in Merknera’s tomb (3300–2700 BC).”
The Celts and Germanic/Scandinavian peoples are said to have adapted a Roman war game, ludus latrunculorum (‘the game of little soldiers’) into the tafl family of army games, including hnefatafl (a chess-like game involving the capture or safe escape of a king).
A recent study showed that Viking warriors in the Orkney Islands and elsewhere in Northern Europe were often buried with these board games and dice; it is thought that this was to celebrate their skills and allow them to continue to play in the afterlife.
Researcher Mark Hall commented: “Just as in life, where success on the gaming board – which needed strategic thinking as well as fighting ability – could be seen to confirm and add to the status of an accomplished warrior, in death the inclusion of a board game signalled ability and success as a warrior and by implication preparedness for the challenge ahead.” This set of objectives sounds very like the business simulation challenges that ProfitAbility specialises in providing today.
Chess came into being later, around 600AD, in Persia, and saw several modifications before it settled into the form we know now. It is significant because, like any good management game, it has no dice or other elements of chance.
Another important landmark came with the invention of “The Landlord’s Game” by Lizzie Morgan in 1903. She intended it as an exposé of the landgrabbing practices of landlords and how they enriched themselves at the expense of their impoverished tenants. She sold the rights for $500 in 1935 to Parker Brothers (after they had initially rejected it) and they turned it into Monopoly. Modern-day retail board games pretty much start from there.
Just as most early games were based on some form of battle, so games of all kinds today usually involve winning and losing, defeating your opponents. And as a ProfitAbility associate puts it, commerce is really ‘The Great Game of Business”.
A management game has been defined as “a simplified simulated experiential environment that contains enough verisimilitude, or illusion of reality, to include real world-like responses by those participating in the exercise.” (Keys and Wolfe)
In the mid 19th century the Germans had Kreigspielen (board-based war games) and they were popular in Japan before World War II. British and American militaries have used games to test out their battle strategies. But the big crossover from warfare into business probably started in 1955 when Rand Corporation adapted a US Air Force game to train their supply management staff. A year later there was the first branded business simulation, called ‘Top Management Decision Game’, which was created by the American Management Association.
Business simulation games have been described by researchers Senge and Lannon as ‘managerial microworlds’. In these environments, unlike in their businesses, managers can test new approaches and strategies without risk. A key aspect is the reflection on outcomes and the feedback that often gets overlooked in the bustle of day-to-day business.
Another critical element is the grouping of participants into teams, often cross-functional ones, to impart valuable lessons about mutual respect and finding common objectives.
In our games at ProfitAbility we construct bespoke scenarios that subtly deal with the specific issues that have been identified by the client organisation. The board game still retains a central place, for although computer-based simulation is also used there is still nothing like the physical handling of money and other active pieces to teach managers about the normally invisible movement of cash, stock, assets and liabilities.
It is not just businesses that find this approach essential: we also work with MBA courses. It is widely recognised today that students need to learn by doing – or as it has been stated by experts, “a quality university business education program must include an experiential learning component” (Clark & White, 2010).
The problem with too many business training programmes is that they are too po-faced and downright dull. “You’re going on a Finance for Non-Financial Managers course” is one of the phrases most calculated to strike dread into the heart of an executive. But it shouldn’t be this way.
Watch any of the videos taken on one of our courses and you’ll see how much fun people are having. They engage with the process: they bond with each other: and they laugh and crack jokes. This is the best way of learning – fun with a serious intent. There is no lessening in their motivation to win: if anything, their drive is heightened.
That’s easy for me to write – but I can do better than that, and invite you to play our games for yourself and have fun in the process. It’s free, it takes place in the lovely surroundings of the Institute of Directors in London, and you can network with fellow professionals. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s been the most productive working day you could have spent, as you get the feel of how compelling and valuable our techniques are. Register here for a place at the September 14th ProfitAbility Open Day.
Chris Howgego is General Manager, ProfitAbility