First Step: Setting Learning Objectives
Following a growing trend among companies to create internal executive-MBA programs, Texas Instruments partnered with the University of Texas-Dallas to develop a part-time MBA program for its employees. The program allows engineers to obtain critical business skills and earn their MBA degrees in an intensive, interactive part-time program.
In addition to standard classroom work, the program directors wanted to use innovative interactive training simulations for the engineers to internalize critical concepts. By doing so, the program directors reasoned, the engineers would be better able to apply critical concepts to their jobs.
When the time came to teach advanced concepts of supply-chain management, program directors decided to use a two-hour interactive simulation called the Global Supply Chain Management Simulation. This two-hour exercise put users in the shoes of a global supply-chain manager and served as a capstone experience after two weeks of lectures and homework.
The Rules of the Game
To play the simulation, students paired up in teams of two and took charge of a supply chain over a period of four simulated production years. The virtual company designed, manufactured and marketed cutting-edge mobile phones. Just as in the real world, the simulation required time-sensitive decisions and clear communication between the supply-chain team members.
First, students were asked to design the models of mobile phones that they wanted to produce. After discussing forecasting with simulated team members, participants launched into full-scale production using a complex supply chain. At this point, the strategic choices made in the design room came back to either haunt the participants or reward them for their good judgment. Users also had to select suppliers carefully, keeping a number of variables in mind. Suppliers with the lowest costs were located overseas and required significant lead time to change orders. Suppliers at home were more reactive suppliers with a lower lead time, but also with higher production cost.
After designing their phones and finalizing arrangements with suppliers, students had to take charge of the rollout of the cellular phone models, which included reacting to sudden changes in the production schedule. Only by making the right strategic choices up front could students succeed in managing a smooth production cycle.
Keys to Meeting Learning Objectives: Feedback and Reinforcement
At the end of each of the four simulated production years, students had to justify their actions in front of the company’s virtual board of directors—embedded in the simulation itself. This virtual board had recorded the users’ choices in the background and now critiqued performance, questioned actions and forced students to defend the choices they made.
The feedback embedded in the simulation through the board members proved crucial in reinforcing the learning objectives. Team members were able to see their mistakes and try again the next year. Throughout the run, the simulation provided realistic scenarios in which the students had to interact with grumpy production team members, pushy marketing managers urgently requesting larger budgets and irate board members.
Analyzing Simulation Effectiveness
Several features of the simulation contributed to its success. First of all, the simulation had a clear learning objective—each objective was associated with a board member who gave the participant targeted feedback. Also, key learning concepts were embedded in feedback cycles throughout, ensuring that participants had to learn essential concepts in order to advance in the simulation.
Second, the simulation had an appropriate difficulty level for the audience—its complexity was appropriate to adult learners who were well on their way toward basic mastery of the concept. Finally, the simulation was made relevant to the user’s work experience by allowing the user to interact in realistic (but generic) corporate scenarios. This engaged participants in an active, highly memorable learning process.
Students responded enthusiastically to the simulation. When asked to rate whether they would like to see the simulation continued as part of the executive education experience, the response was a resounding endorsement: an average of 5.4 on a 1-to-6 scale.
A year later, participants felt that the simulation experience had a significant impact on their work performance. They stated that they “learned a lot” and “gained insights into how working relationships develop.”
Bjorn Billhardt is CEO of Enspire Learning (www.enspire.com), an e-learning course development company that specializes in creating scenario-based courses and interactive simulations. Bjorn has helped develop award-winning online simulations for Harvard Business School, the World Bank, Canon, SAP and other leading companies. Bjorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.