MBA Programs

The Games They Play at Business School


Structuring games to enhance tactical and strategic skills, which began with Prussian war games in 1812, has became fashionable in the business world

Photograph by Nick Ballon/Gallery Stock

Structuring games to enhance tactical and strategic skills, which began with Prussian war games in 1812, has became fashionable in the business world

A guest post from Matt Symonds, chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world’s outstanding business schools. He is also founder and former director of the QS World MBA Tour and co-author of ABC of Getting the MBA Admissions Edge.

Matt SymondsMatt SymondsIf there’s one challenge that never seems to go away at business school campuses around the world, it’s how to keep MBA students motivated, interested, and engaged. After all, if you’re investing a substantial pile of cash in a program, you’re going to expect a lot more for it than a series of academics fronting aging PowerPoint presentations.

Schools have consequently engaged in their own version of an arms race over the past couple of decades in an attempt to come up with ever more dazzling solutions to the problem. And while visiting business leaders still play a part in holding students’ attention, their ranks have now been supplemented by a host of less-obvious contributors, including athletes, actors, soldiers, artists, and psychologists.

In such a competitive education environment, the conventional teaching of business techniques might seem a bit stuffy and old-fashioned, which is why many schools are trying to jazz up the experience through the development and use of ever-fancier business games. This idea of using the structure of a game to enhance tactical and strategic skills is nothing new. The Prussian military, for example, started employing the concept as far back as 1812 and the resultant war game, or Kriegspiel, played a significant part in the defeats of such major opponents as the French, Austrians, and Russians. The business equivalent, while a mere relative newcomer in comparison, has become highly fashionable in recent years and has been championed by several of the top strategy consultancies, most notably, McKinsey & Co.

One of the best-known developers of games in the business school context is John Sterman of MIT-Sloan, who has put together a number of management-scenario games played out on the sort of boards that must spark a degree of nostalgia in even the most curmudgeonly student. His ‘Beer Game’ for example, is based around the production, sale, and distribution of the eponymous beverage, and can be played by as few as four to as many as several hundred participants. To the possible disappointment of many of them, no actual beer features in the process.

The IE Business School in Madrid has taken the concept a step further—out of the office or factory scenario and into Downing Street, the seat of the U.K. government. Its economic policy game pits teams of students, interspersed with professional actors, against each other to see who can cope best with the euro zone troubles and the ongoing problems of the financial services sector. The game ends with a general election and the losing teams suffer the virtual indignity of having the electorate eject them from power.

And in Denmark, the management institute Mannaz has devised a program based around the world’s most popular online game, World of Warcraft, which aims to show how international teams can improve their leadership effectiveness through shifting strategies that place high demands on communication and the management of tasks and team mates.

Does such training have to be based on the sort of complex, multilevel games that have become the norm in our computerized world? Or could aspiring business leaders learn just as much from pastimes that have been around for thousands of years?

“We use a variety of conventional business games on our MBA program,” says Joe LiPuma, program director at the French school, E.M. Lyon, “but I was really taken by the thesis written by one of our students, who was European champion of the Go strategy game, which has apparently been around for more than 2,500 years. He did a brilliant analysis of Apple’s (AAPL) turnaround in the context of the game and the principles it uses in relation to efficiency and territory.”

And perhaps there are some directly relevant lessons to be picked up from one of the best-known and most widely played board games of all. According to Nigel Povah, an international chess master and chief executive officer of talent management consultancy, a&dc, chess demonstrates the need for combining big-picture thinking with the balance of resources and an in-depth understanding of your competition. “It’s no good controlling one corner of the board, or the market, if you’re out of control everywhere else,” he says. “Otherwise you might win battles, but you’ll end up losing the war.”

So as you sit down to what might seem yet another pointless board game this holiday season, think again. It might just be your route to joining the C-suite.

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Symonds is chief editor of MBA50.com and a guest blogger.

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