Written By Mike Briggs (Senior Lecturer: School of Technology-Engineering)
Delivering a module on Business Management to young engineers and product designers can be a fairly daunting task as it very easily becomes a dry and dull module for young people chomping at the bit to redesign the Eurostar or at least a very minor component in a very fast car.
I have previously used a range of paper based resources to explain the use of spread sheets in relation to business planning, budgets and book keeping etc and also introduced aspects such as psychometric analysis when dealing with employing the right type of person for a specific role.
Apart from the deployment of a “Dummy Business” that had things happen over a period of time to show the use of tools such as spreadsheets and business plans etc. my sessions comprised of the usual presentations coupled with group activity and an element of role playing.
Whilst walking Harry (the family Labrador) early one Sunday morning I was reflecting on how I might develop these static resources into something more dynamic that might catch the interest of the students and make the module a bit more “sassy”, and at the same time provide them with some reflective material to use as examples when writing up their assignments which are based on the usual business scenarios about employee types, communications and how to manage an organisation in general.
This then led to some ideas that I ran through with Matthew Leach on a languid day in February 2012 where we laid out some concepts as to how such an electronic tool might work and lead to something in the form of a Business Simulator.
Matthew was a bit sceptic as there had been previous “systems” that hadn’t really worked, however we plodded on (rather, Matthew did) and ideas started to build.
The simulator emerged as a system that ran in extended real time (6 weeks in real time was the equivalent to 15 Months simulator or Game time) and operated on a daily basis (real time) with responses to tasks such as paying bills and choosing marketing strategies being applied as and when, usually on a Friday when the PC workshops took place, but also at other times in an attempt to get the students to communicate between themselves outside of set workshop times (communication skills).
I initially set it to function as three weeks of preparation followed with 6 weeks of online activity, culminating with 3 weeks of reflection on what went wrong or how they (as individuals) might have completed an action differently thereby providing an element of evaluation for their assignment.
Previously a Belbin survey was done on the first week (paper based) which was quite laborious so Matthew agreed to convert it to an online system that produced the results very quickly thus giving me some time to arrange the students into business groups organised into appropriate teams as per the psychometric theory projected by Belbin.
The setting up of parameters was completed in week 2 where the business groups are encouraged to work together to choose:
Group name (Business Name), business type, size (no of employees), location of business, size of start-up loan (if any) and employees’ salaries.
Each business was awarded an initial bank balance of £5000.
Depending on the parameters chosen, the simulator initiates charges to be levied at appropriate times etc. and reduces the bank account balance accordingly.
Business income is calculated as a function of Productivity, Morale, Management, Unit price and No of Employees.
Expenditure is calculated as a function of Productivity, Morale, Management, Unit price, No of Employees and Wastage.
During the process the tasks were set to generate sales and this was accomplished by getting the groups to vote on marketing strategies with results according to their choices.
Results changed parameters such as moral and management indices which led to a boost in the balance and changes to the parameters which generated more income so the “best” decisions produced good results and “poor” decisions produced no, or negative results.
Paying bills was also completed by the group members choosing to pay or not, if no votes by the due time then the system voted which could mean them not paying and incurring the bailiffs if not paid three times in succession etc.
The major event during the running of the simulator was the loss of a chief executive leading to the vote of a new one from a choice of three carefully marketed candidates.
The wisest choice led to great fortune, the mediocre choice led to very little change and the ill advised choice led to asset stripping and loss of jobs.
From the students feedback forms the simulator the results are encouraging to say the least.
50% thought it was fun with 68% agreeing that is provided a focus for the group to discuss business matters.
As a tool for understanding the module content 76% though it was good (or V Good)
The student survey also indicates that:
The greatest benefit is from the students understanding of the importance of listening to other people’s ideas (79%), closely followed by communication with other people (68%), with planning and keeping minutes of meetings (58%).
In conclusion I can’t honestly say that a definite benefit has been achieved as we have no control group, however the results definitely indicate that:
- The students had fun using the simulator
- Learning had been achieved through using the simulator
- An element of “company ownership” was achieved (from observation of the groups/business during the process) which will improve engagement with the module. In some cases the students wanted to take their virtual businesses into the real world.