Monday, October 28, 2013

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING: University Executive Education Gets A Dose Of Reality

Business Simulations apply a "learn-by-doing" approach

FROM OPEN-ENROLLMENT non-degreed programs to small-group fast track MBAs or customized management education programs, university executive education programs are changing to meet the needs of executives. Having already experienced the demands and speed of the real world, managers grow weary with lectures and theory. As the pace of business accelerates, corporations are seeking a faster, more tangible return on their investment in education.

In response, university executive education programs are changing both the materials and the teaching methods by incorporating business simulations and interdisciplinary teaching teams into the classroom. By injecting real-life situations into the classroom, adult learners are more engaged in the curriculum.

Adults learn through self-discovery

Business simulations utilize discovery learning. Psychologists Carl Rogers and B.F. Skinner both agree that adults learn best through self-discovery. Rogers, the humanist, said, “Learning is facilitated when the learner participates responsibly in the learning process…significant learning is acquired by doing.” Skinner, the behaviorist, said, “To acquire behavior, the student must engage in behavior.”

The increased use of simulation has led to interdisciplinary teaching teams. A long-time complaint from the business world has been the academic tag-team teaching approach that sometimes includes the organizational theorist, the financial expert, and the marketing professor. This teaching method often fails to build bridges among different areas of expertise.

“A team approach not only brings the discussion of a business case study to life, but it gives students access to all the areas of expertise they will need to call on in the real world,” says Doug Bowie, manager of custom executive programs at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business.

Dayle Smith, professor of management and organizational behavior at the University of San Francisco’s School of Business and Management, agrees, adding that “real integrative learning takes place when students have the opportunity to discuss and analyze business issues as they relate to different functional areas. Imagine a finance professor, a marketing professor, and an organizational behavior professor bringing up issues that require reconciling different priorities. Asking these types of questions requires the students to see how the areas fit together.”

Business simulation 

All of the universities using simulations agree that they are powerful tools for learning. First and foremost, simulations allow people to learn by doing. Research proves that concepts learned through discovery are quickly transferred from theory to action. In the words of Chris Agyris, discovery learning promotes “double-loop learning,” which promotes behavioral changes.

“It’s the ‘A-ha’ moments that are produced during the debriefing sessions that make simulations so effective,” says Ahmad Ezzeddine, assistant dean at the Wayne State University School of Business. “These are the moments that translate into real change in future behaviors.”

Simulations are widely used as course introductions because they are a great way to demonstrate why the integration of disciplines is needed. They are just as often used as capstone events because they demonstrate clearly how integration helps solve complex problems more effectively. This flexibility shows the relevancy of simulations to many different aspects of business, which is paramount to producing a tangible return-on-investment.

“Business customers demand that the training show their employees how to apply their learning in actual scenarios that apply to their business, and simulations are a great tool for that,” adds Ezzeddine.

Interpersonal skills 

Perhaps the biggest reason simulations are so valuable in the corporate classroom is their contribution to emotional intelligence. Relationship skills are a critical managerial competency. According to research conducted by Discovery Learning at the Center for Creative Leadership, 64 percent of managers selected developmental goals related to building better relationships as important competency skills, while just 37 percent selected goals related to being a better manager or administrator. Corporate education professors report their students learn as much from others in the simulation as from them.

Supplement, not replacement

While simulations are worthwhile additions to university-based programs, they are not intended to be replacements for traditional business academics. They are simply a safe practice ground for discovering the impact of various decisions in certain situations before having to apply it in the workplace. 

Please share your insights and questions by posting comments below. For more information on how to bring the experiential learning model to your organization's training program, visit our website at or use our Contact Page. We have compiled extensive data to inform us about the best simulation and assessment instruments for different circumstances.

This post was adapted from an article by Chris Musselwhite, originally published in T+D magazine (American Society for Training and Development).

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