07 May 2014 Back

How to Build Leadership Skills in the Virtual World

EXECUTIVE EDUCATION: Using simulations to develop leadership skills is just a short step from their more obvious use for pilot or combat training. MIT Sloan School of Management, a long-time pioneer when it comes to action learning, has created a series of dynamic virtual reality environments that mirror business world realities. These innovative resources are offered free to executive educators through Sloan’s LearningEdge website.

Learning through trial and error is a fundamental part of human development, but errors in the real business world can be costly.

“Deep actionable knowledge and decision-making skills develop when people have the chance to apply classroom theory in the real world, with its messy complexity, time pressures, and irreversible consequences.” says John Sterman, Jay W. Forrester Professor in Computer Science at MIT Sloan.

For this reason the advantages of learning in a virtual world setting are self-evident. But can the technology and its pedagogical application live up to the promise?

The series of virtual reality simulations developed by Sloan suggest the can. These ‘Management Flight Simulators’ create a virtual world in which students explore and participate in the critical management issues facing a range of industries and organizations. They bring an experiential aspect to learning about complex systems, so that students who participate in a simulation can see the immediate consequences of their decisions and learn what it’s truly like to juggle competing priorities amidst a constant influx of information.

A good example is the Fishbanks simulation which enables students to learn about the challenges of managing resources sustainably in a common pool resource setting, with realistic resource dynamics. This is a multiplayer web-based simulation, in which participants play the role of fishers and seek to maximize their net worth as they compete against other players and deal with variations in fish stocks and their catch. Participants buy, sell, and build ships; decide where to fish; and negotiate with one another. Policy options available to instructors include auctions of new boats, permits, and quotas.

Fishbanks, which is available in English, Portuguese, Spanish and Simplified Chinese, offers video user guides, online instructions, teaching notes, and slides. In post-game debriefings, users explore examples of successful resource management and the economic, political and social policies. The creators say the simulation could be used in the following courses: economics, strategy, negotiations, sustainability, environmental studies, public policy, resource economics; leadership and team-building; and any course in which the dynamics of cooperation and competition, resource management, and negotiation are relevant.

This web-based version of Fishbanks was adapted by Professor John Sterman from Emeritus Professor Dennis Meadows’ classic game. Sterman, who has been developing simulations since the 1980s, feels they make more of an impact than simply listening to lectures or engaging in case study discussions.

Virtual world simulations certainly provide executive educators with a not-to-be-ignored and potentially very valuable approach to action learning — the close integration of theory with real world practice — at least when developed to the standard pioneered by Sloan in this series.

Illustration: Avatars on ZKM 'YOUniverse' Island in Second Life, produced and directed by Philip Pocock, 2007 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

View this 3-minute video to see how management flight simulations like World Climate are used in the MIT Sloan classroom to generate a highly interactive learning environment.

Further Information

Read Prof John Sterman’s article on web-based simulations for management education

Executive Education at MIT Sloan School of Management

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