Simulations: Bringing Real World Challenges to the Classroom

Wouldn’t you want your executives to have the opportunity to walk through a complex business situation to develop key skills before applying them in real life? Of course.

The rhetorical question is posed by Urs Peyer, Dean of Degree Programmes at INSEAD, to emphasise the impact of the school’s renowned simulations as a critical learning tool. Simulations combine applications of management theory, team work, leadership and emotions that lead to realistic learning and they are an educational device for which INSEAD is a recognised leader.

“INSEAD is well known for developing and using simulations in our courses,” Peyer notes. “We first expose students and participants to the fundamental principles of management. Some simulations focus the students on one particular area, such as an application of game theory in a real world context.”

In this case, Peyer says that the main outcomes are an understanding of how to apply the theory and recognising how behaviour biases are affecting outcomes.

Key traits of simulations

In another example, in MBA, EMBA and executive education programmes, simulations are used to combine learning from accounting and finance to analyse a turnaround situation, and then participants devise a market and marketing strategy to take a company forward.

Peyer notes that simulations form a critical bridge between academia and the business world, and he adds that many INSEAD alumni make significant contributions to the programmes.

“When you take the student out of the real world and put them in a box called INSEAD for 10 months, they adopt habits of the academic world, so we need to make them ready and prepare them for life after INSEAD,” he explains. “That is an important role of the simulations and the participation of our alumni adds considerably to the impact of our simulations.”

Sometimes even bystanders are drafted into a simulation.

“We have simulations where there are real customers and you are observed on how you deal with the situation,” Peyer explains. “Sometimes we’ll even grab someone walking by and say ‘can you be an angry customer?’

“Students like this part, they like the fact they might have a venture capitalist calling in from Silicon Valley who actually knows what they are talking about,” Peyer says.

Along with the learning they inspire, simulations are also a good opportunity for faculty to bring their research findings directly back to the classroom, according to Jill Huret, associate director, learning innovation solutions at INSEAD. She adds that most INSEAD simulations are authored by the school’s faculty, who are constantly generating new ones, based on their latest research.

In executive programmes, “We use a lot of simulations and some of our programmes are actually built around complex simulations, allowing you to learn new concepts in a very tangible way,” Huret notes.

Luc Oursel

The first simulations at INSEAD can in a sense be traced back to the school’s early days, working with a large IBM computer, but use of simulations exploded around the year 2000 thanks to online platforms. Simulations thrive in a virtual environment and lend themselves well to blended or virtual delivery.

Peyer explains that simulations differ from cases because the latter tend to deal with one scenario that has better or worse outcomes. Because simulations approximate real life situations, they demand a great deal of self-analysis and participants have to build in key capabilities and construct the learning themselves.

“These simulations are not a Disney ride,” he adds with a smile. “The delivery of simulations is very different, participants work on the situation and analyse all the factors that are important to the simulation. Depending on your choice, you can win or lose.”

Huret has participated in several simulations and says they can be “a lot of fun as they are very much collaborative and competitive. They are hands-on and designed to reflect the real working environment, because you are under a lot of pressure and you have to make decisions under time constraints with incomplete information, sometimes in a virtual team setting which brings additional challenges.”

Those who go through simulations tend to have enthusiastic responses.

According to one participant in Prof. Albert Angehrn’s virtual executive programme delivered for a client company, “If you want to know how to motivate your team to come up with robust decisions, go through this programme,” they said. “If you want to see and feel the real value of collaborative team innovation, go through the programme.”

The scope of simulations at INSEAD is vast and cuts across all disciplines. In organisational behaviour, for instance, one can find the LingHe simulation which models the dynamics of organisational change in a typical Chinese business environment. In the area of finance, it could be the ALCO Challenge, a user-friendly simulation to discuss asset and liability management, the control of value creation and risk in banking. Or if it’s in marketing, it may be Intercomp, a simulation that guides participants through various phases of the international marketing process. The INSEAD selection of simulations is deep and comprehensive.

“INSEAD uses simulations in all degree programmes as a key learning tool,” Peyer explains. “One of the major challenges of modern management is complexity. Having our MBA students and executive participants exposed to such real-life business situations helps them to develop a solution approach to complex business situations.”

A key strength of INSEAD simulations, he adds, is due to the experienced faculty teaching the programs, because they can give detailed and individualised feedback and decisions can be analysed and reviewed.

“Simulations are well known among our alumni,” Peyer notes. “We have built our capacity in the Your First 100 Days simulation so that now we can accommodate all student demand (more than 210 out of 300 students just in Fontainebleau this P5!).”

The comprehensive Your First 100 Days is “way beyond standard simulations,” Peyer explains, adding the school is going to add this simulation, Your First 100 Days, to its executive MBA programme as a capstone course.

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