Preparing for boardroom battles on the corporate playing fields: A growing range of firms are using business games to train staff, Roger Trapp reports

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The Independent Online
TO JOHN Handley the business game is the management equivalent of the flight simulator used to train pilots. 'It provides learning by doing in a low-risk environment,' he said.

The concept is being used increasingly by management schools such as Cranfield - where Mr Handley is general manager of the unit running the game in association with the computer company ICL. But business games are also growing in popularity outside the colleges - among sixth formers keen to give a practical edge to their economics studies, retired people in search of intellectual stimulation and perhaps tired of the crossword, and among managers in the field.

The reason is simple, said David Ward, who co-ordinates the game, which is featured in the Independent. Playing the game is fun. Although he accepts that companies' training departments find participation particularly useful for promoting a greater understanding of how the different parts of an organisation fit together, he is sure that the stronger urge is competitive. 'People enjoy it for sport.'

Mr Ward became involved with the University of East Anglia's Business and Investment Management Game in 1980. The game, sponsored by Norwich Union in association with the Independent, started as 'a way of bringing people together', inspired by Mr Ward's experience of tutoring young scientists in the ways of business at a time when it did not seem there would be enough research jobs for them. Since then, it has developed to the point where, last year, 270 teams from around the country took part in the main competition.

Robbie Barnes, a financial manager, was a member of the Rover Cars team that came third in that competition. A five-year veteran of the game, he is convinced of the teamwork benefits. By linking up with engineers, for instance, he and his colleagues gain a better understanding of that side of the business while their teammates get to know their problems - to the advantage of their employer, he said. 'If we all work together it's got to be good for the company.'

Business games originated in the early days of computers, when scientists in the United States were keen to test whether one could make these machines do what the human brain does. Things have become a lot more sophisticated since then, but basically the modern business game divides into two types - the model-play, in which team decisions are measured directly against a computer, and the team-interactive, in which teams more accurately imitate real life by playing against each other with the computer processing the decisions against a pre-arranged economic situation.

Prices vary enormously, with model-play games generally cheaper than the teaminteractive ones. Although the former can cost between pounds 10 and pounds l,000, the latter are generally priced in the thousands of pounds.

Typically, they involve four to six people acting as a management team charged with helping a business achieve a set of objectives. They take decisions on such matters as capital investment, marketing, personnel and production and receive feedback upon which to base the next set of decisions.

Those competing in national competitions like the UEA Business and Investment Management Game generally play the model- game variant because it takes as much or as little of the participants' time as they wish.

On the other hand, the business schools tend to opt for the interactive type because they can link tuition to them. Mr Handley said that this is their real value at Cranfield, where the MBA and a number of executive courses make extensive use of the concept.

This type of game has attracted the interest of companies that want to go beyond the 'game as ice-breaker' approach. For instance, the National Grid is keen to use a game to sharpen up the commercial attitudes of its staff, while law firms are enthusiastic converts to the idea because they see it as a way of making their staff more alert to the business environment. Some organisations use it for selection and promotion.

But, valuable in shaping the thinking of captains of industry as it may be, the business game is not much of a money-spinner. Mr Ward said his work just supplements his pension and stresses its cost-effectiveness. 'A typical two-day event for 25 persons provides 400 hours of learning opportunity. Even at pounds 4,000, that is only pounds 10 per hour per person.'

Nevertheless, the recession is taking its toll: even such a low-cost venture makes a call on stretched training budgets. To keep the numbers participating up, Mr Ward has for the second year running declined to raise the pounds 140 plus VAT entry fee for the national competition that gets under way in January. There is even a discount for entries received well ahead of the 30 November deadline.