In an interview with Bernard, Bernie Keys, founder of ABSEL (Association for Business Simulation and Experiential Learning), the world’s largest business simulation association, comments on his experience with business simulation and the future of the methodology.
When and how was your first experience in using business games method?
Bernie Keys – I engaged in my first experience with a business game (I like to call them simulations) at David Lipscomb College in Nashville, Tennessee (now Lipscomb University) in 1965. I was teaching the same students in about five courses during the year. I knew my effectiveness as an instructor would soon wear thin. Therefore I developed the strategy of using a different Lecture and/or experiential technique in each class. In one I used Ralph Day’s hand scored game, “Marketing in Action”(MIA). This game included about six to ten variables, simulating the laundry detergent product.
The product had three defined characteristics and the player had to choose one of about ten variations of these. It was easily scored by completing a printed form which led to sales and profits. The P & L statement and the balance sheet had to be completed by hand, using a similar template. MIA worked very well and led me to take a team to Emory University to play “The Executive Game” by Greenlaw and others. It was an eight decision strategy game programmed and run on a computer — probably an IBM 360. My Lipscomb team won an industry award, a nice trophy, and made the headlines in the business section of “The Nashville,Tennessean.” Our parents and supporters rang the telephone for days. They thought we had really won the millions of dollars referred to by the reporter.
As one of the founders of ABSEL, why did you decide to create it?
Bernie Keys – I completed a dissertation on business simulations in 1969. It was a critical incident study,similar to that of published studies. The study was briefed in our first ABSEL Proceedings. The dissertation was one reason I decided to host ABSEL. Second, I had written and published a simulation entitled “The Executive Simulation “(ES) the ancestor of my update of “The Multinational Management Game”(MMG) by Keys and Wells (formerly Keys, Edge and Remus of the University of Hawaii), and of “The Global Strategy Simulation (GSS) due out this year. I realized that my simulation was only tactical, not strategic. Therefore I co-authored MMG. Third, I was very active with simulations in industry. Not insignificant was the fact that I coached 13 teams over 13 years in competition with nationwide colleges and universities. This competition was held at the Emory University School of Business in Atlanta, GA. Ron Jenson, author of the simulation used at Emory and many other schools, attended one of our first meetings.
The writing and continuous work with simulations and games,led me to the published simulations in the literature. I envisioned a meeting at which all of the people involved gathered and presented papers. But a problem presented itself. I had no reputation and was teaching and chairing a division at a small private school in Oklahoma. Who would come? I resolved the problem by calling several “well knowns” and asking them to keynote the program as shown on a call for papers.
I called Stan Vance, then at the University of Oregon in the Minor Endowed Chair, and author of an executive game. Stan Vance said yes, therefore I was encouraged and called Ralph Day (MIA) at Indiana University, author of the best-selling game in the country. Again Yes! Then I called Richard Barton author of “Imaginet,” A simulation in which teams could choose to manufacture and market different products. I think I called one or two others. Duane Hoover was writing about Experiential Exercises. At least he came and and presented a paper and later became President of ABSEL. I also invited Douglas Bray, Training Director at AT & T, and author of the famous in-basket, used largely for selecting persons for management positions.
Over 150 people came to the little campus on the praire, Oklahoma Christian College (OCC), where we had an excellent American Heritage building, and students were out of class until fall. Participants were transported to OCC in a school bus and there was 100 percent attendance at the paper presentations. No alternative was available. I catered the lunch on campus, bussed participants back to a Holiday Inn on a nearby interstate, and held the banquet at the Holiday Inn. I don’t think anyone hired a cab to go downtown Oklahoma City, quite a few miles away.
Which were the main contributions of ABSEL for education and research fields using business games?
Bernie Keys – ABSEL’s main contribution, from it’s inception in 1974, was that it served as forum and reunion of many of the very active and well-known professors and trainors in simuations, games, and experiential exercises. We did not just like simulations and experiential exercises, we “loved and lived them” more than any text or book. It was very difficult to determine where Ralph Day or Richard Barton concluded and their simulations began. Stan Vance who moved into other interests once said “Bernie Keys interest in simulations knows no bounds.” He was probably correct.
Through research on simulations, games and experiential learning, we found that almost every aspect of business behavior had been simulated. Further, through the research and presentation of Joe Wolfe and others, we learned that lectures and simulations, or experiential exercises, produced learning in business, superior to lecture only. We also learned that simulations and games are not effective when used without instructor guidance, and they are more effective when reinforced with traditional texts and classroom lectures. We learned the important fact that success in performance such as sales or profitability in a simulation or game, by a team, is not necessarily related to successful learning in a simulation or game. As in real life, teams are sometimes successful without understanding how or why, and unsuccessful performers sometimes learn more than the successful ones.
ABSEL assisted new members in learning to direct simulations and games, in acquiring research, and in some instances acquiring lifetime friends and colleagues.
Which are your expectations about the future of business games?
Bernie Keys – Two new major developments influence my thinking about ABSEL and the future of business simulations and games. The first is that AACSB, the major accrediting organization for U.S. Schools of Business, is considering the use of participation by students and faculty in simulation and games to evaluate schools. Additionally, Harvard University is planning to add simulations and games to many of it’s strategy and non-behavioral type cases. They are contacting ABSEL members and requesting exam copies of games. If Harvard utilizes simulation and games within cases, the remainder of the better schools in the world will follow.
I envision that simulations, games and experiential exercises will permeate much of our teaching, managerial, and executive development for several decades. Simulations and games will be expressed in video and IT programs. Simulations and games will be open for competition by teams globally, and will include teams of executives, managers, and students throughout most continents of the world. They will progress because they are slices of real life business experiences, compressed into very short time frames, and they reveal the connections between causes and effects in the business world unlike any other teaching pedagogy.