Developing leadership skills with a business simulation
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Developing Skills for Business Leadership

Discover how the University of Bradford has used our online business simulator, SimVenture Evolution, to help students develop their business leadership skills.

Dr David Spicer from the University of Bradford’s School of Management uses SimVenture Evolution to help MSc students develop business leadership skills. Dr Spicer is an Associate Professor in Organizational Studies and Small Business Development as well as the School’s Director for Business and Community Engagement.

Dr David Spicer is an Associate Professor at the University of Bradford who uses a business simulation game to develop students' business leadership skills
Dr David Spicer, Associate Professor, University of Bradford

In this interview, Dr Spicer shares his experience of using the online business simulation game, SimVenture Evolution, with postgraduate students on a Business Leadership course.

Can you provide an overview of how you used the business simulation, SimVenture Evolution, with students?

We use SimVenture Evolution in a core module currently on our MSc programme. The course is for both Human Resource Management students as well as Applied AI and Data Analytics students. The module where I use SimVenture Evolution specifically is called ‘Developing Skills for Business Leadership’.

A key part of the module is getting students to think about and reflect on their own skills, their own ability to take leadership responsibilities, and their ability to work effectively as part of a team. We want to get them thinking about their own development.

I want to give them an opportunity to work in as close to a real environment as possible where they actually get to experience working as part of a management team. So that’s where we use SimVenture Evolution.

I get all students to start from the same place within the simulated business, put them into management teams and get them to take on dedicated roles. Essentially, I give them the task of working on the virtual business and thinking about how to maximise the value for the shareholders.

For me, and perhaps more importantly, it’s about the learning and reflection that comes from the process.

What first prompted you to consider SimVenture Evolution?

When I took over the module, I wanted students to think explicitly about managerial skills.

The module that I’d inherited was quite traditional and lecture based. The content was fine but it didn’t allow students to actually practice and think deeply about their managerial skills and what they need to do to develop them. So I thought a business simulation would be a good way to do that.

I looked around and considered some of the options that were out there and that’s how I came across SimVenture Evolution.

Before using SimVenture Evolution, what challenges did you face as an educator that led you to consider a business simulation?

As suggested earlier, for me it was about getting students to engage with and think deeply about management and business leadership skills. As well as helping students to understand what it actually means to be responsible for making decisions within a business.

We can talk about those things in the abstract. We can look at case studies (and we do look at examples of good and bad management practice), but I really wanted to give the students an opportunity to practice these skills for themselves.

As educators, we talk about principles, we talk about ideas, and we talk about theories. But students don’t always immediately and clearly see how to put these concepts into practice.

The challenge of getting students to see the connection between concepts and application, and that desire to get students to think deeply and reflectively about their own skills was why I went looking for the business simulation.

How has SimVenture Evolution solved these challenges?

I think the thing I particularly like about SimVenture Evolution as an experience for students is that it is fairly close to (as close as I’ve ever found) to a real life business experience.

Having students working on and thinking about a business in that way does encourage them to reflect and think more seriously and significantly about the realities of making decisions in a business setting. Students learn all sorts of things from that, deliberate and unintended. A lot of the learning just comes from the dynamics of working as a business leadership team on the simulation itself, as much as it does about the decisions they make for the virtual business.

Students also learn a lot about what’s needed for a coherent strategy and the logic behind business decision-making. We do get some students that think, ‘oh, it’s a simulation, it’s a computer game, it’s a program’. They simply try to optimise the program but that never works for the students. We always have to track back with them and say, ‘okay, so think about coherent business decisions, make your business decisions in a logical way, and that will help you in your practice going forward’.

Having purchased and used SimVenture Evolution, how did the simulation help you as an educator?

I think it comes back to the breadth of the learning. For me, it has helped provide students with opportunities to reflect.

From an assessment perspective, I ask students to reflect on their practice and experiences as a leader or a manager.

I have had students in the past on other courses come back to me and say, ‘I don’t think I’ve got anything to reflect on’. But nobody can make that excuse after using SimVenture Evolution because every student is involved in the decision-making process.

The two key bits of value I get from SimVenture Evolution as an educator is that (1) all students have a role to play when running the simulation, and (2) all students get the experience and practice of running an authentic business.

Students get to feel what it’s like to make meaningful business decisions and witness the impact of their decisions. And as educators, we coach and mentor them throughout their experience.

Interestingly, some students get very upset when the business results don’t go their way, but I just go back to them and say, ‘look, that’s the learning, that’s why we’re here’. It’s not about getting it right on the first try. It’s about knowing what you need to do next time.

The simulation is also a valuable tool for reflection and for getting students to think more deeply about their approach, practices, their ways of interacting with each other, and how this might be applied in the real world.

How has SimVenture Evolution impacted on the overall student learning experience?

I think the impact has been very positive. SimVenture Evolution is certainly very well received by students. They engage with it well. It is interactive and it’s something that certainly engages them in their learning.

They also get competitive, but students always do. And they like to debate around the parameters of the simulation and try and ‘game it’ at times. SimVenture Evolution does seem pretty robust in that regard however.

Students that embrace the business simulation and engage with it, take it very seriously. SimVenture Evolution also encourages students to think about how they can use data effectively. Here’s an example…

One group of students had a strategy where they were going to be low cost in the market. But they decided to cut their price without thinking about production. In addition, they cut their price without thinking about marketing or referencing the historical market data that is available in SimVenture Evolution. Unfortunately, they were already the lowest priced product in the market and they became quite upset because they hadn’t made any money because they couldn’t satisfy demand.

I sat down with them and unpicked their decisions. They really appreciated the value and importance of checking available intelligence and understanding how everything in a business is connected and that decisions have widespread consequences.

Given your experience, would you recommend SimVenture Evolution to other educators? And if so, why?

Yes, absolutely! It’s works for me and I think it works for my students as well. SimVenture Evolution is intuitive, and it’s relatively easy and straightforward to run. You invest a bit of time in understanding it and once you’ve done that, you discover a lot of richness and authentic detail in the simulation.

I’ve seen lots of other business simulations out there and they’ve obviously got some learning outcomes embedded in them, but they’re not holistic. They come across as quite simplistic, because they are more about optimising a particular decision set around marketing or operations. SimVenture Evolution is much closer to a live experience and that’s really valuable.

Do you have any final comments?

You should know that the responsiveness to the support queries we get from the SimVenture team is great. We had some issues with students not being able to access the platform this year, yet the help in sorting that was exemplary. In reality, the issue was with the students and the way in which they were accessing the platform. There was no problem with the platform. The students of course, blamed the platform rather than assuming they’d done anything wrong. But there was great support, both for me directly and for the students.

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