Management simulation games are too virtual

If bad management is contributing to Britain’s productivity problem — as Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, has suggested — then ill-prepared managers must be partly to blame. One possible solution: offer would-be chief executives the chance to play at being in charge first.

The idea of management games conjures a picture of grown adults channelling their inner foreign minister with a few rounds of Risk, mortgage-bound parents mimicking real estate moguls over the Monopoly board, or middle-aged men rehearsing “what if” military scenarios with toy soldiers on papier-mâché battlefields.

But there was a time when playing at management was fashionable — and it could be again. In January 1970, the Financial Times launched a “National Management Game”. It ran for 15 years and involved nearly 70,000 people. Each team was given an imaginary company’s balance sheet and, over successive rounds, had to work out how best to organise, invest and compete with rivals, using data generated by an ICL mainframe computer. A later version ran in the late 1980s and 1990s, backed by ICL and Cranfield School of Management.

The management game itself may have died out in the UK, but it lived on in other countries — India’s management association is about to launch its 26th edition — and Cranfield is to set a new international Executive Business Challenge next month.

One novelty of the original National Management Game was that it was just that — a game. At the time, the FT was largely a po-faced journal of record for British business. Unveiling the contest, the newspaper’s then chairman gravely declared that management was as vital as “advising on a great bridge or a jet aeroplane”. Our uncharacteristically ludic coverage suggests the championship then turned into something more like Rome’s imperial games — a welcome distraction from the sombre economic and political challenges of the real world.

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