posted 3 Apr 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 7
Learn to play and play to learn
Introducing the principles of knowledge gaming
One of the most effective ways of learning is by doing, but in a business environment, there is very little margin for error. Noam Shalgi introduces the principles of gaming, explaining the role of action while learning and how this theory can be implemented while using gaming as part of your approach to knowledge management.
Facilitating learning is one of the great challenges for knowledge management. Achieving individual, team and even organisational learning, is not an easy task. At the same time, knowledge management projects involve a great deal of learning regarding knowledge management itself. These are just a few good reasons to have a closer look at how human beings act, play and learn.
Children acquire a vast amount of knowledge during the first years of their lives; mostly without any form of verbal communication. It occurs through experience, often gained while playing. Adults, on the other hand, tend to think they can learn more from listening to what other people have to say. But do adults make the right choice?
Let’s start with a little bit of theory
Many scientists and philosophers have spent a great deal of effort exploring the relationship between learning and acting (after all, the ultimate goal of learning is to enable people to act in a different way!). They try to explain the role of action in human learning and why learning is more fruitful when knowledge is gained in an active way.
According to Chris Argyris, one of the most important thinkers in this area, every human being holds certain programmes, or theories or beliefs. According to these, we take actions. These actions then have certain results. Especially when the results are not what we initially expected, we are inclined to re-evaluate the factors that led to these results. This adaptation is the essence of learning.
Argyris distinguishes between two different types of learning:
- Single-loop learning corrects mismatches between expected and achieved results by changing actions. The changes remain within the existing governing values. Next time one comes across the same situation, one might make the same mistakes again. The underlying ‘programmes’ have never changed;
- Double-loop learning corrects mismatches by first changing the underlying governing values and then the actions. In this way, one avoids reaching undesired results in future circumstances. Double-loop learning is therefore obviously the most efficient way of learning.
So far this might sound fairly straightforward. Does this mean that we just have to ask people what are the values, theories or beliefs upon which they act, and try to convince them to change these? Unfortunately, it is not that simple
Argyris claims that human beings hold two different master designs or programmes. The first incorporates the theories humans espouse. The second involves the theories they actually use. Therefore, changing the underlying programme during double-loop learning might not be as easy as one thinks. It is often the case that what we acknowledge as our ‘programme’ is actually just what we think it is, namely the espoused one. Changing this will not ensure better results in the future. We must be aware of our theories-in-use and change these in order to act in a more effective way in the future. But the main problem here is that our theories-in-use manifest themselves only in what we do. In other words, only by taking a very analytical look at our actions can we achieve this highest form of learning.
Based on these concepts, Argyris recommends designing all learning to enhance effective action, not simply thought or insight. The ultimate test of what one knows is if one can do what one claims to know.
So how can we change they way people really act (and not only the way people say they act)?
Discovering and changing the theories people actually use is obviously a complex task. Moreover, it is also time-consuming.
One of the proven ways to do this is by ‘action learning’, a method that was developed by Reg Revans. Learning, Revans claims, has two main elements:
- Programmed knowledge;
- Questioning insight that involves critical reflection.
Action learning therefore focuses on repeatedly questioning what one does, identifying how to adapt these actions, and acting once again. It is directed at groups within working organisations that meet on a regular basis. During these meetings, group members question and learn from their actions, and are later able to apply their newly gained knowledge.
One of the main contributions of action learning is in its creation of a culture of inquiry and questioning, an essential aspect of a learning climate. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
But what can we do when we do not have the time needed to involve all members of our organisation in action learning groups? And what can we do when we want to change the way people act in a limited area? How can we wake people up to the possibilities?
We all know the chance that watching a presentation will change the way people act is virtually nil. We need a more active and creative way of influencing people. This is where gaming comes into the picture. From Elgood’s experience, we learn that although games may require more time to cover the same amount of material, and are less rigidly structured than a lecture:
- Games can have considerable subject knowledge actually built into them. They can pose a problem, demand an answer, and so on;
- There is a massive difference in participant motivation. All that can be guaranteed with a lecture is that knowledge will be broadcast. By contrast, participants in a game are actively involved;
- Games increase the breadth of learning, and active participation fosters deeper internalisation.
What exactly do we mean by ‘games’?
Games involve learning, but also lots of fun. Games may be of varying lengths of time, number of participants and equipment. A game can take 10 minutes, involving a handful of participants and no equipment, but it may also include hundreds of players and last several days, using a host of props. Games can be played indoors, outdoors or on the internet. Games can be tailor-made, or purchased as a ready-made product.
Gaming offers many advantages when one wishes to gain experience in a controlled environment and in a limited amount of time. One may see playing games as experiencing a simulation of events in the real world. Duke sees simulation as an attempt to abstract and reproduce the main characteristics of a complex system, with the aim of understanding the behaviour of that system, experimenting with it and predicting it, or in other words, learning from it. As games are played out, an integration of learning experiences, knowledge and insight can be developed
Games are a suitable tool for changing environments. They help participants to predict their behaviour, adapt their behaviour and learn how to act in a new situation before it even occurs. According to De Caluwé, gaming can be effectively used to create awareness, change attitudes, enlarge self-confidence, analyse strength and weaknesses, experience unknown circumstances, develop a common ‘language’, change culture and, last but not least, learn how to learn.
An important aspect of using games as a learning tool is the reflection phase. This is essential if the learning goals of the game are to be achieved, and this phase should be seen as an integral part of the game itself. This does not mean less fun while playing, but rather adding to the fun with the sense of amazement eye-opening realisations can offer. Gaming is thus a powerful way of working.
This issue of Knowledge Management is full of examples of knowledge games. These vary in design and purpose. Here, we will focus on an example of a game designed to answer a question we are all confronted with: how can we explain to laymen what knowledge management is all about, and in turn persuade them to improve the way they handle knowledge?
One of our clients presented us with the following problem: the company’s IT department has been transformed into a team-based organisation. Each team is allowed to act more or less freely. The teams are formed to develop or maintain certain applications. Although this transformation has been very successful, some new problems emerged. Knowledge sharing between and within teams is not optimal. This may be a result of the strong organisational fragmentation and the temporal character of the teams. The management obviously wanted to do something about this.
As a first step in changing the IT department’s knowledge culture, the initial plan was to hold workshops for all team members. These workshops would explain what knowledge management is all about, show the team members how they could work better, and motivate them to take further action to improve their knowledge assets.
While preparing these workshops, we discovered that the IT people were not interested in new non-IT concepts (like knowledge management), and did not recognise that they might have a problem. They were not able to find the answer to the famous question: ‘what’s in it for me?’ This kind of attitude forms a greater obstacle than one may think. After all, how can you convince someone to consult a doctor when he doesn’t think he is sick?
We came to the conclusion that a presentation about the basic principles of knowledge management would come across as boring, and was therefore not entirely suitable. We chose, therefore, to address these issues by playing a game. A knowledge game can answer the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question, and create the necessary energy and motivation to change. The ‘Knowledge Sharing Puzzle’® was born.
This game consisted of several rounds, all using jigsaw puzzles. We chose these in order to achieve a common thread throughout the various rounds of the game, and in order to ensure the game could be played again and again without needing to prepare lots of new material each time. At the same time, we used puzzles as a metaphor: knowledge management is a puzzle for the participants before they play the game. Afterwards, the puzzle pieces fall into place.
Each round concentrated on a knowledge process, including knowledge capturing, re-use of captured knowledge, creating an effective knowledge market (where demand and supply are transparent) and creation of new knowledge. By focusing on a separate aspect of KM in each round, players were able to examine their behaviour more carefully.
Each round took roughly ten minutes and was followed by five minutes of individual evaluation. During this reflection phase, participants were asked to fill in a short questionnaire about how they played and thus made the first step towards learning how to work more effectively in ‘real life’. After the last round, a joint evaluation of all members combined their individual experiences.
When playing this game we received a wonderful response from the participants. They thoroughly enjoyed the game, and it also functioned as an icebreaker to start a workshop with. It stimulated the participants to be active during the subsequent workshop, and to take the necessary actions when returning to work. It proved to be an excellent way to motivate people to do something about their own knowledge management.
The participants were pleasantly surprised to see how much fun was involved in playing and how much we were all able to learn from the game. The relationship between their behaviour while playing and their behaviour during work was very evident. The following example will make this point clear.
During the second round each participant was asked to complete a jigsaw puzzle individually. They all received most pieces of the puzzle they were trying to complete, but some pieces were missing, and they were given some pieces of other puzzles as well. The players were instructed to work on their puzzles behind screens, so others could not see which pieces they had. They were asked to write down on cards which pieces they were looking for, and which ones they did not need and were willing to give away. The instruction was to present these cards at the centre of the table in order to be able to match supply and demand. This round demonstrated how knowledge exchange works: an exchange cannot take place unless it is clear who can offer what and what others are looking for.
In one of the teams, players wrote a number of cards about what they had to offer, but very few announced what they were looking for. The result was that not a single player was able to complete their puzzle within the given time. When we talked about it after playing, the participants recognised very quickly that this was the way they usually operated. They were all willing to help each other, but when they are actively looking for something, they prefer to re-invent the wheel rather than ask one of their colleagues. Now that they had been confronted with the effects such behaviour has on their own individual achievements, they understood they had to change the way they handled knowledge. This realisation was totally new for them, and it allowed us to introduce the instruments that would allow them to achieve this change.
A learning experience
For my colleagues and I, this was also a learning experience. We concluded that:
- Gaming is a very effective way of working. It may demand more creativity to design a game, but the effectiveness certainly makes the effort worthwhile;
- Gaming allowed us to introduce subjects that participants were not willing to listen to during a presentation;
- It generated energy and motivation;
- Playing the Knowledge Sharing Puzzle® has served two goals effectively: explaining what knowledge management is all about; and diagnosing what the implications of knowledge management theories are for the participants’ own behaviour. Compare this with what one can achieve with a 90 minute presentation...
- Isolating certain aspects of daily behaviour during the game made it possible to focus on the necessary changes in these areas and draw the appropriate conclusions;
- By opting to use a game, we achieved double-loop learning very easily. Reflection on theory-in-use-based behaviour, and making the necessary changes, has occurred. After all, participants did not recognise the need to optimise the way they handle knowledge before playing, and discovering their theory-in-use was possible only because they were so occupied by the thought that the game was only about jigsaw puzzles.
The game allowed us to combine learning, action and lots of fun – could one ask for more?
A few concluding words...
The following articles, together with this one, will hopefully supply you with enough good reasons to make use of the power of gaming in your knowledge management activities from now on.
The case that was described above details a typical game for a group of players who are all present at a certain time at a certain physical location. Thanks to recent technical developments, in particular the emergence of the internet, the opportunities to use gaming have grown enormously. It is now possible to play games not only with people outside of your organisation but also outside of your country, continent and culture. And a new type of game will emerge in the coming years, namely the mobile one. The move towards GPRS and then UMTS standards will soon make it possible to play wonderfully complex games through your mobile phone. Wouldn’t it be fun to be able to learn more about knowledge management while playing a game on your mobile phone, sitting on the train on your way back home? Within a few years this vision will become reality.
I hope this article has convinced you that there is nothing wrong with enjoyable ways of working – on the contrary. The basic notion is quite intuitive: learning can be more powerful if combined with action and fun. It seems that children are right after all. When thinking of gaming one should bare in mind George Crabbe’s famous words: the game is never lost until it’s won!
Argyris, C., Learning and teaching: a theory of action perspective, Journal of management education (February 1997, pp.9-26)
De Caluwé, L., Geurts, J., Buis, D. Stoppelenburg, A., Gaming: Organisatieverandering met spelsimulaties (1996 [in Dutch])
Duke, R.D., A paradigm for game design, Simulation and Games II (1980, pp.364-377)
Elgood, C., Handbook of management games and simulations (6th edition, 1997)
Lewin, K., Field theory in social science (1951)
Pedler, M., Action Learning for managers (Lemos & Crane, 1996)
Noam Shalgi, MSc, is a senior consultant at CIBIT, The Netherlands, www.cibit.com. Noam would be glad to receive your comments relating to this article or to answer possible question. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Some of my favourite books, if you want to read more about...
Argyris, C., Knowledge for Action – A Guide to Overcoming Barriers to Organisational Change (1993)
Argyris, C., On Organisational Learning (1992)
Argyris, C., Overcoming Organisational Defences (1990)
Argyris, C., Schön, D.A., Organisational Learning: a Theory of Action Perspective (1978)
Senge, P.M., The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (1990)
Pedler, M., Action Learning for Managers (1996)
Pedler, M., Action Learning in Practice (1997)
Revans, R.W., The ABC of Action Learning (1978)
Weinstein, K., Action Learning (1995)
De Caluwé, L., Geurts, J., Buis, D. Stoppelenburg, A., Gaming: Organisatieverandering met spelsimulaties (1996 [in Dutch])
Elgood, C., Handbook of Management Games and Simulations (6th edition, 1997)
Kaagan, S.S., Leadership Games – Experiential Learning for Organisational Development (1999)
Newstrom, J., Scannell, E., The Big Book of Business Games (1995)
Nilson, C., Team Games for Trainers (1993)
Nilson, C., More Team Games for Trainers (1997)