posted 2 Apr 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 7
Unleashing the power of metaphor in business games
In the process of knowledge creation and learning, business games and simulations offer an effective means of ensuring employees are actively engaged. In turn, and as John Castledine explains, metaphor is a powerful and cost-effective tool for promoting a deep understanding of the key issues involved.
Games and simulations make it possible to communicate, illustrate and experience complex relationships, both implicit cause-and-effect models of behaviour and explicit business models that drive corporations. These range from simple card games to large-scale military manoeuvres. The use of games and simulations to metaphorically model important relationships is broadly understood. What is often overlooked is the potential for inviting players to discuss the assumptions about success that such games embody and for using these insights to develop a better model and appropriate guiding principles.
KM, business strategy and the learning organisation
“In times of change the learner shall inherit the earth while the learned will be equipped for a world that no longer exists.” James Thurber, humorist.
In my experience, a fundamental metaphor for KM practitioners is one that relates the value of knowledge to that of fruit. As with the quotation above, this provides a focus on the implications (and opportunities) related to the ever-changing business environment. Fruit has a shelf life, or more accurately there is a window of time during which it is best eaten. This period for consumption depends on many factors, including: the type of fruit; the environment in which it resides; the timing of the consumer’s hunger and the processes taken to prevent it decaying. Knowing these properties allow those involved in the supply chain to develop strategies to better manage their assets – for example, adopting a strategy of harvesting partially ripe fruit in the knowledge that it will continue to ripen during the time it takes to distribute it to the consumer. In KM terms, this aligns with the emerging role of corporate universities, positioned to mobilise business strategies in a timely manner by their integration into (or close alignment with) strategy development.
Guidance on how to formulate business strategy can be found in many sources. Equally, this can be distilled down into a simple model of aligning internal organisational capabilities and resources with knowledge of the external environment(s) in which the organisation operates.[1,2,3] A crucial point is that KM practitioners in commercial organisations need to avoid thinking of managing knowledge as a business strategy in its own right. Developing a classification system for citrus fruit may, in isolation, have academic value. Developing a classification system that helps guide your purchasing or divide up your current stock to better exploit the potential ROI makes a more compelling business approach. Similarly, it is helpful to define KM as “the deliberate management of knowledge to deliver specific outcomes”.
There is widespread recognition that only a small percentage of business strategies effectively formulated are effectively executed. Focusing on education provides one KM-centred approach to address this challenge, and concepts such as the ‘learning organisation’ will be familiar to many. In-house training groups (especially corporate universities) have emerged with the aim of promoting an integrated approach to developing the human capital of an organisation to achieve business goals. Typically this is achieved through a mix of focusing on helping the organisation achieve business goals, and ensuring that there are talented people with the right skills to execute the business plan.
A commonly cited phrase in KM literature is ‘I wish we knew what we know’. This conveys the challenge (or frustration) that faces organisations, especially large companies, in promoting the transfer of knowledge between staff. For those involved in training, this translates to being able to locate internal experts with learnings and insights that, when shared, will help build internal capabilities in support of business strategies.
To be truly effective, these internal experts need to be supported by KM/training professionals. Given the potential for information overload in the modern business environment, there is a need to target education towards a ‘practitioner’ audience. Equally, in many situations there is also a need to understand how the alumni will be supported to keep their knowledge updated. As such, the real challenge is better stated as ‘I wish we knew and applied what we know and continue to learn’.
This thinking can be consolidated in a framework that reflects the need to relate organisational learning to business strategy. The knowledge needs of an organisation are driven by the internal and external environments in which it operates, both for application now and to build additional knowledge assets for the future.
Figure 1 – business strategy and the learning organisation: a strategic framework
In using this novel framework it is important to recognise that organisational learning is primarily about influencing behaviours. Expressed simply, everyone is different. For global organisations, reference can be made to scholarship on broad-based cultural differences (eg, Hofstede). Focusing on the individual, Kolb’s learning cycle is a helpful reminder for all organisations that staff learn in different ways (as well as for different reasons).
Figure 2 – the learning cycle
For the KM/training professional, there is the need to balance the efficiencies of one size fits all with the effectiveness of audience segmentation and the supply of bespoke materials. From our experience within Pfizer, this can be successfully achieved by creating a combination of ‘core’ and ‘tailored’ materials associated with individual subjects. The core materials ensure that colleagues throughout the world will be able to share the same high-level understanding of each topic, building a common language for future problem solving and learnings debriefs. The tailored materials, contributed to and adapted by locally based educators, provide the scope to reinforce core knowledge and expand the detailed information in ways best suited for the local audience.
Staff engagement through business games
Engaging staff is clearly of paramount importance. Business games are widely used in organisational learning to help achieve this.
“Tell me and I forget,
show me and I remember,
involve me and I learn.”
Adapted from a Chinese proverb.
In other words, communicating knowledge is not enough. If we want people to apply it, we must go further and create a context that parallels the situation in which it should be applied. Collaboration, critical thinking and the ongoing evaluation of what we need to know are part of day-to-day life, and are reproduced in situations where learning is active.
Business games can take various forms, but typically they fall into one or more of the following three categories:
- Case studies;
Quiz questions are used to test participants’ knowledge. Traditionally this approach is used to reinforce understanding of the information provided in presentations, written materials, case studies, simulations and via multi-media formats (eg, within e-learning packages). Quiz questions also provide a mechanism to identify and manage knowledge gaps. For example, within Pfizer, voting-button technology (similar to that on the television show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) is used during the annual series of lectures that provide an overview of the complex process of drug discovery and development. The instant feedback to our internal presenters helps identify whether the audience understands, or needs more information on, the key points being discussed. Quiz questions are also used in the form of pre-workshop diagnostics to help ensure appropriate attendance (eg, identifying any pre-requisite knowledge/experience; confirming that the education is timely for the individual/organisation; and/or checking whether the potential participant may already have the relevant skills/knowledge).
Case studies provide the opportunity to explore and compare different scenarios. Relating this to the Kolb model, they are particularly useful to help move learners from reflection to testing implications of specific concepts in new situations. For example, drug development requires skilled judgement based on balancing benefits (efficacy) and risk (potential side-effects). Hence each drug-development team must build up an understanding of the implications any new information will create for their unique project. The use of case studies, such as those comparing the implications for a cancer treatment versus one for baldness, can help to initiate these discussions.
Simulations offer the benefits of multiple rehearsals, rapidly cycling between concrete experience and formation/refinement of our mental models (abstract concepts and generalisations). This can save significant time and resource when compared with the alternative of on-the-job experience. Safety and environmental benefits can also result.
The KM/training professional can use case studies and/or simulations to influence the learning experience for participants, deliberately moving them between the four broad categories of learning style identified by Kolb. However, in both cases support is often required to help the participants make the connection back to the learning objectives. In my experience, the quality of pre-briefings to guide participants in their exploration of case-study data, and debriefings after simulations, will generally determine the overall success of the learning activity.
Figure 3a – the influence of case studies and simulations on the learning cycle: case studies
Figure 3b – the influence of case studies and simulations on the learning cycle: simulations
Exploiting the power of metaphor
Simulations often require the use of metaphor or analogy to enable the time/cost savings to be made. A board game with more than one path from start to finish provides the element of choice and can be an analogy of the situation being modelled. The path itself is often a metaphor for the relevant set of linked business activities.
Metaphor and analogy are also widely used in creative problem solving to drive innovation. Analogies may be further classified as: direct – a straight functional parallel; symbolic – impersonal but a literary parallel; fantasy; or personal – based on role-play. In all cases, analogies promote new ways of thinking by exploring both commonalities and differences from new perspectives. Metaphor promotes deeper understanding of issues by helping explore what we know but cannot easily tell or write down; in other words, helping to express ideas and knowledge that would be hard to articulate in other ways.
In KM the limitations of codifying knowledge are now widely understood. Although this tends to trigger thoughts of document repositories and yellow pages, educational materials should not be omitted from this list. The three ages of KM proposed by Snowden capture what most experienced KM practitioners would recognise as where we have been and where we are now. In this so-called ‘third age’, we are currently facing up to “knowledge as an ephemeral, active process of relating”, in particular recognising that “we know more than we can tell, and tell more than we can write down”.
Unfortunately, in the design and operation of business games the advantages of metaphor are, at best, under used, and more frequently resisted. Participants who try to break the ‘rules’ are often seen as troublemakers, rather than as powerful allies for the simulation designer and facilitator. If the simulation feels good, as judged by those experienced in the area (and it works well in practice), there is a high probability that attempting to explore beyond the constraints of the rules can add a further dimension to the learning process.
Exploiting the metaphor within the simulation allows different scenarios to be created and explored. This extends the use of simulations beyond multiple rehearsals. It also can build new understanding of the key success factors for the organisational business model. This is an area that is often difficult to address via other forms of business games.
Key questions to ask during a debrief are:
- What did you observe from playing the game according to the rules? Typically the game may be described as interesting, repetitive, requiring certain skills, requiring division of tasks, influenced by luck, and/or influenced by the number of players in a teams. This helps understand the motivations driving the subsequent ideas on rule changes;
- How, by changing the rules, could you improve the chance of being successful? First, this requires an understanding of what it means to be successful. If the simulation provides the element of competition between players or teams, is there a single goal (eg, first to the finish) or a balance to be made between several factors (eg, time to finish versus cost incurred versus products generated). Alternatively, is it actually possible for teams to help each other for mutual success?
It is interesting to obtain feedback on how closely the players followed the intended rules of the simulation game play. Maybe rules were not known, or deliberately not followed during the actual simulation. This can be a rich topic for discussion. How often do we get all the information we need ahead of entering into a particular piece of work? Often we only start to appreciate what we don’t know that we don’t know when fully immersed in an activity.
The scope for rule breaking is vast and the ideas surfaced are likely to open up the subsequent debrief to topics that would otherwise go unmentioned by the internal experts and facilitator. Even if the ideas don’t lead to new insights for the organisation as a whole, it ensures that the feedback session is a true dialogue with the participants – engaging the individuals who contribute the ideas and providing the opportunity to project the insights into multiple scenarios. In my experience, it can be helpful to use other problem-solving techniques, such as creative silence and brainstorming, to help engage participants and manage the idea-generation phase. (Nb, if time permits, it may be worthwhile re-running the simulations, modified by some of the new rules.)
- How could this relate back to our organisation? This question should not be left to the internal experts alone, but it can take experience to ensure this vital component is adequately addressed as part of the simulation debrief. Provide the scope to open up the topic being examined by exploring the metaphor. It is also important to focus on a few key messages in a closing summary.
An engaging learning experience
Few business games help build new understanding of key success factors for organisations. Simulations (board games and computer based) that work well often involve the use of metaphor to avoid the costs and/or time that would be involved by gaining similar information from on-the-job experience. These metaphors can provide the mechanism to build new understanding of success factors, and at very least provide the opportunity to explore different scenarios. Moreover, positioning this activity as ‘breaking the rules’ shifts the balance of control away from the designer/facilitator and towards the learner, helping promote better engagement in the learning process.
1. Ansoff, H.I., Corporate Strategy (McGraw-Hill, 1965)
2. Kay, J., Foundations of Corporate Success (Oxford University Press, 1993)
3. Grant, R.M., Contemporary Strategy Analysis: Concepts, Techniques, Applications (3rd edition, Blackwell, 1995)
4. Newman, V., The Knowledge Activist’s Handbook (Capstone Publishing Limited, 2002)
5. Senge, P.M., The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation (Doubleday, 1992)
6. Hofstede, G., Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values (Sage Publications, 1980)
7. Kolb, D., Experiential Learning (Prentice-Hall, 1984)
8. Newman, V., ‘The rules of engagement – driving innovation’ in Strategic HR Review (Volume 2, Issue 2, January/February 2003)
9. Gordon, W.J.J., Synetics (Harper & Row, 1961)
10. Snowden, D., ‘Complex acts of knowing: Paradox and descriptive self-awareness’ in the Journal of Knowledge Management (MCB, May, 2002)
John B. Castledine works in the Pfizer Research University, Pfizer Global Research & Development. He can be contacted at email@example.com