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Learning Through Business Games - BUSINESS GAMES: A NEW LEARNING TOOL, THE INFLUENCE OF GROUP DYNAMICS, Communication, Balance of Contributions

simulation computer process impact

Luigi Proserpio
Bocconi University, Italy

Massimo Magni
Bocconi University, Italy


Managerial business games, defined as interactive computer-based simulations for managerial education, can be considered as a relatively new tool for adults’ learning. If compared with paper-based case histories, they could be less consolidated in terms of design methodologies, usage suggestions, and results measurement.

Due to the growing interest around Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), we are facing a positive trend in the adoption of business games for undergraduate and graduate education. This process can be traced back to two main factors. On the one hand, there is an increasing request for non-traditional education, side by side with an educational model based on class teaching (Alavi & Leidner, 2002). On the other hand, the rapid development of information technologies has made available specific technologies built around learning development needs (Webster & Hackley, 1997). Despite the increased interest generated by business games, many calls have still to be addressed on the design and utilization side. This contribution describes two fundamental aspects related with business games in graduate and undergraduate education: group dynamics (as current business games are almost in all instances played in groups) and human-computer interaction.

Figure 1 represents the variables that could influence individual learning in a business game context.


It is widely accepted that a positive climate among subjects is fundamental to enhance the productivity of the learning process (Alavi, Wheeler, & Valacich, 1995). This is why group dynamics are believed to have a strong impact on learning within a team based context. A clear explanation of group dynamics impact on performance and learning is well developed in the teamwork quality construct (TWQ) (Hoegl & Gemuenden, 2001). Group relational dynamics are even more important when the group is asked to solve tasks requiring information exchange and social interaction (Gladstein, 1984), such as a business game. In fact, the impact of social relations is deeper when the task is complex and characterized by sequential or reciprocal interdependencies among members.

With reference to TWQ, it is possible to point out different group dynamics variables with a strong influence on individual learning in a business game environment: communication, coordination, balance of contributions, and mutual support. Instructors and business games designers should carefully consider the following variables, in order to maximize learning outcomes.

Hereafter, focusing on a business game setting, we will discuss each of these concepts and their relative impact on individual learning.


In order to develop effective group decision processes, information exchange among members should also be effective. In fact, communication is the way by which members exchange information (Pinto & Pinto, 1990), and smooth group functioning depends on communication easiness and efficacy among members (Shaw, 1981).

Moreover, individuals should be granted an environment where communication is open. A lack of openness should negatively influence the integration of knowledge and group members’ experiences (Gladstein, 1984; Pinto & Pinto, 1990). These statements are confirmed by several empirical studies, showing direct and strong correlation between communication and group performance (Griffin & Hauser, 1992). According to Kolb’s experiential learning theory, in a learning setting based on experiential methods (i.e., business game), it is important to provide the classroom with an in-depth debriefing in order to better understand the link between the simulation and the related theoretical assumption.

For these reason, groups with good communication dynamics tend to adopt a more participative behavior during the debriefing session, with higher quality observations. As a consequence, there is a process improvement in the acquisition, generation, analysis and elaboration of information among members (Proserpio & Magni, 2004).

Balance of Contributions

It can be defined as the level of participation of each member in the group decision process. Each member, during the decision process, brings to the group a set of knowledge and experiences that allows the group to develop a cognitive advantage over individual decision process. Thus, it is necessary that each member brings his/her contributions to the group (Seers, Petty, & Cashman, 1995) in order to improve performance, learning and satisfaction of team members (Seers, 1989). A business game setting requires a good planning and implementation of strategies in order to better face the action-reaction process with the computer. For this reason, a balanced contribution among members favors the cross fertilization and the development of effective game strategies.


A group could be seen as a complex entity integrating the various competencies required to solve a complex task. For this reason, a good balance of members’ contribution is a necessary condition, although not sufficient. The expression of the group cognitive advantage is strictly tied to the harmony and synchronicity of members’ contribution, that is, the degree according to which they coordinate their individual activities (Tannenbaum, Beard, & Salas, 1992).

As for communication, individuals belonging to groups with a better coordination level show better interventions in the debriefing phases. They also offer good hints to deepen the topics included in the simulation, playing as an intellectual stimulus for each other.

Mutual Support

It can be defined as the emergence of cooperative and mutually supporting behaviors, which lead to better team effectiveness (Tjosvold, 1984). In contrast, it is important to underline that competitive behaviors within a team determine distrust and frustration.

Mutual support among participants in a business game environment could be seen as an interference between the single user and the simulation: every discussion among users on simulation interpretation distracts participants from the ongoing simulation. This is why the emergence of cooperative behaviors does not univocally lead to more effective learning processes. These relations lower users’ concentration and result in obstacles in the goal achievement path. Moreover, during a business game, users play in a time pressure setting, which brings to a drop in the effectiveness of the decision process. All these issues, according to group effectiveness theories, help to understand how mutual support in a computer simulation environment could show a controversial impact on individual learning (Proserpio & Magni, 2004).


Business games are often described as proficient learning tools. Despite the potentiality, as stressed by Eggleston and Janson (1997), there is the need for an in-depth analysis of the relationship between user and computer. On the design side, naïve business games (not designed by professionals) can hinder the global performance of a simulation and bring to negative effects on the learning side. For these reason, technological facets are considered as a fundamental issue for a proficient relationship between user and computer in order to improve learning process effectiveness (Alavi & Leidner, 2002; Leidner & Jarvenpaa, 1995).

Propensity to PC Usage

Attitude toward PC usage can be defined as the user’s overall affective reaction when using a PC (Venkatesh et al., 2003). Propensity to PC usage can be traced back to the concepts of pleasure, joy, interest associated with technology usage (Compeau, Higgins, & Huff, 1999). It is consistent to think that users’ attitude towards computer use could influence their use involvement, increasing or decreasing the impact of simulation on learning process.

From another standpoint, more related to HCI theories, computer attitude is tied to the simulation easiness of use. It is possible to argue that a simple simulation does not require strong computer attitude to enhance the leaning process. On the contrary, a complex simulation could worsen individual learning, because the cognitive effort of the participant can be deviated from the underlying theories to a cumbersome interface.

Propensity to Business Game Usage

This construct can be defined as the cognitive and affective elements that bring the user to assume positive/negative behaviors toward a business game. In fact, in these situations, users can develop feelings of joy, elation, pleasure, depression, or displeasure, which have an impact on the effectiveness of their learning process (Taylor & Todd 1995). Consistently with Kolb’s theory (Kolb, 1984) on individual different learning styles, propensity to simulations could represent a very powerful element to explain individual learning.

Simulation Context

The simulation context can be traced back to the role assumed by individuals during the simulation. In particular, it is referred to the role of participants, teacher and their relationship. Theory and practice point out that business games have to be self-explaining. In other words, the intervention of other users or the explanations of a teacher to clarify simulation dynamics have to be limited. Otherwise, the user’s effort to understand the technical and interface features of the simulation could have a negative influence on learning objectives (Whicker & Sigelman, 1991). Comparing this situation with a traditional paper-based case study, it is possible to argue that good instructions and quick suggestions during a paper-based case history analysis can help in generating users’ commitment and learning. On the contrary, in a business game setting, a self explanatory simulation could bring users to consider the intervention of the teacher as an interruption rather than a suggestion. Thus, simulations have often an impact on the learning process through the reception step (Alavi & Leidner, 2002), meaning that teacher’s or other members’ intervention hinder participants to understand incoming information.

Technical Interface

Technical interface can be defined as the way in which information is presented on the screen (Lindgaard, 1994). In a business game, the interface concept is also related to the interactivity facet (Webster & Hackley, 1997). Several studies have pointed out the influence of technical interface on user performance and learning (Jarvenpaa, 1989; Todd & Benbasat, 1991). During the business game design, it is important to pay attention to the technical interface. It is essential that the interface captures user attention, thereby increasing the level of participation and involvement. According to the above mentioned studies, it is possible to argue that an attractive interface could represent one of the main variables that influence the learning process in a business game setting.

Face Validity

Face validity defines the coherence of simulation behaviors in relation with the user’s expectancies on perceived realism. It is also possible to point out that the perceived soundness of the simulation is a primary concept concerning the users’ learning (Whicker & Sigelman, 1991). The simulation cannot react randomly to the user’s stimulus, but it should recreate a certain logic path which starts from player action and finishes with the simulation reaction. It is consistent with HCI and learning theories, to argue that an effective business game has to be designed to allow users to recognize a strong coherence among simulation reactions, their actions, and their behavior expectancies.


The main aspect that has to be considered when designing a business game is the ability of the simulation to create a safe test bed to learn management practices and concepts. It is fundamental that users are allowed to experiment behaviors related to theoretical concepts without any real risk. This issue, together with aspects of fun and the creation of a group collaboration context, could be useful to significantly improve the learning level.

Thus, a good simulation is based on homomorphic assumptions. Starting from the existence of a reality with n characteristics, homomorphism is the ability to choose m (with n>m ) characteristics of this reality in order to reduce its complexity without losing too much relevant information. For example, in a F1 simulation game, racing cars can have a different behavior on a wet or dry circuit, but they cannot have a different behavior among wet, very wet, or almost wet.

In order to minimize the negative impact on learning processes, it is important that characteristics not included in the simulation should not impact too much on the simulation realism.


Several studies have shown the importance of involvement and participation in the fields of standard face-to-face education and in distance learning environments (Webster & Hackley, 1997). This research note extends the validity of previous statements to the business game field.

The discussion above allows us to point out a relevant impact on learning of two types of variables, while using a business game: group dynamics and human-computer interaction.

From previous researches, it is possible to argue that the “game” dimension captures a strong part of participants’ cognitive energies (Proserpio & Magni, 2004). The simulation should be designed in a fashion as interactive as possible. Moreover, instructors should take into account that their role is to facilitate the simulation flow, leaving the game responsibility to transmit experiences on theories and their effects.

This is possible if the simulation is easy enough to understand and use. In this case, despite the fact that the simulation is computer based, there is not the emergence of a strong need for computer proficiency. This conclusion is consistent with other researches which showed the impact of the easiness of use on individual performance and learning (Delone & McLean, 1992).

The relationship between user and machine is mediated by the interface designed for the simulation, which represents a very powerful variable to explain and favor the learning process with these high involvement learning tools.

Computer simulations seem to have their major strength in the computer interaction, which ought to be the main focus in the design phase of the game. Interaction among groups’ members is still important, but less relevant than the interface on individual learning.

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