Learning Through Crying: Overcoming the Reality Gap in Management Strategy Education through Active Learning via a Complex Geo-Political Simulation

Jonathan Fanning, York Management School, University of York


The public image of a no-nothing consultant who enters companies and offers very
little useful help has a basis in reality. Many consultants and strategy educators do not have a firm grasp of the realities of “doing strategy” nor an understanding that the problems with strategy are not individual failings. These failings are caused by a lack of understanding of the economic theory of the declining rate of profit and the management models of technology as process and knowledge.

Having struggled for many years with the dichotomy of a course that is based on
research into the failings of management, specifically strategic management,
practice and education that was assessed by having students write the type of long and in depth report that is at the heart of the problem with many clearly emerging without a real understanding of the issues with strategy it was decided to make a dramatic change in approach.

Synthesis of these theories explains the basis of failing management education and consultancy and the development of an educational approach where students
actively compete in a simulation. Unusually for such a “game” it allows cooperation as well as competition and students are then assessed via reflection and negotiation with peers.

Students have voted with their feet, attendance is over 95% and approval ratings are above 90%.

Chairs Report

Workshop Panopto video recording (University of York login required)

Learning Through Crying: Overcoming the Reality Gap in Management Strategy Education through Active Learning via a Complex Geo-Political Simulation

In this session, Jonathan Fanning from The York Management School outlined changes that he made to his teaching based on tensions that emerged when delivering a Post Graduate curriculum of management strategies that he felt carried innate flaws. Jonathan drew upon a number of large-scale, real-world case studies to highlight these failings and started to question the validity of conveying these strategies through traditional, didactic teaching methods.

Learning through failure – and how to reflect upon it, can be considered to be an authentic learning mechanism. As such, Jonathan chose to adopt a scaffolded delivery approach of a group-work simulation game, which, through active learning and collaborative activities, challenged his learners to co-create, to transact, and – crucially, to work around the shortcomings of strategy by employing creative thinking.

The simulation drew upon the approaches of Sun Tzu and his seminal work the ‘Art of War’, with Jonathan making the observation that Sun Tzu was a great strategist because he was a great poet, and that creativity underpins effective strategy – something that is highlighted by the failings of overly-rigid planning frameworks. Another approach that Jonathan added to the simulation was a ‘Kobayashi Maru’ scenario – an ‘unwinnable’ situation that was designed to test how group relationships would be tested by the situation.

There be monsters’ real world issues for teaching conflict in strategy

Jonathan reported that engagement was very high – with almost perfect attendances throughout the course. Students worked in their groups both synchronously during class time and asynchronously using blended learning group tools – such a document sharing space and a blog within the Virtual Learning Environment. Groups were not forbidden from engaging with underhanded approaches – and some chose to ‘spy’ on other groups in order to gain advantages in negotiations. In some cases, this challenged individual resolve and group relationships, which, sometimes, resulted in tears and arguments.

Questions from the audience considered some of the typical caveats of group-based learning, such as ‘free riders’ and how to fairly manage a breakdown of interpersonal relationships between members. Another question focussed on the issue of inclusivity, and how such a collaborative activity could be tailored to support students who may be unable or be uncomfortable with intensive group work.

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