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Play to win: Work games can give a career power-up

By Susanne Gargiulo, for CNN
February 28, 2013 -- Updated 0810 GMT (1610 HKT)
It's not supposed to be fun, but you may become a better manager by playing training games.
It's not supposed to be fun, but you may become a better manager by playing training games.
  • Simulation games growing in popularity to train leaders
  • 'Gamification' of work can make better employees and companies, suggests expert
  • Games can result in better company performance, suggests executive trainers

(CNN) -- What should managers to do if their teams underperform and the bottom line is suffering? Playing games might not seem like the obvious response, but it could help leaders pull suffering companies out of the doldrums.

The games being advocated aren't of the Angry Birds or Solitaire variety but tailored, online simulation games.

"Games can be an amazing leadership tool," says Steffen Lofvall, senior consultant at Copenhagen Business School (CBS). "And there are quite a few studies documenting that you learn at a deeper level when you add the digital element," he says.

Simulation games at work are not new -- one of the earliest modern forms dates back to Russia in the 1930s when a war game was adapted for the business world. Yet today's variety add new levels of sophistication and often an online element to allow leaders to "play" with their decision making. "Winning" requires the use of leadership theory and management knowledge, which means players are learning and applying often complex material to real-life situations.

The goal is to accelerate learning, and the key to acceleration is to make it fun.
Daniel Burrus, technology forecaster

At CBS, there is a focus on expanding the use of games in their masters and executive programs. Currently twenty games are being used or have the potential to be used; some are virtual strategy games while others are simple board games like "The Leadership Casino", which challenges the leadership abilities of the students.

After the first semester of use the games resulted in an average class improvement of 14% and an 8% improvement in the perception of the leader, according to CBS.

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From Oxford to Harvard, other business schools and universities are incorporating learning through game-playing and companies are taking note.

In a study on the link between education and employment, global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, suggested that serious game simulations could become the apprenticeship of the 21st century. It says games and simulations can offer detailed, practical and real-world scenarios to large numbers at relatively low cost. "The future of hands-on learning may well be hands-off," the report notes.

This kind of virtual reality learning could soon be common for many more of us. According to market intelligence from Apply Group, up to 135 of global Fortune 500 companies will have adopted games for learning purposes by the end of 2020. Leading technology forecaster Daniel Burrus says it's time to take gaming to a whole new level and bring it into the office.

Games can be an amazing leadership tool and you learn at a deeper level when you add the digital element.
Steffen Lofvall, Copenhagen Business School

"The goal is to accelerate learning, and the key to acceleration is to make it fun, interactive, competitive, and self-diagnostic," he says, adding that we could see an explosion of programmers building interactive training systems.

"We will transform the way we train people by giving real-time access via their smartphone, tablet or laptop to this 'gamification' concept to heighten and speed up learning and training at all levels."

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Among those developing executive training games is Relation Technologies in Denmark. Leif Soerensen, the company's CEO, says that what gaming can do for a business is add efficiency and reduce complexity.

"Imagine what it will do for a company to be able to shorten the time it takes your sales force to understand a new product," he says. "Or to cut the time it takes to get employees on board with a new process or strategy, or bring the product development phase of a project from 2 years to 1.5 years."

Grundfos, a pump manufacturer operating in nearly 60 countries, used one of Relation Technologies' "Mindsetter" games at one of its factories.

"It was part of a larger strategy to streamline production," says Fabian Thorsager Scheffler of Grundfos.

"Each leader mapped out their particular part of the change, including stakeholders, the biggest challenges they were facing, and which leadership tools they could employ to move the process forward."

The result, according to Thorsager Scheffler, was that leaders felt far better prepared for the various phases of change, and were able to reflect better on the wider consequences of their decisions before they took them.

He also notes that the leaders who went through the simulations received higher scores from employees in terms of motivation and leadership.

In the future, Soerensen believes more companies will want their own games.

"Major companies like (shipping line) Maersk and (healthcare company) Novo Nordisk, they all have different theories of management and leadership styles. And they are likely to want to tailor programs to suit their particular style," he says.

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