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Voted Off The Island At Berkeley Haas

John Sterman of MIT Sloan. Courtesy photo

John Sterman of MIT Sloan. Courtesy photo

“For my money, there’s no substitute for being physically next to the other people on your team,” believes John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “That interpersonal interaction, looking someone straight in the eye and saying, ‘You’re the problem, you’re the reason we’re going to lose here,’ is enormously valuable.”

Sterman has run the Beer Game, which actually has little to do with the carbonated hoppy beverage it’s named after, every year for the past 27 years at the end of Sloan’s week-long orientation for first-year MBAs. This past August, 450 freshly minted MBA candidates and 50 facilitators overflowed the main ballroom at the Marriott next to Sloan’s campus. And for the past nearly three decades, Sterman says the Beer Game is often what alums remember.

“I gotta tell you, students have been very kind to me over the years with teaching awards,” Sterman says. “But no alum of the school ever calls me up and says, ‘You know, that lecture you gave on phase and gain and complex nonlinear dynamic systems really changed my life and I’d like you to come to my company and give that lecture.’ But all the time people say, ‘You know, that beer game made a huge impression on me, can you come and run it with my CEO and other directors?'”

WHY THE BEER GAME IS TIMELESS

The reason Sterman still plays the board game version of the Beer Game, in a highly digital age, is the deeper impact of the game. “It’s not about inventory management or supply chain management,” Sterman explains, also noting the game has been played for nearly 60 years as a board game. “Although it has many important insights about those issues, that’s really not what it’s about. It’s much deeper. It’s about the role of complex problems in shifting our behavior. It’s an introduction into systems thinking.”

Another reason to run the board game Sterman insists, is, “people don’t learn by being told, people learn when they discover things themselves.”

FILLING AN EDUCATIONAL GAP

For a while now, gaming has filled a teaching hole. Being able to simulate rather than actually experiment allows students to learn valuable lessons that otherwise would most likely be left off. “Experiential action learning is how people learn, but when that’s not possible, you use simulation,” Sterman explains. “And I’d say that’s been a pretty important element of the pedagogical philosophy at MIT Sloan for a very, very long time.”

The reason? Students can practice fixing large-scale, complex problems, without causing some sort of large-scale, complex catastrophe.

“We destroyed our simulated planet Earth, but we can hit reset and try some different techniques,” Sterman says about teaching sustainability and climate change. “Or, we bankrupted our startup a year or two in, but we can hit reset and see what we did wrong.”

A SLEW OF SLOAN SIMULATIONS

Through its Learning Edge program, Sloan deploys a slew of computer-based simulations aimed at solving various business and social problems. It’s open to the public, so anyone with Internet access can play the six different simulations in four different languages.

“Fishbanks,” a renewable resource management simulation, is the most popular. Offered in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Mandarin, the game has been run more than 165,000 times since it was launched about two years ago. It’s also run each semester in all of Sterman’s sustainability courses at Sloan. “Everybody wipes out the fish almost every time, even if they know to self-regulate,” Sterman says of the simulation which is based on a fishing business. “Teams agree to regulating fleet sizes and catch amounts. And then one team goes out and builds a bigger fleet and defects from the coalition.”

Then, Sterman says, people often get mad.

“One of the things about a simulation is it activates you cognitively so you’re learning, but it also activates you emotionally so you’re feeling,” he explains. “And that matters a lot.”

Sterman has nearly seen it all. Booing, hissing, shouting, “People scream, they shout, they get real-life–not acting–upset with their teammates and colleagues.”People get angry. On one occasion we had people nearly come to blows. They’ve stomped out of the sessions. And that is enormously important.”