Management Through the Looking Glass

With the rapid introduction of new technologies and information systems, the world of many managers is becoming increasingly unnatural. More and more, it is becoming possible to 'fit' together real life with computer-based systems. Marion Devine looks at a new form of computer-simulated learning.
Artificial intelligence is becoming an increasingly valid way of tackling organisational problems, but so far this has only taken the form of small, restricted expert systems. Now, a training tool called AROUSAL binds the worlds of reality and computer even closer, and signals a revolutionary new direction for management development.
  AROUSAL stands for 'a real organisation unit simulated as life'. The system is a highly sophisticated model of a medium sized organisation. It has a number of applications, ranging from aiding succession planning by identifying future leaders, to helping managers to adapt to change and to come to understand the strategic and organisational implications of decision making.
  In its present form, AROUSAL is centred on the construction industry, but it is capable of adaptation to a wide range of businesses and industrial setting. In the last four years, nearly 1000 managers have used AROUSAL and an executive development programme is now held  regularly at Stanford University, USA. This new training approach originated with Peter Lansley, formerly a researcher at Ashridge Management School and now a reader in the construction management department at Reading University.

Games, gimmicks and theory
Lansley attempted to develop a form of training which dealt with the issue of rapid change, which causes managers and specialist staff to feel confused about their roles and decision-making ability. He also aimed to help people adopt new approaches to work and cope with mass information.
  He based his simulated model on the learning methods most popular with managers. 'Managers dislike games, gimmicks, lectures and theory. They prefer involvement and participation in a realistic context, active rather than passive learning, diagnosing problems and finding solutions.'
  Although simulated training exercises exist in areas such as marketing and decision making, Lansley developed these techniques one stage further by simulating a medium sized contracting company.

'I have tried to take the world of the manager and, through simulation, expand it by giving him or her opportunities to learn and use new skills', he commented.  Too often, managers are technically very competent but less strong in organisational and managerial issues. ‘Through taking the reins of a business, new horizons appear and their understanding of their industry widens slowly'. This has proved particularly helpful to managers who have come up through a single function or discipline.
  General and middle managers are not the only ones to benefit. 'As you see your actions fitting together and working, you become more and more involved', says the managing director of a small company recently taken over by a large group. The director was sent on the course to help him break out of his specialist field, to form good working relationships with the directors of the other subsidiaries, and to learn about the group's style of management and corporate identity.

Too close for comfort
Experience has shown the danger of making the model too close to reality for comfort. Lansley now tries to create a working environment closely related to, yet still removed from, the actual work situation. Trainees are therefore prevented from feeling too inhibited, or feeling that they are 'on trial' for promotion to leadership positions.
  Reading University runs courses all year. As an introduction, participants watch a video of a Portsmouth construction company (a real example is used). The scene is set as the directors of the company speak candidly about themselves, their colleagues and some of the organisation's problems. Trainees divide into teams of four and begin to formulate strategies for the company's medium term future. After discussion about strategic planning and teamwork, the teams choose board positions and take the reins of the company.

 Learning to work in a team is often a particularly crucial lesson. Many managers discover for the first time that they need to have a proper team behind them. Tackling a problem with managers from widely differing technical backgrounds both increases a trainee's knowledge and demonstrates the value of a multi-disciplined approach to business.

Dealing direct
One section of the databank contains information about potential contractor deals. The directors have to tender for business and decide whether they should expand into new markets. To help them, the results of similar bids in the past and the current market rates are stored. Lists of standard markets are also stored. 'When they examine their market focus, they often have to overcome their own prejudices and analyse market trends instead,' Lansley comments.
  Not everything that happens in an organisation can be represented statistically. Informal information networks are just as important as formal ones, so the databank simulates rumours about problems with work projects and gossip about the performance of staff.
  The rest of industry has been slow to wake up to the unique advantages that this type of training offers. One reason is that training managers find the idea that an organisation can be encapsulated in this way both challenging and disturbing. Attitudes are changing, albeit gradually, and Lansley is currently involved in building new data bases to apply the system to other industries. But there is a limit to what one man can achieve. Lansley recognises that if this form of training is to take off, organisations have to supply him with data for the system and staff for him to train. If companies genuinely want to help their managers adapt to change, they have to be willing to try new methods themselves.

Marion Devine is Co-editor of Businesswoman and an established management journalist

Scanned from:  Manpower Policy and Practice, Winter 1986

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