PICTURE a small room with four directors slumped around a table, engrossed in an argument about which contract to tender for, until the small hours of the morning.
  The room is empty except for a small, compact computer in the corner which the managers refer to occasionaly. Normal? Not quite. All their efforts are for a company which does not exist and they are not directors, but managers, surveyors, accountants and civil engineers. Is their behaviour the result of an overdose of stress and hard work.
  These managers are, in fact, on a course using a training tool called AROUSAL. If you think this type of training sounds different, it isóbut perhaps not in the way that you're thinking! The provocative name stands for "A Real Organisation Unit Simulated As Life", a computer-based package which models as closely as possible the working of a medium sized contracting company in poor financial shape.
  For two and a half days, the participants experience all the challenges and pressures of running the business. They have access to a databank containing detailed information about the imaginary company, including analysis of its financial performance, use of manpower and reports about potential contractor deals. Working in teams of four, they make key decisions for each simulated quarterly cycle of the company. At the end of each quarter, their decisions are fed into the databank and they quickly discover whether they have led the business into disaster or profit.
  When I first arrived on the course, I was almost shocked by the detail of the simulated model and a little apprehensive of how I was going to sort it all out," comments Bryn Hughes, general manager of The Buttermere and Westmorland Green Slate Company. "lt did feel as though we were running a company and, very soon, all the teams wanted to make the most profit. Competitive feelings became intense. We became so involved that we were all on a high and forgot about time. We worked through the night and got through a phenomenal amount of work."
  This innovative approach to training originated with Peter Lansley, a construction management specialist and a reader in the Construction department at Reading University. Lansley was aware that managers have clear likes and dislikes about training. Often, they enjoy diagnosing business problems and finding solutions in a training situation closely related to their own working situation. The more realistic the situation, the more easily and quickly they apply the training. Although there are training exercises in areas such as marketing and decision making, Lansley decided to go one step further. He simulated an actual medium sized contracting company based in Plymouth to assist people to develop a wide range of management skills. It would also capture the imaginations of managers and give them a taste of what it is really like in the boardroom. 
  For many of the teams, the taste is intoxicating; "As you see your actions fitting together and working, you become more and more involved. When you manage to turn the company around, you set your sights on how much money you can make and how quickly," says Charlie Monks, managing director of Whatlings' Homes division. Lansley recalls that during one course, enthusiasm ran so high that one team kept him up until 5am. Two hours later, he was woken by another team anxious to start the day's work. "We take the world of the manager and, through simulation, expand it by giving him or her opportunities to learn and use new skills. We often find that managers are technically very competent but less strong in organisational and managerial issues. By taking the reins of a business, new horizons appear and their understanding of the construction industry widens," he comments. Simulating a model of a Group, such as Alfred McAlpine, would be too close to reality for comfort. Working in an environment related to, yet removed from, work stimulates managers but does not inhibit them. "lf you know that none of the people you are working with is your boss, and that the people on your team are your equals, you feel that much freer to work better," comments an Alfred McAlpine manager.
  Three years ago, Group Services director Gordon Beaumont became interested in Lansley's work. His instant enthusiasm and support for AROUSAL led to Alfred McAlpine sending people on the course every year. Now Alfred McAlpine and John Laing are at the leading edge of support for this method of training, although in the last few months the rest of industry has started to wake up to the unique advantages that AROUSAL offers. So far, Alfred McAlpine has sent a total of 50 people, usually in groups of 16, on courses run twice every year, organised by Group Training.
  "AROUSAL is a tremendous method of getting people of all disciplines to take a wider view of management, which we can use across the whole group ' says Gordon Beaumont. "The experience of closely working with colleagues in a team is a particularly valuable way of helping managers to learn more about themselves and to look beyond their own field of specialisation."
 The advantage of bringing people from all over Britain to work closely together is something which he rates highly. It is a unique opportunity to quickly forge strong working links between different sections of the company and improve the sense of corporate identity. The training course gives the managers of newly bought subsidiaries a good grasp of how Alfred McAlpine works and the style of its management. As an introduction, participants first watch a video of the Plymouth company (a real example is used). The scene is set as the directors of the company speak candidly about themselves, their colleagues, the structure of the organisation and some of the problems. Participants divide into teams of four and begin to think strategically by discussing future goals for the company. They develop and present a business plan. A short session on strategic planning and teamwork follows, then the teams assign board positions to each other and take full control of the company.
  Throughout the two and a half days, a behavioural psychologist observes the way individuals behave and gives advice about how to improve interpersonal skills. "She pointed out things my mother should have pointed out years ago," says one manager, who found the exercise both painful and helpful.
  One section of the databank contains information about potential contractor deals. The directors have to deal with issues such as which project to tender for and whether the company should branch into a new aspect of construction. They can look at the results of similar bids in the past, the success of past projects and the current market rates. Another section of the databank contains lists of standard markets and the teams have to decide where the strengths of the companies lie in order to allocate priorities. The teams have to examine and often change their market focus. They have to overcome their own prejudices and analyse market trends," comments Lansley. Restructuring the organisation is another way of improving the company's performance. Directors can look at data about job descriptions, the number of projects which each individual is involved with and their performance ratings.
   It is a valuable exercise to help trainees think of the organisation as a functioning whole and to take a more questioning attitude to the way things are done. In the simulation they can hire new staff - the databank contains over 2000 curriculum vitae - details of education work and personal background from which to choose. Not everything that happens in an organisation can be tabulated. AROUSAL takes this into account by simulating rumours about problems with work projects and gossip about the performance and motivation of staff. Trainees may hear that a surveyor is overworked and that his or her performance is dropping. If they choose to take no action, they may well find that they need to hire a new surveyor when their decisions are programmed in at the end of the quarterly cycle.
  Charlie Monks went on the course last year before he took up his new position as managing director of Whatlings' Homes. "l was very apprehensive about the course and slow to become involved. At first I thought it was some sort of test to see how well we worked in a team and that we were all on trial. I realised afterwards that it was simply a genuine effort to help us improve in our jobs."
  Monks felt he benefitted particularly from learning to work in a team, a lesson crucially important now that he is managing director. "I discovered that you can't do everything yourself; you have to have a proper team behind you. Working with people from very different technical backgrounds taught me a lot about the business as a whole. When we dealt with problems, we soon found that each person had something unique to contribute by raising an issue which no one else had considered."
  Unlike most business games, which are geared towards problems on a single level, the sophisticated nature of AROUSAL gives managers a sense of the full complexity of running a business. Most refreshingly, even though it is hard work, it never stops being enjoyable for participants and organisers alike.

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