Western Companies Show Asian Counterparts That It Pays to Play

Asian companies are learning how “playing business” can help managers become better at the real thing.

Taking a cue from Western executive education, Asian companies are learning how “playing business” can help managers become better at the real thing.

As Western companies explode onto the Asian business landscape, they’re bringing with them a distinctly Western style of executive education: the business simulation. An experiential learning tool, business simulations provide managers with the opportunity to practice how they would deal with real-world business situations within the safety of the classroom.

Unlike the traditional educational model, in which the professor creates the learning through lecture, simulations let students create the learning through role-playing and interaction with one another.

“Experiential learning has a lot in common with on-the-job training, but it takes action-based learning to another level,” said Chris Musselwhite, Ed.D., an experiential learning expert and president and CEO of Discovery Learning Inc. “By allowing employees to practice new skills and behaviors without fear of failure or risk to the company, simulations provide managers with priceless ‘aha!’ moments that translate into rapid and sustainable change in future behavior.”

Musselwhite recently facilitated simulations for international M.B.A. students at The Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. Demographically, the students represented Thailand, India, Myanmar, Mongolia, Malaysia, South Korea, China, Japan and the United States. Industries represented included financial, industrial, government and military.

Invited to the university as part of an effort to introduce students to cutting-edge management and leadership-development techniques, Musselwhite administered two assessments, Change Style Indicator and Discovery Leadership Profile, and facilitated two experiential learning simulations, Paper Planes Inc. and Press Time.

“Cultural differences make the process of working together look very different to Asian and Western professionals,” Musselwhite explained. “Simulations allow students to address cultural barriers that can surface when teams are required to work collaboratively.”

Research proves that concepts learned through discovery are quickly transferred from theory into action. Firms and consultants responsible for executive education all over Asia are recognizing the benefits of this effective learning method, as evidenced by the increase in the use of simulations outside of Japan as well.

According to Musselwhite, the biggest advantage of simulations comes from the role-playing and interaction required by this hands-on learning method and the opportunity to discuss the interaction immediately afterwards.

“The same behavior can be interpreted very differently based on cultural perspective,” Musselwhite said. “The interaction and role-play required in a simulation make cultural differences very easy to see, and the classroom setting provides a more acceptable environment in which to openly examine and address them.”

One such difference became very clear for the Hitotsubashi students during the Press Time simulation. Even after coming up with several solutions, the Asian students would always defer to the oldest person or to the specified leader of the group when it came time to make a final decision.

“While viewed as respectful among Asian managers, this was viewed negatively by Western managers who saw their Asian counterparts as either not having strong opinions or not having the conviction to stand up for their opinions,” Musselwhite said. “The revelation provided by the simulation clearly showed the students how cultural differences can impact the quality of collaborative problem solving and decision making, and the simulation setting allowed it to be discussed without disrespecting either culture.”

Musselwhite believes that experiential learning can provide a fast track to the valuable understanding that managers from different cultures need to improve collaboration and decision making when working with a global workforce.