In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Vijay Govindarajan and Anup Srivastava called for MBA programs in the US to update their curricula to meet the changing needs of corporations in today’s digital economy. As the economy shifts from ‘asset-heavy’ businesses such as General Motors and ExxonMobil to new ‘asset-light’ service providers like Google and Facebook, so too should the focus of business schools, they write in “MBA Programs Need an Update for the Digital Era.”

Lisa Yeo, UC Merced

One recommendation the authors (both professors at prominent business schools) make is the need for a breakdown of walls between departments. In a company like Facebook’s Meta, for example, they write that “marketing and strategy pervade across the company and are not the purview of a specific department.”

It is even more important, they note, to build 21st century skills such as creativity, strategic thinking, problem solving and dynamic decision making to prepare future managers to keep pace with the rapid transformations that characterize the digital marketplace.

Using Friday Night at the ER is an ideal way to introduce and practice all of these skills in a risk-free setting, and many business schools and management programs are already using the game as a foundational exercise for operations and management courses.

At the Ernest & Julio Management Program at the University of California, Merced, for example, customer Lisa Yeo uses Friday Night at the ER in an operations class to introduce management students to the complexities of managing a service. She leads a game session as an introductory activity in the first class, then uses the debrief to explain how the rest of the course will develop. If time permits at the end of the semester, she has the students play again to see if they are able to apply what they have learned.

We talked with Lisa recently about the unique challenges inherent in managing modern services and how Friday Night at the ER – a 30-year-old tabletop board game – can actually help prepare a new generation of business leaders for today’s rapidly changing digital economy.

Q:Lisa, as an assistant professor of management, what skills do you think are most important for today’s emerging business leaders?

I’m a big proponent of collaboration and the need to work together across the organization and with all stakeholders. This, combined with systems thinking, will serve today’s emerging business leaders.

Q:We know you are using Friday Night at the ER to help teach the complexities of managing a service. What are some of these complexities and how does the game illustrate these for your students?

I use Friday Night at the ER before I even discuss the syllabus for my class. It’s a fun way to ground the students in a common experience that I can later use to illustrate core concepts in class. They see how it is the interaction of decisions across different parts of the organization that lead to the end performance; that thinking in silos leads to worse overall performance.

Q:Assuming you were unable to use the game during the pandemic, what did you do instead to address these concepts? How did the two different approaches compare as teaching tools?

I used computer simulations to explore individual ideas like process design, flow, and queueing. While the simulations are nice, they isolate the experience to a single concept. Friday Night at the ER allows students to see how the entire system is connected, how decisions at one stage impact later stages of the service operation.

Q:Many of our customers say Friday Night at the ER uniquely teaches applied systems thinking — i.e., it doesn’t teach systems theory but, rather it builds people’s capacity to apply practical strategies for optimizing a system’s performance. Do you agree and if so, how does the game accomplish this?

Yes, I do agree. It allows a safe place for people to explore different actions, to try thinking creatively, and to learn the importance of collaboration.

Q:Playing the game can be transformative for participants. What are the most common ‘aha!’ moments you see when you lead game sessions?

Honestly, that they can break the implicit rules and find creative solutions like sharing resources across departments.

Q:Are there other aspects of business education where Friday Night at the ER would be a useful tool?

I could see this tool being useful in organizational behavior and team building aspects of a business education. Learning to work together across the departments or just observing how the affordances of the game (echoing organizational design) lock people into a certain way of thinking.

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