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The Connector - Fall 2012 Issue

Playing to Learn: Bioteams Design uses iThink to create games that teach important business lessons

Ken Thompson Ken Thompson

When Simon Brocket, Group Human Resources Director of Twinings, the international brand known for its Premium Teas and Ovaltine Malt drinks, wanted his staff to learn more deeply about their business in order to maximize their organizational value, they could have read papers or attended presentations. Instead, they played a game.

“If you don’t run the business you work in, you look at the decisions that are being made and think ‘Why are they doing that when they could be doing this?” says Ken Thompson, CEO of Bioteams Design and developer of the Twinings game. “Games and simulations allow people to experience the difficulty of decision making. The HR teams from Twinings quickly realized that growing revenue and maximizing profits, for example, are very different and hard to do at the same time. They not only learned about their business, they built even more respect for their business leadership teams.”

Thompson began creating games five years ago when a client requested one to use for a team building exercise. He was the right person to ask. Having served as the CEO of a leading Irish consultancy that helped clients build effective business teams, Thompson decided he wanted to get back to hands-on work with clients. He took a sabbatical and studied what nature can teach businesses about work teams. That sabbatical produced a book, Bioteams: Higher Performance Teams Based on Nature’s Most Successful Designs, and inspired Thompson to start Bioteams Design.

In the past three years, more and more businesses have been looking for fun approaches to new employee training, skills improvement, and team building

“People usually study nature to get ideas for inventions,” says Thompson. “A Scot’s observation that thistles stuck to his dog’s fur led to Velcro. That’s called biomimicry. I looked at the ways teams work in nature to learn lessons that would apply to business teams. For example, successful teams that occur in nature often have multiple leaders.

Besides his experience as a team building consultant and interest in biomimicry, Thompson brings an affinity for mathematics and long tenure with iThink to the table for his clients. “I really like both collaboration and math,” says Thompson, “and the games I design have social and business elements. In the past three years, more and more businesses have been looking for fun approaches to new employee training, skills improvement, and team building. Developing games and simulations with iThink has been a great answer.”

Working in partnership with leading change management consultancies such as Lane4 who introduced Twinings to Thompson, his development process turns out games and simulations tailored to the unique goals of businesses. “All games are based on business dilemmas but they are inevitably customized,” explains Thompson. “I find a subject matter expert (SME) at the client company who can explain the business rules, teach me the corporate language, and provide access to actual data. Using iThink I can build the first draft of the game pretty quickly. Then, with the subject expert, I build iterations and conduct testing over a six-week period. The subject matter expert also comes to the game sessions so that when questions come up – ‘Why does this work this way?’ – the answers are based on what actually happens in the company.”

The Twinings game required players to run the business for three years. The object of the game was to simultaneously increase revenue, maximize profits, and expand markets. “Most games ask players to accomplish something similarly difficult,” says Thompson. “I usually develop three rounds. The first round is fairly easy. Players learn how the game works and build confidence. The second round is usually really hard. Maybe markets change or supplier prices go up or competitor prices go down. All three things could happen at once. In the third round we try to build confidence again to maximize the learning.”

Players learned the importance of challenging assumptions when making business decisions

While all businesses are different, Thompson’s clients do have very similar game experiences. For example, they often recognize “golden rules” that are consistently applied but inconsistently successful. “Golden rules – I’ll never do this, I’ll always do that – are originally based on conditions that, after the rule has been applied 3 or 4 times, are forgotten,” says Thompson. “Maybe a company always buys a brand of laptop even though they can’t remember the conditions that made that a good decision. Golden rules get stronger and stronger over time.”

Players recognize those golden rules as they work through games and simulations; often because they reflexively apply them with poor results. “The Twinings game showed that many business people thought new product development was always to be used offensively for market building rather than defensively for cost reduction,” says Thompson. “We deliberately set it up so it didn’t work like that in the game and players learned the importance of challenging assumptions when making business decisions.” Other parts in the game showed players that increasing prices doesn’t solve all dilemmas – it is possible to push prices too high.

Thompson’s newest game explores change management. It requires players to change the minds of ten key executives in order to move the company in a new direction.

Change Management Game: Main Dashboard Change Management Game: Main Dashboard

“I always get excited by the project that’s in front of me so I’m excited about this right now,” says Thompson. “The game looks at the whole business system but it also requires players to think about the impact of one intervention. If they can change the mind of one key executive, they can get buy-in from other executives.”

The combination of a whole system view and specific actions within parts of the system is inherent in most meaningful games, and that is what makes iThink Thompson’s development tool of choice. “iThink has also allowed users to take a system dynamics view and an agent-based view using its powerful array capabilities of, for example, a single conversation with an executive,” he says. “A system dynamics perspective considers behavior of the whole system. An agent-based view shows you the interactions between the “agents” which make up the system. iThink combines both views into a single hybrid model that is much more powerful than models that offer just a single view.”

I can throw new problems or conditions at players to get them to change their approach. Those aren’t things you can do with a spreadsheet

iThink also lets players remake decisions and see the impact of those decisions over time. “I can throw new problems or conditions at players to get them to change their approach,” explains Thompson. “Those aren’t things you can do with a spreadsheet.”

isee systems’ NetSim allows Thompson to easily share his games among multiple participants without having to install software on their laptops. His games often take advantage of audio, video, images and other content to explain how the game is played, describe a player or team’s progress, or provide context.

“Clients love games that are based on their own businesses,” says Thompson. “They’ve been great tools for getting people to think about operations management and change management or learn new skills together, often from each other, in order to build strong, successful business teams.”

Reducing Health Care Costs in the UK: Modeling savings through alcohol consumption reduction with iThink

Douglas McKelvie Douglas McKelvie

It’s universally true and well understood that the healthier a country’s population, the healthier its economy and vice versa. Understanding the economics of a healthy population, however, doesn’t mean it’s easy to deliver highly effective health care services while controlling costs. Health care systems are incredibly complex which makes the challenge considerable.

In the UK, understanding which health care interventions are most economically efficient is central to determining how central government funding will be locally allocated. The National Health Service issues block funding to local commissioners but those commissioners are left to decide what facilities and services will be funded at what level. The Symmetric Partnership has used iThink, Systems Thinking software from isee systems, to create a model that local commissioners will use to reduce costs resulting from alcohol-related hospital visits.

We wanted to understand how particular interventions which reduce alcohol consumption might reduce hospital visits

“When people drink they fall, get into fights and have accidents. But more significantly, high alcohol consumption triggers or exacerbates a wide range of diseases or chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes,” explains Douglas McKelvie, Partner, The Symmetric Partnership. “In the past 20 years, alcohol consumption in the UK has increased. That’s not as bad as it sounds; the increase is partly linked to an increase in the population and there are signs that it has plateaued. Still, the increase in consumption led to an increase in consumption-related hospital visits. We wanted to understand how particular interventions which reduce alcohol consumption might reduce hospital visits. That’s the goal of the Dynamic Whole Systems Model of Alcohol Harm Reduction that we created for the England Department of Health.”

The first step was to understand who was where in the system of alcohol consumers. “We created the four ‘official’ consumption groups to act as stocks in the model: Abstainers, Lower Risk, Increasing Risk, and Higher Risk,” explains McKelvie. “We also recognized ‘Binge Drinkers’ who occur in the Lower, Increasing and High Risk groups and ‘Dependent Drinkers’ who occur in the Increasing and High Risk groups. Each group was assigned a risk level for entering the hospital as a result of alcohol consumption. Those categories are already used by the Department of Health so commissioners are able to use actual data.”

With stocks defined, the partners (Douglas McKelvie and Steve Arnold) then modeled the change-in-consumption chain. Able to show the underlying rate of change in stocks over time, the model provides a baseline against which to test intervention effectiveness and determine when, if, and by how much costs will be reduced. At all times, some people are either moving towards a higher or lower consumption group. When interventions are applied, patients move through the chain at different rates compared with the underlying rate. Movements need not be to the adjacent stock; a Higher Risk drinker might become an Abstainer overnight. The model runs over a 20 year time period and uses national data and Department of Health projections to set initial stock levels and validate model behaviour.

In order to slow the movement of people to higher risk levels and their chance of hospital admission, the system requires some sort of intervention

“In order to slow the movement of people to higher risk levels and their chance of hospital admission, the system requires some sort of intervention,” says McKelvie. “Public policies, like an increase in the price of alcohol, could slow the increase-in-consumption flows. Services, things like education or detox, can speed up the reduction-in-consumption flows. Just like the hospital admissions they reduce, those interventions cost money.”

“At first, the model considered three intervention options. The first option is prescribed advice delivered by General Practitioners during routine office visits. GPs are reimbursed a relatively small amount for each visit during which opportunistic advice is given. The second option is to deliver counseling to patients who are in hospital for reasons suspected to be alcohol related. The third option is to deliver specialized services to patients who are dependent on drinking. Commissioners can set effectiveness assumptions; a percentage of their population that will move to a lower risk group as a result of the advice they receive, for each option. Costs are assigned and the model indicates how interventions move patients between stocks and when cost reductions are realized

Comparing Model Runs – Various Interventions Compared with “Do Nothing” Comparing Model Runs – Various Interventions Compared with “Do Nothing”

In this screenshot of the model dashboard, the graphs show “change in” hospital admissions and costs over time when an intervention is introduced five years into a 20 year model run. Important points to note are that it takes some time for the change in consumption to turn into an improvement in health resulting in a reduction in admissions. Concomitantly, the total cost of hospital plus intervention must rise initially (because an intervention is being provided but hospital admissions stay the same). After about four years, the reduction in spend on admissions outweighs the increase in spend on interventions and total spend goes down. Actually, it takes about another two or three years before the cumulative change in spend is reduced.)

“The interventions modeled mainly target people who aren’t dependent on alcohol to reduce their consumption,” says McKelvie. “Dependent drinking is a harder problem to address. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be addressed, but the savings are more quickly realized through interventions with patients who aren’t dependent.”

Prior to commissioning the iThink model, commissioners relied on an economic spreadsheet model. “The spreadsheet did allow commissioners to compare interventions but cost-savings were always linear and immediate which isn’t realistic,” explains McKelvie. “Our model illustrates how costs initially rise when interventions are introduced. It takes time for those interventions to move individuals from one stock to another and for decreases in alcohol consumption to effect a decrease in alcohol-related hospital admissions.”

The spreadsheet did allow commissioners to compare interventions but cost-savings were always linear and immediate which isn’t realistic

National Health Service restructuring has delayed the model from being widely used but McKelvie expects that more and more local commissioners will use it to make decisions on alcohol service investment as a portion of health care spending. “They’ll use the model over time to see how interventions are working and test ideas for course corrections,” says McKelvie.

Alcohol is just one variable that impacts health care costs. The Symmetric Partnership LLP, which grew out of Symmetric SD, a system dynamics consultancy whose founders include Eric Wolstenholme, routinely applies Systems Thinking and iThink from isee systems to help providers, hospital administrators, policy analysts, elected officials, and National Health Service commissioners in the UK improve health care quality and find cost efficiencies. “Eric was one of the first system dynamicists in the UK,” says McKelvie. “He was an iThink user and advocate from the beginning and continues to offer encouragement, oversight, guidance and advice.”

Led by three partners, David Monk, Douglas McKelvie and Steve Arnold, and supported by Sarah Nield, The Symmetric Partnership has also modeled interdependencies in specialized pediatric services to support service co-location decisions, sustainable mental health care strategies, access to psychological therapies and workforce planning, and numerous other examples in the health, social care and justice fields.

University of Maine Students Experience the Global Carbon Cycle and Climate Change with STELLA

Karl Kreutz Karl Kreutz

Global Environmental Change is a 200-level course designed primarily for sophomore Earth Science majors at the University of Maine, Orono. It’s not surprising though that the course attracts freshmen, seniors, and juniors from anthropology, marine science, history, biology and other departments across the university. The course focuses on the carbon cycle and its relationship to climate change; and climate change affects us all.

Five years ago, Karl Kreutz, PhD, who is on the faculty of the School of Earth and Climate Sciences and conducts research through the Climate Change Institute, was grappling with the challenge of teaching his diverse students about the global carbon cycle and climate change. “I could show them ice core samples from my own climate change research, I could take them into the lab and show them how we can use the cores to measure particles and time, but the carbon cycle is a hard thing to explain. I wanted to give them a deeper understanding.”

Like so many natural cycles, the carbon cycle requires us to see the earth as a huge system. Carbon is a building block of life on earth. It’s in our soil, our water, our food, and us. Carbon is released into the atmosphere from a number of reservoirs – the ocean, the atmosphere, soil, etc. – via a number of fluxes - plant respiration, decomposition, and human emissions (most predominantly the burning of fossil fuels). The higher the carbon dioxide concentration in the earth’s atmosphere, the warmer the earth’s climate. The cycle’s changes are felt over the long term. (Kreutz’s research considers climate change over thousands and hundreds of thousands of years).

We know that carbon dioxide has an important relationship to climate change and sea level but to really understand that we’ll use models

Five years ago, Kreutz was introduced to STELLA, Systems Thinking software from isee systems. He realized that building models of the carbon cycle would give students a fuller appreciation of the carbon cycle than they’d get by looking at ice core samples, visiting his lab to see how particulate measurements were made and taking notes during classroom lectures. “I knew that if students could really get their hands on the carbon cycle, they would be able to feel it,” says Kreutz.

Now, Kreutz starts his class with its very diverse set of students by saying, “We know that carbon dioxide has an important relationship to climate change and sea level but to really understand that we’ll use models.” Before they use STELLA, Kreutz has them use spreadsheets to look at concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere over time. After that, they use STELLA to build simple models to understand the role of reservoirs (where does water come from, where does it go) and critical feedback loops. After that, they build carbon cycle models.

Modeling is as new to Kreutz’s students as the carbon cycle but that’s not an impediment. “Students come to class interested in the content,” says Kreutz. “They aren’t worried about modeling or learning Systems Thinking. That’s just part of the course. Learning Systems Thinking and modeling is like learning anything else, some students take to it and others need some hand holding. The really strong students often go on to use it for other projects, courses, and their own undergraduate or graduate school research.”

When we add humans, students understand that the only way to explain the last 100 years of carbon concentration is the burning of fossil fuels

Models are especially useful for helping students understand the role of humans in the global carbon cycle. “Our first model looks at the cycle between the atmosphere, land plants and the ocean,” says Kreutz. “When we add humans and fossil fuel burning, students see their immediate impact. They understand that the only way to explain the last 100 years of carbon concentration is the burning of fossil fuels.”

Students are also able to appreciate the long-term nature of the carbon cycle and understand that earth science processes have always regulated the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “Students are impressed to learn that CO2 concentrations have been higher in the past,” says Kreutz. “Sixty million years ago, they were much higher. Students can think of an earth with palm trees at the North Pole. The models really make the point that no matter what time period they look at, students will see the relationship between the earth’s temperature and carbon dioxide concentration.”

With some modeling under their belts, students are ready to tackle questions like “What do you think CO2 concentrations and temperatures will be in the year 2100?” “Even their simple models allow students to predict the future,” says Kreutz. “By applying climate sensitivity and experimenting with reservoirs and fluxes they can see how climate will change if we keep burning fossil fuels at current rates, what will happen if we switched to solar power, or how things would change if we burned only natural gas. Building models and seeing those changes is so much more powerful than just talking about it.”

Building models and seeing those changes is so much more powerful than just talking about it

Other professors in the School of Earth and Climate Sciences are also getting interested in STELLA as a way to model the systems central to their work. “A professor of Marine Sciences has built a model to simulate carbon dioxide concentrations in the ocean,” says Kreutz. “He talks to the class about that work. We’re starting to have a lot of teaching and research collaboration. As more of us get interested in the pedagogical implications of Systems Thinking and modeling, we’re becoming more of a community.”

Kreutz is currently working with several students who are using STELLA in their Senior Honors Thesis work. “One student is modeling the movement of isotopes in the atmosphere and another is researching the impact of volcanic activity on climate.” But Kreutz doesn’t plan to let his students out-model him. He says, “Systems Thinking and STELLA are creeping into my research too.”

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