Human resource management of staff was also an eye-opener for some. Each class team had a variety of resources available, but they had to learn that they couldn’t just have all the star performers. They had to manage the project team and the consequences of their staffing decisions.
“Each of the people within the simulation team had different cultures, skills and attributes so the students had to think about who is on my team? And what is the impact of those relationships on the project?” notes Weterman.
“What they started to do is say: ‘This person’s not working out, so we’ll just get rid of them.’ What they found is that if you started to get rid of too many people then the team cohesion becomes really low and the work output drops. So they found they couldn’t just have all the really good people they had to lead and develop the people they had.”
In addition to the simulation, Weterman ran a mentorship program for the students. Teams were assigned a mentor and saw them fortnightly at their place of work.
“It was important that the students met at the workplace of the mentor. It’s not just having a project manager come into the classroom to do a talk, it’s about that touch and feel of the real world. Some of the feedback we had from students was the nervousness they had, and then the excitement they had getting out of the classroom environment,” reports Weterman.
The mentors were under strict instructions not to tell the teams what to do in their rounds but rather discuss the scenarios in the simulation and share their experience in relation to the decisions the students were making.
“They were there to guide them. [The students] were able to go out and talk to them about their decisions: why are we behind schedule? Time is a constraint, if we’re running late what are we going to do? Let’s look at other things: we can go over budget, what can we do? How far over budget is enough?” Weterman says.
“It was not ‘this is what I think you should do’, it was ‘you made that decision in that situation and when I do it, this is the way I look at it’. They had to be careful in the way they responded to the students.”
The response from both the students and their mentors was overwhelmingly positive with very little negative feedback. Weterman says student responses ranged from the teams treating the simulation as real, to high praise for the stewardship of the mentors. Some students even wanted to run through the simulation again during the semester break.
Weterman also reports that a number of mentors said they grew from the experience—’I think I got more out of it than they did,’ mentioned one—and mentors welcomed the students: “Even though they were busy they looked forward to the students coming to see them, and there was a lot of email correspondence.”
Compared with other teaching methods, Weterman says this combination was a winning one. The simulation was a better way to demonstrate decisions and consequences versus learning through case studies, for example.
“Case studies teach students to make assumptions but it’s hard to make assumptions when you don’t know what you don’t know. They found that they could take things from a theoretical perspective but struggled with assumptions because they hadn’t seen them before. Simulation gave them the assumptions and they could handle the information better.”
Competition over the course of the semester added the edge that made each decision more cohesive to a longer-term project. A simulation on its own “does not give the same experience of having to compete against each other,” Weterman notes. “Going through that process of people having to compete and people sharing decisions, and then having them answer to a real person in the workplace was key.”
And just as simulation wouldn’t have worked as well without competition, Weterman says just the mentoring alone wouldn’t have been enough either. “There’s a view that mentoring and coaching is something you do one-on-one in the workplace but not sitting alongside education. It does extend and enhance students’ experiences, and that enhancement was far greater than I ever would have imagined.”
In the end, she concludes that this triangulation of competition, simulation and mentorship is as close to the real world as tertiary students can get from their degree and a good way to prepare undergraduates. “I wanted students to be outside of their comfort zone but within arm’s reach of help and that’s like being in a workplace because no workplace leaves people stranded.”
Linda Weterman presented her paper Simulation and Industry Mentors as a pathway to learning ‘near world’ Project Management at the 2011 PMOz Conference in Sydney. The paper is co-written by Frank Weterman (Southern Cross University) and Tania Hogan (Manukau Institute of Technology).