USC, IBM Get Serious About Gaming

A new simulation transforms complex concepts into educational classroom experiences for USC Marshall students.
By David Bloom
IBM has created a computer simulation that walks students through situations a business-process management specialist might face.

It’s not exactly “Halo 3,” and it won’t be found on the shelves at GameStop, but a new “serious gaming” simulation from IBM has hit the computer labs at the USC Marshall School of Business, training students in the rudiments of business-process management.

BPM, as the term is abbreviated, analyzes the way organizations carry out specific processes, such as how a bank might handle the workflow when a customer sets up a checking account. Streamlining and rationalizing complex processes, or reconciling conflicting processes when companies undergo structural changes such as mergers, has become an important field in the business world.

But finding enough talented people who can employ BPM techniques is difficult, said Sharon McFadden, who heads the IBM Software Group’s academic initiative in 10 western states. IBM, one of the world’s largest consultants, can’t find enough people to fill its BPM jobs. And many other companies face the same scramble for BPM-savvy employees.

“There’s a specific skills-set gap in the market,” McFadden said. “We’re looking for people with cross-disciplinary skills” who can use BPM tools to help improve company operations.

So IBM decided it was time to create more BPM-knowledgeable job candidates at the university level. It created a computer simulation, which the company prefers to call “serious gaming,” that walks students through situations a BPM specialist might face.

McFadden praised USC Marshall’s leadership for being open to such innovative ways to teach complex issues, an openness she said was all too rare at other universities.

The game, called “Innov8,” opens on a stormy day at AFTER Inc., which has just undergone a merger. The player is called into the chief executive officer’s office and told to figure out which of AFTER’s processes need immediate overhauls because of their importance to the company’s success.

Students then move through AFTER’s offices, meeting with key employees in departments such as operations, human resources and information technology. Students rely on a “heat map” to pinpoint and fine tune the processes most likely to save money, generate revenue and improve customer service.

The production values on “Innov8” don’t match the chip-melting processor demands of today’s high-end videogames, an important concession given the modest graphic capabilities of most computers in educational and business settings. But the game does provide an engaging alternative to the standard textbook and lecture approach, said Amy Ward, an assistant professor in USC Marshall’s Department of Information and Operations Management and one of several USC Marshall professors incorporating the technology into their classes.

“One thing that I like is that you say things in the classroom, and you want to convey that these are things the companies actually do,” Ward said.

One good way to convey that is having a troupe of IBM specialists on campus for the rollout of “Innov8,” as happened the first week of the spring semester at USC Marshall, Ward said. Her biggest challenge with “Innova8,” whose initial scenarios were only completed in late 2007, is figuring out when the simulator can be most effectively deployed, at the beginning, end or in smaller sections throughout the course of a semester.

IBM expects to develop additional scenarios in coming months for “Innov8” to expand its applicability and usefulness.

The partnership with IBM is part of a broader USC Marshall effort led by Cathy Fuller, director of corporate relations to connect the school more deeply with a few dozen major companies on multiple levels, from classroom speakers and field trips, hiring and internships for students and data access, case-competition material and consulting and research opportunities for professors.

As it is, IBM has been collaborating for some time with professors such as the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Ellis Horowitz and USC Marshall’s Ann Majchrzak.