The Management Flight Simulator
John H. Saunders, Ph.D.

Pilots use cockpit flight simulators for a number of reasons. They are considerably less expensive to operate than actual aircraft. They also provide an opportunity for pilots to fly specific patterns (e.g., New York to Chicago) before an actual flight, which  include landing at realistic portrayals of specific runways. Simulators also provide an opportunity to practice crisis problem solving without putting real people or aircraft at risk. Commercial airlines such as American and United require their pilots to spend hundreds of hours each year in simulators, even after they are well experienced. When supervised, training in flight simulators is recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration as a substitute for actual flying time.

If simulation is such an important part of a pilot’s education, then why is the same not true for managers in operations, finance, marketing, or information systems? Shouldn’t managers be taught to fly specific patterns and to practice crisis resolution before confronting a real life situation? To meet this need a new type of simulator called a "Management Flight Simulator (MFS)" has been created.

Simulating Micro and Macro Challenges

Management Flight Simulators are now available to help professionals address both very specific as well as grandiose challenges in virtually all disciplines. Some examples follow:

- The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources built a multi-player simulator called AgLand. It is used by policy makers, farmers and citizens to look at the impacts of land use on soil, wildlife and water quality. It includes levers that can be used to levy taxes, impose regulations and create incentives to achieve economic, social, and environmental goals. It runs over a period of decades so that all parties can see the results of their actions over time.

- The US Air National Guard built a Diverse Workforce simulator. It was built to help them better understand the policy implications and methods for modifying age, ethnic, racial, and gender diversity in its ranks. The simulator was built by a professional modeler who created it from the input of hundreds of team participants over a six month period. The simulator provided the group with a mechanism to explore a wide variety of policy decisions such as increasing dollars devoted to recruiting specific population segments, offering early retirement to certain groups, or modifying occupational specialties.

- Sleeper is a simulator developed for training anesthesiologists at the University of California Medical School in San Diego. In the simulation, the doctor administers drugs and monitor’s the vital signs of a cartoon-like patient during an hypothesized operation. The user interface to the system includes graphic displays such as an electrocardiogram monitor and a simulated hypodermic needle. The "patient" reacts to medication overdoses or insufficient medication just as a real patient would be expected to do.

- Thinking Tools, Inc. developed Think 2000, a mission-critical Year 2000 risk simulation software program. In the environment of a fictitious organization, it enables executive decision-makers to assess the overall business impact of problems associated with the Year 2000 date change, establish valid priorities for remediation projects, and document activities in the event of litigation or audits.

- Project Challenge is a simulation designed to provide the player with the opportunity to exercise management judgment in a realistic information technology project environment. The focus is on managing a project; the player experiences the complex inter-dependencies and tradeoffs of management decisions that affect the project’s schedule, budget, team morale, and customer satisfaction. Players can interview team members, listen in on gossip in the lunchroom, and go ask the boss for more money. Project Challenge was developed by Thinking Tools jointly with SHL Systemhouse, an MCI company.

Friday Night at the ER, from Breakthrough Learning was originally built for a healthcare organization struggling with issues of resource use and service availability in a hospital's emergency, surgical and critical care departments. The board game simulation covers a twenty-four hour period from Friday noon to Saturday noon - -usually the busiest time for an emergency department. Your team's job is to keep service quality high as well as control the financial impact of that increased demand.

SimCity2000 Network Version from Maxis Corp. is a multi-player simulation that can be played over a local area network or using the Internet. In the simulation, players bid for land, build infrastructure, negotiate contracts with each other, and adjust tax rates and the tax allocations to public services such as police, fire departments, and schools.

These are only a few of the hundreds of Management Flight Simulators that have been developed. With these examples we can start to formulate a definition for the concept of what constitutes a MFS.

A Basic Definition

A simple definition for a management flight simulator is:

MFS = Dynamic (Pictorial Computer Interface + Computation Engine)

The essence of a dynamic pictorial interface is movement and the use of symbols. A simple interface would contain drag bars and gauges as inputs and two dimensional graphs as output. The graphs would be drawn in "real time" or as you watched.
    Figure 1. Some Controls from a Management Flight Simulator

More complex interfaces include audio and video prompting and feedback. Some advanced simulators involve user movement through a three dimensional space, interaction through voice recognition and data gloves, as well as customized video and audio feedback.

As its name implies a dynamic computation engine has two components - 1) the simulation of elapsing time and 2) the ability to establish variables and their changing relationships. In most cases, the simulation of elapsing time is done by utilizing the clock (always ticking) on a digital computer. An important aspect of a MFS is that the values of variables may change during each tick of the clock. Additional events may be triggered when variables reach a certain value.

The computational aspect involves both mathematical and logical "reasoning" capability as established by the designer among the variables. Each variable may change it’s value as affected by the other variables during each tick of the clock. When sufficiently sophisticated, the system seems to take on a "life of its own". Complex behavior patterns spring forth. Feedback from the system permits users to discover the effects of their actions while interacting with the system. Frequently unintended consequences of the interacting behaviors emerge. The reasoning involved in a MFS is often complex. It may involve elements of classical inductive or deductive reasoning. Or it may involve elements of a mathematical calculus which guide the changing values of numeric variables over time. MFS’s utilize specific information technology lines such as system dynamics, rule based systems, and cellular automata.

The very essence of simulation is the ability to traverse a virtually unlimited set of paths through the system. This ability sets up a unique learning environment. The user learns through experience, versus rote memorization. Operating a MFS is "Learning by Doing."

A Little History

The MFS is a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the introduction of the Apple Macintosh personal computer, MFSs were rare and had to be custom designed and built on expensive computer workstations. Computer based management simulations before the MFS, in both business and the hard sciences, were largely run in a "batch" mode. In this mode variables were programmed in statistical packages or in specific computer programming languages such as Simula or Dynamo. Outputs were the textual or numeric output of the variables listed sequentially over the time period of the simulation. Typically the only other outputs were simple "histograms" which plotted the value of the variables on two dimensional graphs with the x-axis most frequently being time.

Early in their history MFS’s were referred to as Microworlds. The term "microworld" was created by Seymour Papert at MIT to describe a computer-based environment he created for children called "Logo". LOGO continues to have a strong following. In Logo children create computer programs, i.e. automated sequences of instructions, which direct simple objects like turtles. The LOGO commands are then acted out through a picture of a turtle on the screen turning left. When multiple,  different-colored turtles are programmed and move about the screen the image conjured is very much like a "microworld" of autonomous turtles.

In the 1950’s, even before LOGO, another Professor at MIT, Jay Forrester, created a methodology with pictorial symbols and dynamic system behavior. His symbols represented Levels of entities (Water, Pollution, Morale, etc.) and Rates (how the levels change over time). Forrester’s symbol system is now more often referenced as Stocks and Flows. He termed this symbol system and the engineering behind it System Dynamics. The origins of Forrester’s symbol system lie in Feedback Control Theory. Understanding stocks and flows is essential to an understanding of the System Dynamics technology, now the heart of most MFSs. MFS’ now exist in the general areas of "edutainment" – for fun while learning, in business for analysis & practice, and in the academic realm for the study of dynamic phenomenon.

Tools for Developing Management Flight Simulators

The technology of the MFS made a huge leap with the development of a dynamic, pictorial, stock and flow software package called Stella. Stella was developed by Barry Richmond, a professor at Dartmouth, and a Ph.D. graduate of Jay Forrester’s System Dynamics program at MIT. Stella was originally developed on the Apple Macintosh for the educational community. In the late 1980’s it was utilized primarily for applications in the sciences such as biology and the study of the environment. Since then other "shells" for building system dynamics simulations have emerged, primarily for the IBM PC community. Richmond formed a company called High Performing Systems and expanded his product line for both the Mac and the PC to include a package called iThink, which is oriented toward the business community. A company called Ventana Systems created a package called Vensim. And yet another company, Powersim, has released a product called Constructor. Still another company called Imagine That created another tool called Extend. Each of these packages permit a modeler to build a user interface with gauges, drag bars, and other multimedia effects.

Building a MFS

Building a MFS is a major effort, especially if additional features such as video and audio are to be coupled with the dynamic computation engine. A typical MFS may have 1,000 stock and flow elements, as well as hundreds of text boxes, video and audio clips. It has been estimated that building a one-hour multimedia presentation takes, on average, 300 hours. Add to this an estimated 6 man months to build an average stock and flow simulation. And this does not include any of the time needed to derive the systems relationships from area experts. Man years of effort are the rule for building MFSs which a user would expect to be utilized by a large audience. HPS, Inc., the makers of software for building MFSs are now in the process of creating templates from which a user interested in building a simulation can start. A template would help to speed up the overall modeling process and provide a modeler with components to plug together.

                                          Figure 2. Internals of a Management Flight Simulator (Partial Map)

When a player completes his MFS experience, a good MFS would provide a rationale for why events proceeded as they did. A well designed system should provide feedback while flying and a map of the route when finished. A purchaser should beware of "Black Box" Management Flight Simulators

Some MFSs in the Information Technology Arena

Dozens of flight simulators have been built within the IT community. Examples exist in project management, security, infrastructure development, manufacturing, maintenance, financial analysis, and telecommunications. Some examples follow.

The Information Technology Organization Flight Simulator was built by Professor Margaret Johnson of Stanford University to mimic the operation of project management in a small MIS department. It’s primary focus is a computer code development scenario. Players make decisions in areas such as accepting new project work, hiring additional personnel, and investment in technology infrastructure.

Professors S. Sturges and G. Winch of the University of Plymouth, England built a simulator which models tradeoffs in security policy implementation. Users can set parameters relating to investment in security measures. These are later gauged against losses from computer attack.

A model of policy alternatives to Korean Information Infrastructure Support was built by T. Moon and others. The model portrays possible future scenarios relating to government versus private industry leadership in investment in B-ISDN, CATV, and Mobile infrastructure through the year 2010.

Engineers at Silicon Graphics utilized a management flight simulator to educate their employees about delays and cycle fluctuations in their manufacturing processes. The simulator provided a "great deal" of support in initiating revised manufacturing processes.

Clark and Augustine looked at information flows and performance measures in a manufacturing firm to understand and map the value of information in its processes. Their simulator demonstrates how a firm’s overall performance may be affected by different levels of information quality.

Balancing the Corporate Scorecard (BCS) is a flight simulator available from Harvard Business School Publishing. It allows the user to establish their own scorecard for measuring and managing the growth of a software development firm. A wide variety of "levers" are available in areas such as price setting, market focus, hiring and firing, infrastructure buildup, product extensions, and training and service. BCS makes heavy utilization of video and sound to produce a very convincing experience.

The Future of MFSs

With the tools now available for easily creating MFSs, we will likely see a significant increase in the number of simulations built and marketed. At the same time we will likely see MFS builders capitalize upon the strengths of other technologies such as virtual reality and cellular automata. Virtual Reality will be utilized to enhance the user’s experience. Recently a San Francisco company, Simplementation, built a change management system which allows a player to move around in a 3D environment. Artificial intelligence "rules" guide his progress. Simulations from Maxis Corporation of Walnut Creek, CA such as Sim City and Sim Ant already utilize principles of cellular automata or "Artificial Life" to guide the birth and death of simulation elements. Prospering or decaying economies, rising and falling popularity, and population fluctuations are all working at least partially independent of the player to provide some realism to the experience.

While management flight simulators have their drawbacks, they are likely the best method we now have for understanding and dealing with the complexity of large scale strategic level systems. Their acceptance as a management tool is growing, but will likely be hindered somewhat by the impression of them as a "game." When today’s Nintendo generation comes of age, management flight simulations will be the rule of the day.