A World Where Everyone Can Be a Corporate VP

Tinker Toys? Not really, as a student races to fill out orders for “satellite units” at the ELC.

It’s another day of mounting frustrations at the Hi Fli Satellite Co., a manufacturer of specialty units for orbiting communications systems.

The vice president of operations is furious that her supply manager failed to order enough parts. The supply manager is afraid to tell the VP that the few parts that are on hand are defective. Hi Fli Satellite’s Panglossian president thinks the company can still meet its production schedule if everyone works harder and faster.

Meanwhile, video cameras, discreetly mounted in room corners and ceilings, capture every word and gesture of this management team acting under intense pressure. Management and communications experts stand by, ready to analyze and critique the recorded behavior.

Welcome to the Experiential Learning Center at the USC Marshall School of Business, a world of simulated business conditions designed to give participants a revealing look at how they manage themselves and others, especially when plans go awry.

Do the participants come across as leaders or lemmings? Are they inspiring or demoralizing? Can they clearly express their ideas in conversation to others? Do they write clear and concise e-mails, or confusing jargon?

With the possible exception of the Lyon Center, no other facility at USC gets as much use as the Experiential Learning Center, or ELC. Its two locations, one in Popovich Hall and the other in the basement of Bridge Hall, are booked solid from morning until evening, year-round.

Undergraduates, MBA students, company employees enrolled in executive education programs and even teenagers attending surrounding high schools all get a chance to play company president, vice president, manager, supervisor or employee at one of the Experiential Learning Center’s hypothetical companies such as Hi Fli Satellite.

“No Marshall student graduates from the business school without having had the ELC experience,” said Gita Govahi, who directs the center. Far from being forced to attend, freshmen cite the center as a factor in choosing to attend USC.

USC Marshall has been placing students in simulated business conditions since 1967, long before video cameras and computers were available to capture the nuances of behavior. Now, more than 60 courses taught at USC Marshall rely on the ELC to round out academic instruction, resulting in a cumulative 120,000 hours of use by students a year, Govahi said.

Typically, a business school professor books the ELC for six sessions a semester. In most scenarios, students strive to achieve a goal in a prescribed amount of time during which they face unforeseen calamities.

With Tinker Toys as “parts,” the “employees” at Hi Fli struggle to meet production schedules while having to cope with a fire at the manufacturing site and the aforementioned shortages and defective devices.
“It is amazing how easily students forget about the Tinker Toys, the cameras and the somewhat artificial nature of the environment,” Govahi said.

The ELC’s professional trainers research, develop and conduct the experiential and role-playing activities for USC Marshall students and then conduct discussions after each simulation.

Allison Jaskowiak, an undergraduate at USC Marshall, credits the ELC with transforming academic ideas into reality. “Experiencing a concept is quite different than simply reading and discussing it,” she said. “After finishing an ELC exercise, I am always surprised at how much better I understand the material that we are covering.”

Max Gardner, who works at GE Commercial Finance in New York City, said he is grateful he had the chance to watch himself in simulated action, when there was no risk of humiliation or failure.

“There are very few opportunities to practice your performance during a meeting or negotiation in the real business world,” Gardner said. “The ELC gives students a unique opportunity to observe their own style at work and adjust it to be more effective.”