Giving the Black Box a Lid -
Providing Transparency in Management Simulations

Andreas Größler

Industrieseminar der Universität Mannheim

D - 68131 Mannheim, Germany

Phone: (+49 621) 292-31 40 · Fax: (+49 621) 292-52 59


Transparent-Box Management Simulations as a Middle Course
between Black-Boxes and Building Models from the Scratch

The efficacy of a problem solving and learning process comprising model building and simulation analysis seems to be undoubted within the System Dynamics-Community (e. g. Milling 1991, p. 20, de Geus 1988, p. 73, Morecroft 1994, p. 4). However, there have always been doubts and only small hints for learning induced from black-box simulation tools like Management Flight Simulators for individuals or Computerized Planning Games for groups (Paich and Sterman 1993, p. 1456). On the other hand, these tools usually offer a user friendly interface and fast access to the simulation because users do not have to have specific knowledge about simulation techniques.

But what is the special advantage Systems Thinking and in particular System Dynamics has to offer management simulations? How can the user take advantage of tools and techniques System Dynamics are providing if he or she does not see this model at all? How can a user be sure a model is correct if there is no chance to inspect it? And in fact, there is quite a number of business simulations which do not use System Dynamics for building the underlying model, even though the mathematical presentation is similar or identical to a System Dynamics model. The importance of System Dynamics models lies in the clear conceptualization of model structure which becomes possible (Machuca 1992, p. 175). Not giving access to this model structure therefore lets System Dynamics become just another tool for representing internal data structures in a computer program.

Adding features to provide structural information about the underlying model could be a means to combine the advantages of user friendly simulators with the power of model building and analysis tools, which are supposed to give structural insight. Users are able to examine not only the results of their decisions but also the causes of these results (like in so called "Reflective Computer-Based Learning Environments", see Isaacs and Senge 1994, p. 279). This introduces transparency to the former black-boxes, producing so called Transparent-Box Management Simulations (a term used by Machuca and Carrillo 1996, p. 329). Users become capable of criticizing or even advancing and improving the underlying model. At the same time their mental models are challenged when compared to the formal model. Thus, the mental models could be changed and improved as well (see Senge and Sterman 1992, p. 140, for the importance of challenging and improving mental models by management simulations).

However, there are certain areas where the transparency feature is not wanted. Such situations are all uses of management simulators which are not primarily intended to help the user learn about the subject. For example, simulators as a means for personnel selection, should support group building processes, etc. Thus, the need for giving background information (to which structural feedback belongs) varies according to target group and area.

Conceptual and Design Issues of Providing Transparency

The question how this transparency can be provided has remained unsolved so far. The best solution is probably to integrate structural feedback into the user interface of the Management Flight Simulator or Planning Game. Other researchers also experimented with giving back this information in paper-based or other form (Langley and Morecroft 1996, p. 303). Structural feedback could also be given in form of additional seminars or an intervention at the beginning of the training. Various technical and conceptual problems have to be addressed when giving integrated structural information to the user:

These questions must be considered in combination with general issues of designing business simulators as for example described in Kreutzer, Gould, and Kreutzer (1993, p. 222).

Implementing Transparency in a Given Management Simulation

In this chapter some practical issues about structural feedback are discussed: How far is structural feedback already realized in a given Management Flight Simulator? How can it be added? Which forms of feedback seem to be useful? As an example a well-known German Management Flight Simulator is used: Learn!, which was developed at the Industrieseminar at Mannheim University during the last years (Simcon 1997).

These steps were taken to provide structural feedback to management simulation users:

  1. A presentation was built containing material about the important feedback and variable relations within the model. This presentation also contains a short section about the used method (causal-loop diagramming) for users unfamiliar with this concept. The presentation is displayed automatically whenever Learn! is started. A possibility to stop the presentation and start playing immediately is provided.
  2. For every page of the simulation game a particular "structural help" function was implemented which displays special information about the concerning model structure. Therefore, various help pages , which mainly consisted of causal loop-diagrams as a form of graphical representation of system structure had to be created. For both tasks currently available material from the Vensim-based simulation model could be used.


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