By Gregory K. Ramirez (MJour’20) and Saebryn Peel (Jour’20)

It’s unlikely that any level of planning could have prepared organizations for COVID-19 and the other crises 2020 unleashed.

But whether it’s a global pandemic, an economic crisis or a wildfire, practicing how to navigate group communication and decision making can help prepare for future crises, according to Associate Professor Matt Koschmann, whose research and teaching focus on organizational communication and collaboration.

“It’s not just about assembling all the facts and then implementing the corresponding solutions,” Koschmann says, “but rather interacting with different people in ways that explore differences, consider alternative perspectives, rethink taken-for-granted assumptions, appreciate diversity and advocate for positions.”

For years, Koschmann used role-play scenarios and case studies to bring those competing pressures into his classroom before landing on the idea of a computer simulation, which he collaborated on with colleagues from the Department of Communication.

As part of the Wildfire Simulation, which debuted in CMCI’s Group Communication and Decision Making class in 2016, students select one of five roles within the fictional town of Westmount, ranging from mayor to municipal water manager to environmentalist. Together, they must build consensus around the best fire mitigation plan, including working through unexpected dilemmas.

Over the course of several weeks, students work through the different modules as a task force. In addition to extensive background information they are briefed on up front, they receive updates throughout the simulation to inform their decisions, including communication that would be open to the public such as news stories and social media posts, and private emails from people they represent on the task force.

“While wildfire mitigation planning is just the context for the simulation, the real focus is on different stakeholders working together to reach consensus on a public policy issue, even though everyone in the group has different interests and represents different constituencies,” Koschmann says. “That is certainly relevant to our COVID-19 situation and other aspects of emergency planning.” 

By implementing these types of simulations into school curricula, students can gain experience for real-life crisis scenarios they may encounter in the future. 

“You can read about it and you can talk about it—and none of that replicates the experience of what it feels like for your heart rate to go up,” he says. “The simulation allows us to elevate that to a much more dynamic, exciting experience.”

Even before this spring’s colliding crises, professors at universities around the country had noticed the simulation’s effectiveness as a teaching tool. In fact, over 20 schools now use it in their curriculum, including Harvard Business School.

“It can be intense,” Koschmann says. “It really requires you to be on your toes as a group member and to think strategically.”