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New Virtual World Woos Business Students with $50,000 Contest

A 3D immersive environment to deliver business education and connect business students from around the world will launch during the month of October in a global business simulation competition for MBA students. The environment being introduced, VirBELA (for Virtual Business Education Leadership Assessment), is itself the product of an academic competition.

The platform is intended to allow students to get a taste of what it's like to be part of a virtual work team.

"Right now MBA students are learning about the difficulties of managing virtual teams and working on multinational, multicultural teams. Getting all that knowledge is great; but until you actually practice and do those types of things, it's tough to really get the learning you need to be skilled in [it]," explained VirBELA company co-founder Alex Howland. "What VirBELA provides is a technology where students can be on those multicultural, multinational teams working together without having to do study abroad. You can't go to every country and learn from people in all those different places. We let them connect with students from all over the world so they learn a little bit about the business culture of those areas."

The launch will kick off with the student contest, which will bring together 32 masters of business students who will be divided into remote multinational teams of four and who probably won't know each other. Each team will manage an automotive company with objectives to build sales, improve profitability, and maximize shareholder value by making quarterly inputs over 16 to 20 "virtual quarters." VirBELA will allow the students to collaborate and compete using customized avatars, a voice-over-IP system, a text chat system, and 3D visuals of company assets, such as inventory of product lines.

  The global business simulation competition will ask eight multinational teams of four students to manage an automotive company through VirBELA.
The global business simulation competition will ask eight multinational teams of four students to manage an automotive company through VirBELA.
 

Each team will have a professional facilitator to observe team behavior in real time and run debriefing sessions through the month. That same person will also provide process input regarding decision making, conflict management, and other challenges that surface for multi-cultural teams.

The company is putting up $50,000 in prize money, including $7,000 that will go to each member of the winning team.

The competition is being run by the University of California San Diego's School of Management. "VirBELA provides an opportunity for students to learn about the benefits and challenges of leading distributed multinational teams in a low risk, fun atmosphere," said Dean Robert Sullivan. "By participating, students will be provided with just-in-time learning, have their performance observed, and gain valuable insights with personal coaching."

So far, applications have come in from students at an international assortment of institutions, including schools in London, Beijing, Singapore, Ahmedabad, Philadelphia, and San Diego.

The company behind VirBELA won funding itself in an international competition to spur management education innovation put on by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). Howland and co-founder Ronald Remiss received $1.7 million in GMAC's Management Education for Tomorrow Fund Ideas to Innovation (i2i) Challenge, both for the virtual world idea and its implementation. In 2010, the pair won one of 15 awards granted by GMAC in a first round in which they had to write "three paragraphs" on how to improve graduate management education for a chance to win $50,000. In a second round the following year GMAC invited global participants to put together proposals for implementing any of the ideas. Howland and Rembisz submitted a proposal for their own idea and won that as well.

When the new competition is over, the start-up expects to open the environment for free use for an unspecified period by students, faculty, and business people. It will offer "simulations, serious games, and interactive learning events and activities," said Rembisz in a statement.

As an example, Howland said his company intends to set up virtual clubs that mimic those that already exist in business schools, such as an entrepreneur's club or a club for women in business. "A school that's remote might have a difficult time having an entrepreneur come talk to their club of four," he explained. "If we can create a larger club of remote people, we can bring an 'A-list' entrepreneur to speak to that group and answer questions."

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