MIT Sloan Fellows triumph over HBS in corporate war games

“Strategies don't win games. Teams win games,” says Dharmesh Shah, MIT Sloan Fellows team coordinator

Members of a MIT Sloan Fellows team taking part in the Battle for Digital Supremacy MIT Sloan Fellows live a famously rigorous and time-challenged existence. But remarkably, in the heat of the busy semester, a group of fellows found 100 hours each to prepare for — and win — the second annual Battle for Analytical Supremacy against Harvard Business School students on March 30 at MIT Sloan's Tang Hall.

A sort of mock trial for business brains, the corporate war game is, in the traditional sense, neither war nor a game. There are no catastrophic losses. No right or wrong answers. The Battle for Analytical Supremacy is an intellectual exercise that results in fresh thinking, risk testing, and, after all is said and done, pioneering business strategies.

A competition that required cooperation

The theme of this year's contest was “Battle for Digital Supremacy.” Four teams, two from each school, took on the identities of News Corp. (MSF), Apple (HBS), Microsoft (MSF), and Verizon (HBS).

The companies selected were all very different and, in most cases, not direct competitors. Thus, the battleground was a challenge to navigate, with teams cooperating and competing at the same time.

Teams anticipated competitive moves in advance of their rivals, conceived unexplored strategic options, and mapped out the implications of critical decisions. They considered threats from competitors, the imminent entry of new rivals, industry consolidation, market volatility, and integrating new technology.

Winning strategy for market bombshell

One of the challenges posed at this year's games was a hypothetical market bombshell: Dell and Wal-Mart announce a partnership to offer a fully integrated entertainment system.

Each team had 45 minutes to devise a strategy to manage this potential catastrophe — and to be prepared to defend that strategy. The four judges pushed back with requests for practical ideas on how each company would produce revenues under the scenarios they proposed.

Representing Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., the MIT Sloan Fellows devised an inventive approach to open up the company's vast trove of content to an array of uses and alliances.

A team of four industry experts judged the MIT Sloan team the winner because their strategy transcended the need for a specific platform. The judges noted the News Corp. team's wisdom of being open to all channels to profit from the intellectual property of each.

Competition could foretell market changes

The games are run by Fuld & Co., a Cambridge-based strategic intelligence consulting firm that usually leads such contests for corporations in closed-door sessions. The company has conducted war games and competitive intelligence assignments for more than half the Fortune 500 and Global 1000.

The contest between MIT Sloan and HBS was just the second time such a game had been run in public. The first was last year's inaugural contest between the MIT Sloan Fellows and HBS. Dubbed the “Battle for Clicks,” the MIT Sloan Fellows won that contest as well, representing Google over HBs' Microsoft. An executive from Google was on hand to congratulate the MIT Sloan team, and the event was covered by both Forbes and The Economist.

Leonard Fuld, president of Fuld & Co., was impressed by the participants on both sides of the game. And he believes that the Battle for Analytical Supremacy may well foreshadow outcomes in the real competition now afoot in the digital entertainment realm.

“As with last year's war game that successfully predicted Google's and Microsoft's pursuit of AOL,” Fuld says, “we expect this event will presage upcoming deal making in the digital entertainment marketplace among Apple, News Corp., Verizon, Microsoft, and their rivals.”

‘Teams win games’

Dharmesh Shah, coordinator of the MIT Sloan Fellows team, also participated in last year's contest. He noted a trend in favor of the fellows' collaborative approach.

“As was the case last year,” he says, “the message I heard from organizers and judges after the game was consistent: MIT demonstrated a [high] degree of collaboration, team spirit, and professionalism. ...”

Shah attributes that chemistry to the MIT Sloan Fellows Program's' trademark emphasis on team building. “The lesson for me was: Strategies don't win games. Teams win games.”

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