Online Class Using Ecotonos and Cultural Detective

Eco Pieces with Guide

Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures is a classic in the intercultural and diversity fields. Learners work in groups to solve problems and complete tasks, improving their ability to work effectively in diverse multicultural teams in the process. The simulation can be played repeatedly for incremental learning and practice, as in contrast to most other simulation, play is different each time.

With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, most of our world is either quarantined or socially isolated. We are having to work, learn and socialize virtually, online. Yesterday I received a message from Fernando Parrado, head of Global Minds a professor at universities in Bogotá, Colombia. He has used Cultural Detective with his undergraduate and graduate students for ten years, and Ecotonos for the last four. He texted me to share his delight that his first online play of the simulation went extremely well. He played Ecotonos during his normal evening class with his masters students and there were many advantages to the online learning, he told me. I asked him if we could speak and record his explanation of what he did, so that others might find inspiration. Below is that video and following that I’ll summarize in words what Fernando says.

Interesting to me is that Fernando plays Ecotonos as described in the boxed set, with a few customizations—a practice highly recommended with any tool so that it best suits the audience. He chooses five rules cards from the Ecotonos kit for each of the three cultural groups, but instead of Ecotonos-standard naming (Delphinius, Zante…), with these working professionals in the Masters in International Commerce evening program he names each group after a real country (Saudi Arabia, Japan and USA) and combines the Ecotonos rule cards with the Cultural Detective Values Lenses for that culture. I love this adaptation, to combine with a CD Values Lens! Genius!

Hundreds of universities worldwide have for over a decade used Cultural Detective Online in the classroom and now, increasingly and out of necessity they are using it for the purpose for which it was designed—in their online learning. It is proven effective, developmental and engaging. Fernando says he’s facilitated Ecotonos about eighteen times in the face-to-face classroom; yesterday was his first time to do so online. In his opinion, it had far better results.

Fernando used three different publicly available, free of cost online tools to run Ecotonos virtually.

  1. He used WhatsApp to share instructions and answer questions, particularly with group leaders (leaders were chosen for each cultural group, a practice often not done when playing face-to-face).
  2. The main class, with full attendance, was held in Zoom. Fernando gave out initial instructions, shared rule cards and Values Lenses, and later conducted the debriefing in Zoom.
  3. Each of the three cultural groups worked independently in their own Google Hangout. Fernando was able to drop into each team to monitor its progress and to facilitate as needed.

Fernando talked to me about flexible Latin time, and the online environment very much helped him with that. He was able to allow the students as much time as they needed to get their technology working, and to make sure that they spent sufficient time in each phase of the simulation (acculturation, monocultural work, multicultural work, debriefing). He reported to me that sometimes in a classroom situation it can feel rushed. His class normally ends at 9:30 pm, and Bogotá at that hour can be a bit dangerous. Since his students were in their own homes, in quarantine, he was able to stretch his class to 10:00 pm and the students were overjoyed at their learning and the fact they didn’t have the trek home after class.

More importantly and surprisingly, Fernando told me, was how much more immersive the virtual Ecotonos experience was. Fernando instructed the students to “make your Google Hangout feel like” Saudi, Japan or the USA. How the students would do that was up to them, but Fer told me that their creativity was amazing. Because they were at home, they used props, changed their attire, and jumped fully into the experience.

Debriefing is of course the key to any learning activity; it’s where we help the students make sense of the experience—make meaning and create knowledge and skill. Fernando’s group did the standard Ecotonos debrief, including drawing out the decision-making process used by their multicultural group and answering the reflection questions, summarizing them into a PowerPoint that was shared with the instructor and the class.

All in all, it seems Fernando sees more depth of learning and positive outcome in the online Ecotonos, though he says once things return to normal, he’ll of course continue to use the simulation and Cultural Detective Online in his face-to-face classes as well.

Ecotonos is a great tool!

We would like to thank Nicole Martin of the Rocky Mountain Institute for this guest blog post about her work with a team from SEED: Sustainable Energy for Economic Development . We are honored and privileged to know our materials aid work of this kind!

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I just wanted to pass on some feedback. My group of 17 really enjoyed running Ecotonos: A simulation for collaborating across cultures and identified it as a highlight of our day. Team members from SEED drew some valuable insights and connections to their real life work from it.

Since I had not seen Ecotonos run before, it is a credit to the materials that it went so well. I followed the directions and it worked! I really appreciated the clear and complete instructions.

I also wanted to share a tweak that I made. In the acculturation section, I had them create visual identifiers for their groups using craft materials. It helped them acculturate and get talking and moving.

Of course, my creative facilitation idea was sparked by forgetting the buttons back at the office 🙂 Here is a picture of a debrief. You can see the watch necklace (monochronic time group) and the mobius strip hat (polychronic time group) on the left side.

Thanks for the great tool!

To learn more about Ecotonos or to purchase the game, which you’ll be able to use for years to come and replay differently with the same group multiple times, click here.

Study Supports Ecotonos’ Effectiveness

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“This study shows that the use of the Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures supports the development of cultural intelligence (CQ) and an increase in the development of confidence in cross-cultural encounters.

This legitimates the use of Ecotonos in international business education.

Ecotonos may also be effective in preparing students for overseas internships or study abroad programs… and in multinational corporations and universities as a means to improve the CQ of their management and students.”
—Bücker and Korzilius

Since its publication in 1995, Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures has become a classic in the field of intercultural communication competence; it is a go-to resource for corporations, universities and NGOs that require the ability to effectively team across cultures. Two decades of anecdotal evidence strongly support Ecotonos’ usefulness, but it is only recently that management researchers in The Netherlands provided empirical evidence on the simulation’s effectiveness.

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Three of the five generations of Ecotonos; compact Fifth Edition on the right.

Developing cultural intelligence: assessing the effect of the Ecotonos cultural simulation game for international business students,” a study published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management (Vol. 26, No. 15, 1995-2014) by Joost JLE Bücker and Hubert Korzilius, found that Ecotonos supports the development of cultural intelligence (CQ), specifically metacognitive, motivational, and behavioral CQ.

Bücker and Korzilius write, “CQ is defined by Earley and Ang (2003) as a person’s capability to adapt effectively to new cultural contexts. It refers to individual capacities which enable one to interact effectively with others from different cultural backgrounds and in different cultural contexts (Brislin, Worthley, & MacNab, 2006). It is the ability to adapt and adjust to one’s environment, and the effective functioning in situations characterized by cultural diversity.”

The research was designed to test the benefits of using Ecotonos as a training method to develop CQ among business students that participate in an international study program, while the researchers also saw applications for corporations and universities. Simulations and role plays “should provide the most suitable opportunity to train someone’s CQ… ECOTONOS (Saphiere, 1995) was created as an attempt to add additional learning goals to those of existing games such as BAFA BAFA and ALBATROSS, by creating simulations that had more complex options.”

The study of 66 students in Toulouse and Nijmegen consisted of an experiment group that engaged in one round of playing Ecotonos, a control group that did not participate in Ecotonos, and the completion of four questionnaires 3-5 weeks apart by members of both groups:

  1. CQS (Ang et al, 2007)
  2. Cross-cultural Communication Effectiveness (adapted from Hammer, Gudykunst & Wiseman, 1978)
  3. Social Desirability Scales (Kleumper, 2008)
  4. New Self-Efficacy Scale (Chen, Gulley and Eden, 2001)

Bücker and Korzilius note the importance of their study:

“Although it has been claimed that simulation games may give positive outcomes, such as more familiarity with people different from ourselves in terms of gender or ethnicity, such games may also reinforce prejudices. Burgstahler and Doe (2006) claim that ‘In all types of simulations there is a risk of long-lasting unintended negative results’ (p. 9).

An evaluation of an intercultural communications simulation called BAFA BAFA (Shirts, 1973) found evidence of a positive change in enthusiasm for learning, an intended result, and an increased ethnocentrism, an unintended result (Bruschke, Gartner, & Seiter, 1993). The simulated experience triggered negative and reactionary attitudes toward other cultures, and did not allow for more positive changes that might come from extended interaction across cultures (Bruschke et al., 1993).

The two simulation games of Bafa Bafa and Ecotonos are different. Whereas in the Bafa Bafa game participants are invited to simulate explicit stated cultural behavior, in the Ecotonos game participants have more freedom to create their own culture. This different way of prescribing behavior in the two games may have implications for the degree of prejudice after the simulation.”

The researchers found that “Ecotonos increases the ability to reflect on cross-cultural interactions, and stimulates interest in intercultural behavior and practicing cross-cultural relevant behavior.”

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A concern that came out of the study is that researchers found “there is more understanding and comfort in student interactions, but there is not more progress in the joint project result. For undergraduate business students, feeling comfortable in intercultural situations and becoming interested in other students’ cultural backgrounds is already a great win; it stimulates intercultural learning by opening up students’ mindsets in the international class. For more mature graduate students, extra strategic learning should be expected during the simulation game, in terms of effectiveness of their cross-cultural behavior and effectuating certain predefined targets in their communication. This might be developed by stimulating the competitive side of the role of the participants in the simulation game.”

I would posit that playing Ecotonos multiple times will enable students to practice and improve their collaborative abilities; this is, after all, how the game is designed to be used. A different task or case study can be used each time the game is played, and different rule cards as well, making the play unique each time.

A second way for participants to improve their collaboration skills is for facilitators to urge them to choose one behavior they would like to demonstrate during the simulation. Participants should focus on that. During game play, when collaboration all too frequently breaks down, facilitators can interrupt play to remind players to practice the skill they have previously chosen. Both of these interventions are described in the Ecotonos Manual, 5th Edition, 2016.

I would like to thank both researchers for this work, and express my hope that they will continue with further studies on this topic.

If you haven’t yet conducted Ecotonos with your students, trainees or learners, what are you waiting for? Purchase your copy today. If you have an older copy, you may want to update; the fifth edition has explanations of a whole lot of how-to and underlying theory that you may be missing from earlier versions.