“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.
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:
- CQS (Ang et al, 2007)
- Cross-cultural Communication Effectiveness (adapted from Hammer, Gudykunst & Wiseman, 1978)
- Social Desirability Scales (Kleumper, 2008)
- 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.”
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.