While it may still be labelled as a game, Merit is a serious business. Anyone who thinks of it as Monopoly or Cluedo for spotty-faced bespectacled graduate engineers during their lunch breaks fails to understand a unique business training model created by the construction industry.
First mooted in 1985 by the ICE, which was seeking to improve management training opportunities for young engineers, the cudgel was taken up by Balfour Beatty which developed the game through its IT and training departments, along with Loughborough University's civil and building engineering department professors Ron McCaffer and Tony Thorpe.
Merit 1, on which the following two versions were later based, first saw the heat of battle in 1988. Teams were each given a virtual construction firm to run, and competed against a computer in a series of postal rounds, attempting to tender successfully for contracts.
Company performance depended on the allocation of cash on resources such as labour, tendering, marketing, head office costs, and the appointment of suitable managers to run projects. Jobs would arise in different areas of civil engineering. Firms which specialised would generally be at an advantage, but jobs would be offered at different distances from head office, posing different cost and management challenges.
After a series of postal rounds the top six teams would meet face to face in Loughborough to do battle against each other. In the contracting spirit of the time, teams would ruthlessly undercut each other to win business - Loughborough would be awash with virtual corporate blood each spring.
Merit evolved to replicate business more closely and mirror the changing role of engineers. Running from 1993 to 1997, Merit 2 introduced a stronger financial emphasis.
By 1997 the game was attracting over 300 teams, up to six strong, each year. A review was carried out to improve its organisation and revise objectives. Meanwhile, recognition of its importance as a training tool prompted funding of over £100,000 from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Other formal sponsors include consultant LG Mouchel, Balfour Beatty, the Construction Industry Training Board, Loughborough University and the ICE.
Steered by Loughborough's Francis Edum-Fotwe, Mike Fletcher, and professors Ron McCaffer and Tony Thorpe, Merit 3 took two years to develop. The result is a spectacular advance on earlier versions, incorporating factors such as risk and allowing for design and construct projects.
Postal rounds are no longer needed as all participants can e-mail decisions. Play is faster than ever. Team performance is based on 10 different indicators - turnover, gross profit/turnover, operating costs/turnover, cash account balance, contract completion rate, forward workload, forward margin, return on capital, share price and client satisfaction. Funding has also enabled Mike Fletcher to be appointed full time to work on Merit, processing data and updating software.
'The game simulates the real world very well, and can be adjusted to match changing conditions within industry.
Essentially the objective of the game is to make participants more aware of the factors involved in making decisions, and the ramifications of their decisions, ' says Edum-Fotwe.
Merit is used by Balfour Beatty as a senior management training tool, and by Loughborough on engineering courses. The difference in construction experience does show, says Edum-Fotwe. 'While students have very competent IT skills and are comfortable playing, they wouldn't have the same industry experience and awareness of the impact their decisions can have, ' he added.
With earlier versions of Merit simpler, some successful teams in the past were accused of adopting strategies to beat the computer rather than making rational business decisions. The new format includes factors such as risk, generated by a random number program, and client satisfaction which make bucking the system harder.
Software can be tweaked to allow for adjustments should any weaknesses be found open to exploitation by crafty teams.
Few training tools can allow for such extensive participation by those being trained, or offer such scope for them to demonstrate and see the rewards of their initiative. And as training goes it has been an impressive success. 'When we had finished Merit 1 and 2, we estimated that around 25,000 training days had been provided to participants, with around another 1,500 training days now provided each year, ' says Balfour Beatty's Ron Steel.
Plans for an international Merit competition are to be examined as part of a review by the ICE and organisers of this year's competition.
'The competition has been so successful in the UK, we will be looking for ways of expanding the game overseas, ' said ICE assistant director of engineering John Bennett.