Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Case Competition

If you read my blog regularly, you know that lately I have been posting IR-regularly. That’s largely due to a few things at work, and the case competition at UHV. That competition concludes this Saturday, just three days from today. I will be writing about that competition and its results, so I may be even less relevant than usual for some people. If you are interested in the MBA process, however, or have an interest in the case competition process, this might be worth a read.

The Masters of Business Administration (MBA) is different from most Masters degree programs, in that the MBA is intended to be a functional, real-world degree. So, rather than write up and defend a treatise in front of an academic panel, many business schools demand that MBA candidates demonstrate their knowledge and accumulated resources in a practical application of their combined skills. The case competition is an ideal way for this exhibition to be performed. At UHV, the capstone course for the “Strategic MBA” is called “Strategic Management”, and that course culminates in the case competition. The competition is open only to MBA students who have completed all or almost all of the other courses necessary for graduation, and is judged by a panel of professors from the business school, and senior officers from businesses interested in participating. The specific business officers who take part as judges is a carefully guarded secret, but it offers an additional appeal to the competing teams – performing well in the competition could not only produce a good grade in the final course, but also possibly lead to interest from a major company. Hey, the plaque is nice but who doesn’t like to improve their career profile?

The course itself is a bit sneaky, if you are not careful to pay attention. For instance, the capstone course eats up a lot of time and resources, so it’s not advisable to take the course at the same time as more than one other course. I noticed that about 15 students have dropped the course this semester, from the original group of 70. Also, the course at UHV is offered in three sections, and you choose your team from students in your own section, forming a team during the first days of the class. Careless or slow selection can be a critical mistake!

The course this semester covered 104 days, or just short of 15 weeks. Of that time, the first individual report was not due until February 21, almost a month into the semester. The second individual report was not due until March 14, and the third individual report was due March 24, representing a gradual increase in pace. The group’s first report was due April 4, the second April 18, the group’s final presentation was due May 2 and the group final paper was due May 3. The competition itself, of course, is May 9. So, the first paper was due on day 27, the second on day 48, the third on day 58, the fourth on day 69, the fifth on day 83, the sixth on day 97, the seventh on day 98, and the case competition takes place on day 105. When added to the regular course requirements of assignments and quizzes, this means that the pace increases as you approach the deadline, which is similar to real-world conditions for many companies.

There are four formal phases to the competition – first each student prepares individual analyses of the target company’s industry and the company itself. This semester the target company is PetSmart, Inc. the industry leader based in Phoenix, Arizona. The first paper examines the industry, the second refines that analysis and adds the company analysis, and the third refines the industry and company analysis and produces and issue statement – that is, a point or points on which the company needs to address a critical problem or can take advantage of a unique opportunity. The second phase comes up at that point, where the teams each meet and discuss their individual results, and reach consensus on a group opinion of these analyses and issues. The team’s first paper then presents analysis of the industry and company, in much greater depth than the individual reports, and also includes the first exhibition of the group’s recommendations. For comparison, my third individual paper was 67 pages while my group’s first paper was over a hundred pages, with ten pages of single-spaced source citations. The group’s second and third paper refine and defend the paper and recommendations; our final work was 131 pages long. We worked hard not only to cover all the bases, but also to cut out extraneous material, which is to say 131 pages was the lean version of our work. The third phase is development of the PowerPoint presentation. Since we would be presenting that work in the span of 25 minutes allotted to us, it became important to have enough slides to present the full picture of the industry, company, and recommendations, but also avoid to many words and clutter, and to be sure we finished on time but without rushing. The key there is to present relevant charts and figures, but stay away from text except where absolutely necessary. It also means a lot of discussion and rehearsal.

The fourth phase is the question and answer session, which immediately follows the presentation. This is what trips up a lot of teams, who work hard on their paper and delivery, but who do not prepare for likely questions. These questions cannot all be predicted ahead of time, but generally they are based on justifying the recommendations, explaining their selection and implementation and defending their cost and payoff.

There is, I think, a fifth and sixth phase that most students do not notice. The fifth phase is that you should communicate with your team early on – the professor mentioned from the start that you could work cooperatively with your team while producing your individual analyses, as long as your work was your own. That is, it’s OK to discuss your opinions from your analysis with your team, and develop an early consensus on some points (although with my team, it led us to examine assumptions and reconsider initial analyses), but you have to do your work and defend your conclusions with hard numbers and support. My group had several phone conferences and meetings, and well over five hundred postings on a private discussion board set up by the professor for the teams. And of course there is also the sixth phase, where you find a thread running through the industry, company, issues, and your recommendations tying everything together. Your recommendations will be strong if they make sense on every level, including alignment with the company’s leadership and direction. If you find yourself selling recommendations which are in conflict with industry conditions or the company’s present business strategy, you will have to explain to the judges why it is necessary for the company to abandon its present course.

At this time, all of the participating groups have submitted their final presentations and papers, and so all that is left is the actual competition, which means giving our presentations before the judges and answering questions. Of the initial 18 teams, 4 dropped out from students quitting the class, and it looks like three teams took in an additional member from one of the teams which dissolved, which is what our team did, so that we now have five members rather than the standard four. This has problems and advantages. Problems, because a late addition to your team can be disruptive and make roles unclear, but also advantages, because if you add a strong individual you can end up with a stronger team. We were fortunate in that respect, because the student who joined our team has strong marketing skills and is better than the rest of us at graphics. So, we are breaking up our presentation five ways rather than four, and we have all been working on our parts to be clear and confident.

More after the competition.

No comments: