Monday, June 01, 2009

Problems in Case Competition – Part 2 of 4

In my first post, I noted that the case competition was developed as a practical test of the skills expected from MBA candidates, which is why the competition is so often used in capstone courses at the end of a course regimen for the Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Business Administration. I also noted, however, that the common practice in such competitions is to give too much weight to style and far too little attention to the actual research, analysis, and recommendations.

To show what I mean, below is a sample of the presentation rubric used this Spring in the UHV MBA Case Competition:

Presentation Rubric

1. Audience cannot understand presentation because there is no logical sequence of information.
2. Audience has difficulty following presentation because some of the information is not in logical sequence.
3. Team presents information in logical sequence which audience can follow.
4. Material is presented in logical interesting sequence the audience can easily follow.

Subject Knowledge
1. Team does not have grasp of case and cannot answer questions.
2. Team is uncomfortable with case and can only answer simple questions.
3. Team is at ease with case and can answer all questions, but fails to provide elaboration.
4. Team demonstrates knowledge of an array of business models, answering all questions completely.

Issue(s) Clearly Defined
1. No issues are clearly defined or do not fit the analysis.
2. The issue(s) discussed are poorly defined and insignificant.
3. The issue(s) discussed are either poorly defined or not clearly significant.
4. Team has identified strategically significant and well defined issue(s).

Recommendation Quality
1. Recommendations are weak or vague and do not address the issue defined.
2. Recommendations are fair or not clearly explained or do not thoroughly address the issue defined.
3. Recommendations are good but may not be clearly explained or may not thoroughly address the issue defined.
4. The recommendations presented are logical well presented, thoroughly explained and fit the strategic issue(s) well.

Business Analysis
1. The quality of analysis is poor, incomplete and may apply the wrong models.
2. The quality of analysis is fair, may be incomplete or may misapply the models.
3. The quality of analysis is good, the models applied well, but one or more unit of analysis may detract.
4. The quality of the analysis is excellent. The industry, firm and its issues are well articulated

Audience Interaction
1. Team members just stand in one spot and read presentation with no eye contact or use of appropriate gestures.
2. Team members primarily read presentation and occasionally move around, use eye contact, and use appropriate gestures.
3. Team members maintain eye contact, move around, and use appropriate gestures while often referring to notes.
4. Team members maintain eye contact and seldom refer to notes.

At first glance, this rubric appears to be a solid way to evaluate a case performance. It’s divided into Organization, Subject Knowledge, Issues Definition, Quality of Recommendation, Business Analysis, and Audience Interaction in equal measures. When examined more closely, however, flaws become evident.

Let’s start with the biggest problem; judges’ familiarity with the material. The Case Competition at UHV used a panel of six judges for each room, three faculty members and three panelists from prior winning teams. It quickly became apparent as the presentation went along, that the judges were not given any special orientation about the target company, PetSmart Inc. This is critical to the judges’ participation in the competition, as our team prepared for questions relevant to to the specific company’s situation. The pet supply and services industry is far different from the nominal retail environment, and PetSmart was genuinely unique in its business strategy, particularly CEO Philip Francis’ repeated insistence that the company sharply reduce capital expenditures. From discussions with other teams after the event, I discovered that the winning teams all proposed actions which involved significant risk and capital commitment, in direct contradiction to PetSmart’s known focus and corporate vision. That is, if any of these teams had tried their recommendations on the real board of directors at PetSmart, they would have been shot down in short order. I don’t mind losing to a better team, but I do have to say it’s annoying to see recommendations win that my team rejected because we knew they were unrealistic, but the judges did not recognize the context of the target company. It also demonstrates a weakness in the competition, if teams are encouraged to produce a flashy but unrealistic presentation. There is no way to effectively judge substance, if the judges are not made aware of what is on or off the mark. If the actual company’s strategy and vision are not incorporated into the competition, the whole thing devolves to no more than a drama contest, the business version of ‘American Idol’. This is supposed to be business school, not show business.

Let’s also look more closely at those scoring categories. The case competition was meant to be loosely connected to the course grading itself, from the description on the school website. Consequently, organization, the issue definition and the business analysis would already have been developed over the course of the semester; it would be a strange team indeed that did not earn most of the possible points in those areas. The only real distinction would come from how well the judges believed your team delivered its message in those areas – on style. The two most important areas of substance, Subject Knowledge and Recommendation Quality, as we have seen, were diluted to purely subjective impact because the judges were unaware of the target company’s actual strategy and parameters.

That’s not to begrudge the winners their prizes, nor dwell too much on the errors in UHV’s competition. The case competition at UH-Victoria is a great way to finish the course to the Strategic MBA, and the winning teams worked hard and deserve their glory. But it illustrates how even a great idea can fail in execution, and the best correction begins with recognizing those errors and discussing alternatives and opportunities. Also, from looking around at the various competitions out there, it occurs to me that a really well-done competition could set a school above the rest for quality.

The most prominent competitions are those which involve multiple schools, have at least one corporate sponsor, and not only recognize teams for excellence but also outstanding individual performance. My next post will present an outline for such a competition, a new addition that will raise the profile of the school which organizes it.


fellow UHV student said...

You complain that the judges knew little of the actual case, and therefore failed to recognize that your team steered clear of strategies that involved significant capex, due to the CEO's stated goal to reduce capex. You criticized the teams that pursued such strategies. If I were a CEO hiring a consulting firm, I would not want to pay consultant prices for a bunch of "yes men". If the consultants can demonstrate that I can better achieve my goals through increased capex, then all the better. It seems that you let your strict (mis)interpretation of the rules get in the way of success.

DJ Drummond said...

fellow UHV student, did you read all of PetSmart's Annual Reports from 2004 through 2007? In every one of them, the intention to reduce Capital expenses was stated, emphasized, and repeated. I spoke with several judges at the lunch on May 9, and they admitted they were UNAWARE of this condition, which significantly affects the way recommendations would be viewed.

It's bad to be a 'yes man'. It's also foolish to imagine that you should sell a strategy that is 180 degrees counter to the client's basic vision. I am not saying a team could not propose such strategies, but in the real world where I work you'd better be able to defend why you are right and the entire board is wrong in their vision. The judges' not knowing about this point is consistent with conversations I had with two contestants who admitted they were NOT PRESSED to defend these contrary strategies.

The problem is not so much that the "wrong" teams won, but that these teams were effectively told that the quality of their recommendations were unimportant, but the manner of delivery was everything. After completing your MBA, I would hope you understand the latent danger in such a message.

fellow UHV student said...

Being able to vigorously defend the proposed strategy, be it totally in line with or 180 degrees contrary to the client's vision, is implicit in the engagement. I wouldn't advocate otherwise.

I certainly understand the problems with form over substance. The very fact that I am pursuing an MBA is a result of that mindset, i.e. employers value letters that suffix your name moreso than experience. So, I have to play the game if I am to win it.