Friday, June 05, 2009

Designing the Case Competition

There is a risk in being trendy, to do something simply because others are doing it. In the matter of business schools, case competitions have become trendy, which means that in some cases the school does it without fully understanding the purpose or how to get the best results. The first order of business for any school whether they are considering creating a case competition or already run a competition, is to decide why you are doing it and what goals you want to achieve. The majority of schools performing case competitions seem to be doing a sloppy job of it.

After looking through the available information on case competitions, there appear to be three main types of competitions – intramural competitions between teams finishing their MBA studies, league competitions between schools, and open tournaments with sponsors and press events. The goals for each type of tournament are different, although it should be noted that there is no rule that a school cannot work to have all three types of competition.

The intramural competition is generally done as a capstone course for the BBA or MBA candidates, and as such focuses on grading their accumulated knowledge, skills and work on a project level. The key stakeholders for this level of tournament are the students, the faculty, judges, and the school’s dean and trustees. The optimal organization structure would plan for participant and judge orientation, along with modest logistical requirements. Goals and objectives for each group would be planned and published in advance, as well as the method for publishing results and feedback. In the ideal situation, the following sample schedule might be used:

December: Guidelines for the competition are published on the school website, focusing on real-world conditions and objectives rather than superficial. Judges are invited and given orientation reports, students sign up for the classes, the focus company is advised of the competition and invited to participate with observers.

January: Capstone classes begin, requirements and rubrics for the competition are included in the syllabus.

March: Individual work completes in each class, teams form up and begin

late April: non-tournament grading is completed, teams submit final documents for project

May, week of competition: Judges meet and are refreshed about company orientation and tournament objectives, and are presented with the project documents for the teams they will be judging. Company is forwarded recommended project papers through its observers or by mail if no observers.

Competition day: Teams present their cases as scheduled, to teams of judges familiar with both the focus company’s objectives and requirements, and the specific analysis and recommendations from the teams’ reports. Judging can take place, therefore, on the basis of how well the team has done its analysis, made effective recommendations, and sells the recommendations to the judges. Scoring on the basis of the rubrics published in December.

May, post-competition: Class grades, written evaluations and feedback from judges and awards, including individual honors, are formally presented. Participants are also asked for feedback about their experience and suggestions for improving the process. This feedback is reviewed twice, at the time of submission and again in planning for the next competition.

I leave it to the reader to decide how well this format would serve, and how well present competitions are planned and managed.

The interschool and sponsored competitions would be similar in form to the intramural event, except that the focus is on school competition as well as the teams. Also, given the higher profile a press element is to be expected, and this should be encouraged so as to produce goodwill and prestige for the schools involved. This is the academic equivalent of varsity sports, with direct and significant effect on the businesses which will hire these BBA and MBA candidates when they graduate. Again, I leave it to the reader to consider the potential for case competitions between schools and tournaments with corporate sponsors, and to consider the success of present efforts. I merely submit here that the process is new and undeveloped enough, that those schools which best plan and promote such competitions will make a name for themselves as stand-out schools with commensurate gains in reputation and enrollment. Despite calling this part 4 of 4, I will have more to say on case competitions.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

What A Case Competition Should Be – Part 3 of 4

The case competition is the flagship of a business school’s curriculum, where if the candidates live up to their promise and ability, and if the program is properly administered, the school, students, and the business world in general all gain from the experience. Unfortunately, there is a real risk that the competition will fail in at least one major respect, and miss the accomplishment of its potential. Strategic and tactical planning and execution are paramount, not only for the competing teams but also for the school and even the judges.

Let’s stop here and consider what the case competition means to each stakeholder. For the students competing, at one level it represents a grade in a capstone course, a chance at some personal glory and just maybe the right kind of attention from a potential employer. It certainly never hurts to be able to boast on your resume that you beat out other teams for a tournament win. But the tournament is also important for the school, and properly done for business as well. While some business schools make their name on the strength of their alumni and the renown of the overall school, case competitions have allowed some schools to demonstrate excellence in comparison with other schools in head-to-head academic tournaments. Developing a top-notch case competition format, therefore, is a way for even a small school of modest resources to set itself apart and above its rivals. As for business, consider if you were a CEO of one of the companies chosen for a competition focus. You might very well take interest in the recommendations of several teams of MBA candidates, especially given that the advice is free and thorough. One obvious step I would recommend for any school sponsoring a case competition, is to submit the winning cases to the focus company. There would be no obligation, and the potential for goodwill and a future sponsorship is well worth the effort.

All of these results presuppose, however, that the final product of the teams, especially the winners, will be something the school and the MBA candidates are proud to stand behind. To that end, style must be reduced significantly in importance, and the actual substance of the analysis and recommendations must be much more strongly emphasized, taught, and rewarded. The teams, faculty, and sponsors must be clear about what is desired, how it will be judged, and feedback during case preparation and after the presentations must be clear, ongoing, and complete.

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.