Friday, May 29, 2009

The Evolution of the Case Competition, Part One

Business Schools do not always get much respect from other schools in a university. Partly because of the relatively short history of business schools (just a few decades, where many classic schools can boast 150 years or more), but also because the worth of a business degree remains in some debate. Of course, a reasonable person could challenge the real value of certain liberal arts degrees, but I shall leave that be for here. The problem really gets going at the graduate level, and of course I mean the Masters degree in Business Administration, the infamous MBA. For many people, the MBA is a pretentious degree acquired by people who can’t do real work. In reality, the MBA is a necessary credential for many business professionals, especially those who want to work in the C-suite someday. But like all degrees, not all MBAs are equal or indicative of a competent professional. Most of the value of any degree depends on the individual, of course, but the school plays an integral role in helping the student reach their full potential and prepare for the real world of business.

The MBA therefore was always meant to be a practical degree, designed to produce a professional able to gather data, analyze it critically, and produce a cogent set of recommendations to improve effectiveness and profitability. Law schools also produce graduates who are expected to put their degree to practical use, and for that reason law school present various trial exercises called moot court. Some of them are quite entertaining and there are various competitions between law schools. The business schools decided to follow suit, and created case competitions.

There are a variety of case competitions available. The most common by far are intramural events held at graduate and undergraduate schools of business as part of the capstone course, meant to test and exhibit the whole spectrum of abilities and skills by BBA and MBA candidates. But there are also inter-school, national, and international competitions, as well as competitions sponsored by corporations or organized by special-interest groups. Some schools have had case competitions for more than a decade, while others are just getting started.

The case competition, generally, takes either a situation or a company, and directs the teams to provide answers, either in the form of a business plan, operational strategy, or a specific recommendation for one aspect of the company (such as a human resource, finance, accounting, or logistics challenge). Teams are judged by a panel which considers their prepared documents, the flow of their presentation and the quality of the team’s analysis, supporting evidence and recommendations, and how well the team answers questions and challenges to their recommendations. Done properly, a case competition gives graduates a good sense of their acumen and presentation ability, qualities they will need in the real world.

That said, I have been looking into the grade weights of a number of competitions, and the manner in which judges are recruited/selected for the competitions, and I have found some weak areas. For instance, in case competitions the overwhelming weight of points come from the way the case is presented, rather than the strength of analysis and recommendations. This becomes significant when one considers the effect of sending competition winners out into the work world convinced that style is more important than substance, something we have seen all too often in failed leadership at more than a few companies. The second problem is that judges, all too often, treat the competition as a minor event requiring little preparation on their part, so that they miss errors in analysis and recommendation that would be disastrous in a real-world situation. Again, what is needed is a way to not only reward one aspect of the presentation, but also critically challenge the teams so they have a good idea what they need to do to be ready for real-world situations.

In my next post, I will examine ways that the case competition device may evolve into a more effective teaching tool for creating effective business solutions.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Government Lies

I took my daughter to the city pool today. Unfortunately, despite publishing that the pools would be open from 1 PM to 8 PM, neither of the two pools within driving distance of our house were open. Locked gates, empty pools, no staff at all. It was obvious that not only did the pool staff not show up, there was no intention of actually opening the pools. I could guess about why that happened, although with the City of Houston it’s not really unusual for the city to make promises it does not even try to keep.

Not that the City of Houston is unique in that arena; local, county, state and national governments often say one thing and do something else. This is one important reason why mature people tend to mistrust government – governments are not often held accountable, and people in government tell a lot of lies to get what they want. Consider how many taxes were initially ‘temporary measures’ that somehow never ended. Consider how many pet projects were ushered in under the claim that they were necessary ‘emergency’ measures. Consider how seldom anyone in power ever accepts, really accepts, their responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.

Never judge government by its promises, only by what it actually does. Because the government lies, and will always lie if that gets it what it wants.