World’s favourite case companies

By Emma Simmons

Thumbs upSome companies and industries are especially popular case subjects: we explore.

The Case Centre’s annual Awards are assessed based on the uptake of cases by instructors worldwide for teaching, and thus represent a measure of the most popular cases. A look back at the winners over the 28 years of the Awards reveals cases on every possible type and size of enterprise. At the same time, however, certain companies and industries make repeat appearances over time. And, while a search through the catalogue of The Case Centre itself unearths a vast variety of subject organisations from around the world, here too, some, mostly well-known businesses and industries, feature repeatedly – even hundreds of times – and often in cases that have been registered over many different years by many different authors.

We talked to seven authors of such award-winning cases from across the globe to find out why they think certain companies make such popular case subjects, and how important the chosen company is to instructor selection for the classroom.

Student engagement

Nirmalya KumarIn 2005, Nirmalya Kumar authored the award-winning Zara: Responsive, High Speed, Affordable Fashion (co-author Sophie Coughlan). To date, there are 35* cases with Zara in the title registered with The Case Centre and soon, there will be at least 36, because Nirmalya, now at Singapore Management University, is working on a follow up Zara case. So what is it about the company that works so well in a case and makes it so successful in the classroom?

“One of the main advantages of a well known company is exactly that – that it is well known,” says Nirmalya. “When a case subject is familiar to students, they can relate quickly to the content. A case study on the steel industry, for example, will be less immediately accessible than one set in the beauty, airline or retail sectors, and this is especially true where younger students are concerned, because they generally lack broad life experience.”

ZaraMike Lewis has also authored two cases on Zara (co-authors Kasra Ferdows and Jose A D Machuca): in 2003 Zara and 2015 Zara: The World’s Largest Fashion Retailer, both of which were category winners at The Case Centre’s Awards (2017 and 2005). For Mike, now at the University of Bath School of Management, it is no surprise that some of the most well-known companies feature in many of the most popular cases. “The ubiquity of a company does really help,” he says. “An organisation with a high profile can offer a short cut to engagement in the classroom; such cases offer teachers the opportunity to ‘piggy back’ onto a well known brand and to get the attention and interest of the class more quickly,” he adds.

Amy Nguyen-Chyung At the University of Michigan’s Stephen M Ross School of Business, Amy Nguyen-Chyung authored the award-winning case Amazon in Emerging Markets (co-author Elliot Faulk) - there are currently a remarkable 156 cases with Amazon in the title registered with The Case Centre. Amy comments: “While I do use a variety of lesser known company cases in my classes, I believe that when students already know the company, they can spend a lot more time focusing on understanding the context and problems.”

Instructor appeal

TeslaThe above comments reveal that student engagement and interest may be facilitated with a case featuring a well known company, but it is the instructor who decides which teaching materials get chosen for class. At the University of St Gallen, Günter Müller-Stewens authored Tesla Motors: Business Model Configuration (co-author Erwin Hettich) which was the Overall Winner at The Case Centre’s 2017 Awards. There are already 28 cases in The Case Centre’s collection with Tesla in the title. “Case instructors must always factor in their own preparation time to the teaching equation,” reflects Günter. “A case about a well-known company can obviously cut this time, but also, big multinational organisations offer entry points into many management areas and the potential application to many differing parts of the world, which can help educators tailor the material to the requirements of their students” he adds.

Fraser P JohnsonAt Ivey Business School, P Fraser Johnson authored the award-winning Apple Inc: Managing a Global Supply Chain (co-author Ken Mark), one of the astonishing 283 cases in The Case Centre’s catalogue featuring Apple in the title. Fraser feels that the prime audience here is indeed the teaching faculty, but that nevertheless a high profile company subject alone will not guarantee the repeated use of a case; the process of case selection will be influenced by many additional factors.

Apple“The real key to a successful case is likely to be not just a well known brand, but also a strong teaching note,” he suggests. “While the ability to form a quick connection with participants and facilitate the discussion by using a well known brand such as Apple is clearly appealing – especially in an environment where cases may be a less familiar pedagogy in the classroom – having a good teaching plan is an imperative. If teachers have had a positive experience with a particular case and teaching note, they may well look for another case by the same author(s); it’s not necessarily just the company that is determining the repeat selection of cases,” he reflects.

Debapratim Purkayastha, ICFAI Business School (IBS), authored of the award-winning IKEA’s Social Media Listening & Monitoring Initiatives (co-author Jayasri Bhimalapuram) – there are 61 cases with IKEA in the title in The Case Centre’s database. Like all those we spoke to for this article, he reflects on this topic not just as a case author but also as an instructor himself: “Some companies are more popular as case subjects – probably due to multiple factors including that educators may find it easier to write and teach such cases and students can more easily relate to them,” he observes. IKEA“However, as an educator, achieving the learning objectives is of prime importance for me, and the choice of case subject company is usually a secondary consideration. I may use a case or two on highly visible companies, but they are among many others, some of which may even be relatively obscure, but which are well-crafted and able to achieve the learning objectives,” says Debapratim. “It is important to expose students to different companies, industry contexts and management levels, to develop them into industry-ready professionals.”

Amy Nguyen-Chyung concurs: “Student interest is always a goal, but ultimately, I choose (or in this case prepare) cases for their learning value – or lesson – rather than the popularity of their subject.” Mike Lewis raises the length of a case as an important factor in his selections for class: “Increasingly, cases need to be shorter and relevant,” he asserts, “it’s not all about the company; it’s about the quality too.”

Popular industries

Eleanor O’HigginsAs mentioned above, it is not just certain companies that crop up repeatedly as case subjects, and which go on often to feature as award winners, but also whole industries. Foremost among these in recent years has been airlines. At University College Dublin, Eleanor O’Higgins was at the forefront of this phenomenon when, in 1999, she authored the first of the now 28 cases which feature Ryanair in the title registered with The Case Centre. Meanwhile, the overall number of cases on airlines now runs well into hundreds.

Ryanair: The Low Fares Airline became an Overall winner at The Case Centre Awards and it was the first case Eleanor had written. She recalls how her experience in using cases influenced her approach to developing the case and perhaps its future success: “I wanted to take the emerging local story of Ryanair shaking up the whole airline industry, but I felt that from an instructor point of view, a really good teaching note, which precisely specified student learning outcomes, would be vital. I tailored the teaching note based on the very best I had seen, especially wanting to supply a lot of data and additional research so as to facilitate the task of the instructors using the case”. Eleanor also acknowledges some of the attributes that have made cases about airlines popular in class: “Airlines are not esoteric – we all use or have used them and people also feel strongly about them,” she says, “nevertheless, I was amazed at how successful that first Ryanair case became around the world”.

easyJetNirmalya Kumar had a similar experience with his first case on easyJet published in 2000, which also went on to be an Overall Award winner. When he wrote easyJet: The Web’s Favourite Airline (co-author Brian Rogers), he was interested in the new phenomenon of the low-cost airline, embodied at easyJet by its larger than life founding figurehead Stelios Haji-Ioannou. Nirmalya was attracted to the brand new concept of airlines doing things differently, a concept that many at the time considered would be neither interesting nor valid and that certainly would not endure. “The immediate positive response of students and the teaching faculty to the case meant that I quickly realised that it would become very successful,” recalls Nirmalya.

A rich seam

Debapratim PurkayasthaSo do particular attributes of the case subject story indicate future classroom success? Do perhaps cases that explore innovation or high profile leadership, for example, become popular subject choices? Debapratim Purkayastha, who also authored the best-selling Amazon’s Big Data Strategy (co-author Adapa Srinivasa Rao), thinks there may be some truth in this: “Some companies are viewed as exciting or ‘happening’ and known for repeated innovation, disrupting markets, or they have highly visible and interesting leaders, which can make them ideal topics for cases in many different areas from strategy to marketing, or finance to operations and HR, for example,” he suggests.

Some of those we talked to also identified the usefulness of cases about well known, especially multinational, companies for opening or closing programmes because they allow for an overview of management disciplines and no class time needs to be wasted in explaining the company first. “Leaders such as Jeff Bezos (Amazon) or Elon Musk (Tesla) are followed and considered as role models of success by many students, and even deceased leaders such as Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA) and Steve Jobs (Apple) have become management legends that have founded distinctive companies, adding to their appeal as case subjects for both the teachers and their students,” adds Debapratim.

Günter Müller-StewensAccording to Günter Müller-Stewens, a charismatic leader like Elon Musk certainly makes it easier to produce an attractive case narrative, even though a case discussion may well include a critical exploration of such leadership. “There is something to do with the cultural roots of a case that explains why certain companies appear and reappear,” he feels, “including the idea of the ‘hero’ – the protagonist. However, that was not the reason we originally wrote our Tesla case – in fact we were working on the theory of radical business transformation, and Tesla simply emerged at the time as a good company to use to illustrate this.”

Likewise, at Ryanair, a high profile, dynamic and colourful CEO lends attractive energy to a case: “Michael O’Leary is known for amusing quotes in the media,” says Eleanor O’Higgins, “ but these also offer important insights about the company and its strategic direction, and add a note of humour when incorporated into a Ryanair case,” she adds.

Why write the case?

Mike LewisIn fact, none of the authors we spoke to seem to have developed a case just because the subject company or industry might be popular in class. Invariably the subject illustrated either a current area of research interest, or, most commonly was selected to fulfil a specific teaching objective. Often an element of serendipity, even chance, seems to have been behind the initial decision to work with a particular company. “There is something about timing and opportunity that affects the decision to select a case subject,” says Mike Lewis. “Our first Zara case partly emerged as the result of luck from personally knowing a business contact at its parent company, before there were even any Zara outlets in the UK, I recall. But the case took a complex model and explained it in a simple way and that, I believe, may be the true explanation for its popularity,” he reflects.

Without exception, the authors we talked to were unaware of the number of other cases that existed about the companies they had written cases about and, for the most part, they had not read any. This illustrates the contrast with research journal publication for which there is a requirement to have read all available literature on the same subject; a case needs to be successful in its own right. Ease of accessibility to the information necessary to write the case was something that authors often highlighted in their decision to choose well known subject companies, and some pointed out how time could be saved by not needing to include detail that ‘everybody knows’ about the company. Significantly, the successful and popular cases we discussed divided fairly equally between field and desk researched, suggesting that the source of research for a case is not a prime driver of its subsequent popularity.

RyanairMany of the authors we spoke to have written, or are in the process of writing, follow up cases on the same companies or new cases on other similar organisations. “The airline industry is still popular and changing,” says Eleanor O’Higgins. “I first updated the original 1999 case with Ryanair: The Low Fares Airline (B) in 2011, followed in 2015 by Ryanair - The Low Fares Airline: Whither Now?, when the ‘always getting better programme’ was reshaping the airline’s operating paradigm. I’ve now begun work to build on all three of these with a new case - almost 20 years after the first - to examine the recent high profile labour problems at Ryanair and their impact. The fact is that if you’ve written a case about a company before, you do have a deep understanding to build on.”

The type of companies that crop up in popular cases, very often multinational and well known, seem to provide repeated opportunities to stimulate discussion, test theory and provoke understanding in class. After 12 years, Nirmalya Kumar is working on an update of his original Zara case, exploring new geographical developments through the company’s experiences in China and India. “Sometimes a case just needs updating and refreshing”, he says. “A new updated and expanded edition can explore circumstances that have developed, add dimensions and open up another ten years of teaching. And, it is well known that students prefer not to be taught with ‘old’ cases”, he reminds us.

AmazonThe last word goes to P Fraser Johnson: “Not every company or industry stays at the forefront of innovation or success forever, but even then it can often still provide the basis for ‘an interesting story’,” he says, and he points out that many of the successful companies we have explored in this article repeatedly face new issues, dilemmas and problems. Fraser is currently working on a case on Amazon and its supply chain: “Before I begin work on a case, I check whether something equivalent in content already exists,” he reports. “Many cases may already examine different aspects of the company, but there are so many parts of Amazon’s business still to look at and very many ‘unanswered questions’; we are still a long way from understanding how it all works.” Fraser’s new case may well become the 157th with Amazon in its title in The Case Centre catalogue, but it seems highly probable that it is not going to be the last.

*Numbers of cases correct on 4 April 2018. When totalling the number of registered cases, translations of cases are also counted as individual cases in their own right.

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