Students competing with cases

By Emma Simmons

Challenging students with cases Student case competitions and challenges are a vibrant and thriving worldwide phenomenon in the annual business and management education campus calendar.

We wanted to find out their objectives and how they came into being. Who runs them and who participates? How are they funded and judged? What difference do they make to those who take part and what is learned along the way?


The Case Centre currently lists on its website more than 20 student case competitions which bring together participants from diverse schools and universities worldwide. We surveyed many of these competitions and challenges and talked to representatives of several of them from across the globe. The broad spectrum and rich variety is extraordinary. Some have a regional focus such as the HSBC/HKU Asia Pacific Case Competition, which has a regional focus in its competition cases, but is international in its participants. The Russian National Case League Challenge invites participants from Russia and, where possible, overseas to address real Russian challenges. By contrast, a regional division of the APICS (American Production and Inventory Control Society – a professional association for supply chain management) runs the West Coast Student Case Competition, targeted at teams of student members from its area.

Other case challenges also address specific disciplines or management areas. Since 1994, ESTIEM (European Students of Industrial Engineering and Management) has run its ‘flagship’ TIMES (Tournament in Management Creative Shock competition participantsand Engineering Skills) case study competition’ throughout Europe, involving, typically, a remarkable 350 teams. At the annual Creative Shock competition run by the ISM University of Management and Economics in Vilnius, Lithuania, participants have the opportunity to find Marketing, PR and Communications solutions for social enterprises and organisations;  the latest competition attracted more than 600 participants from 175 universities and 61 countries. 


This wide variety of competitions is also targeted at differing groups of participants, and at varying levels of education. Many case competitions are run for undergraduates, who may have had little – if any – case solving experience in the classroom. In its fourth year, the Gadjah Mada Business Case Competition in Indonesia is looking to attract ‘top’ undergraduate students to take part, and the ICC@M (International Case Competition @ Maastricht) at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands invites 16 ‘undergraduate business student teams’ to compete. Meanwhile, the Family Enterprise Competition at the Grossman School of Business of the University of Vermont is open to students of family business at both undergraduate and masters levels. Then there are the primarily MBA competitions, such as the Montreal, Canada based, John Molson MBA International Case Competition at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, or the WBS Case Challenge at Warwick Business School.

Some competitions add a further dimension to participation: the KeyBank Foundation Minority MBA Case Competition held at the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University, requires that at least one presenting member of each team represent ethnic diversity, while the Reaching Out MBA Case Competition is organised by and held at the annual LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Ally) MBA Conference for ‘LGBT business students to showcase their business acumen and compete for case scholarships’.

History and purpose

Helena HuSo, what is the mission of all these competitions and how and why were they started? It turns out that the answers to these questions, and the founding institutions and individuals, are as diverse as the events themselves. The John Molson Competition, in its 36th year, claims, to be the oldest – and ‘most prestigious’ – of all. According to Valerie Consolante, the current Judges, Cases and Events Organizer, “since its foundation in 1981 by Nora Kelly and Annette Wilde, two enterprising and pioneering MBA students, the main purpose of the competition has been to bridge the gap between the corporate and academic worlds”. What started as a contest with three other Canadian schools, after ten years went international. “Today the competition, run by current MBA students, comprises 36 teams from five continents and remains committed to bilingualism,” reports Consolante, highlighting a unique aspect inspired by its Canadian cultural heritage.

Justin GoldbachRun by neither a school nor university, but by a non-profit organisation ‘dedicated to fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue’, the Aspen Institute Business & Society International Case Competition is much ‘younger’, but was also founded (in 2009) with a guiding mission. “From the beginning,” says Justin Goldbach, Founder & Director of the Competition, “we were looking to challenge and encourage students at the intersection of corporate profitability and positive social, environmental and ethical impact.” Students from 25 business programmes from across the world compete each year. “We believe we offer a special opportunity to students to reflect on the significant influence, and potential for good, that a well-managed business can have in society,” says Goldbach.

Helena HuThe HSBC/HKU Asia Pacific Business Case Competition, founded in 2008, started as a result of a dialogue between a Professor – Ali Farhoomand, Founder and Director of the Asia Case Research Centre (ACRC) and a former student – Dora Li, who was, and still is, working at HSBC in the area of Corporate Sustainability. According to Helena Hu, Assistant Director at the ACRC, “the original idea of the case competition combined showcasing ACRC cases with the problem-solving business skills of promising young students. What began as a local Hong Kong contest has evolved into a flagship international education initiative within HSBC’s Corporate Sustainability programme.”


As a general rule, all student case competitions are on a large scale. They can typically comprise pre-assignments to be completed back on competing teams’ campuses, then, at the competition itself, several days of teams working on cases and presenting to panels of judges, followed by a final round, a prize-giving and celebratory dinner, often at a flagship venue with a celebrity, or even royal, speaker. What precedes all these events is a multi-layered and complex web of months of planning and execution. Cases need to be commissioned or selected, teams evaluated and invited, judges and sponsors identified and brought on board, accommodation and venues booked, operational and prize finances secured and administered, not to mention marketing and communications developed and maintained; research for this article revealed that most competitions have informative websites and often well maintained and updated Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and blogs.

Who organises the competitions tends to be shaped by their history and mission, and, perhaps surprisingly, many of the bigger competitions, which have a status as high visibility events at the hosting educational institutions, are predominantly student run, with little, if any, faculty – or case teacher – involvement. At Copenhagen Business School, the CBS Case Competition brings together its history, mission and organisation in a unique way. According to its website, the competition wants ‘to contribute to the development of well-rounded and whole-hearted leaders ... that value relationships, and do not compromise caring for other people to further their own interests.’ Daniel Michaelsen, is a current undergraduate and one of the Competition’s Steering Committee of two, reporting to a ‘board’ comprising business people with connections to the competition in previous years. He is responsible for liaising with partners and sponsors from the corporate world, including Danish companies and, notably, the Boston CBS organisersConsulting Group, and recruiting and leading no fewer than 35-40 further undergraduate student organisers: “We see our own organisation as embodying the same set of values we uphold for the competition, and this year we have added a focus on innovation in the organisational process,” he says. “Our team is highly dedicated, with a can-do attitude, and ambitious to create experiences of a lifetime for everyone involved in the competition – including our own students at the school, many of whom get involved as hosts for visiting teams,” he continues.

But beyond its vision, the organisation of the CBS Case Competition is meticulously structured into eight sub-teams taking care of all the various aspects of the competition, no mean feat considering that last year around 900 students were participating in the competition at some stage or other. Selected organising members, with experience of the previous year’s competition, ensure that learning is harnessed year-on-year. Daniel himself is a previous winner of an internal case competition in his first year of study, which he feels has helped him with his current leadership challenge.

Farah AbdulHadiAt Warwick Business School, the WBS Case Challenge, now in its fourth year, which attracts masters and MBA student teams from schools across the globe, is also run by current students, this time MBAs. So seriously is the role of organiser taken that the business school’s 'Careersplus' team coordinates the ‘recruitment’ of the team of eight, a process in which interested volunteers have to undergo a 'formal' selection process. Like elsewhere, these roles are voluntary and extracurricular, but they are often considered as an honorary and certainly CV-enhancing opportunity for those selected. Farah AbdulHadi, 2016’s Director of the Warwick organising committee, sees the involvement in making the competition happen, although a huge undertaking and learning curve, as one of the most enriching experiences of her study time, especially in relation to future employability. “Each year, the appointed organising committee receives the brief from the school’s corporate relations office and then has to independently run with it. On day one we know virtually nothing and need to gain a fast understanding of all aspects and then carry it through to successful completion.”

The case

HSBC competition participantsOf course, there can be no case competition without at least one case. Here too, there is great variety in how they are developed or sourced. Because of the level playing field necessary for a fair contest, which requires competing teams to be confronted with material they have not seen before, most competitions want to work with up-to-date materials. Helena Hu reports that the HSBC/HKU Asia Pacific Business Case Competition “showcases some of the best cases to have been written at the Asia Case Research Centre during the preceding year, usually topical with an Asia Pacific connection and all unpublished up to the time of the competition.” Many other competitions also promote a regional dimension to the case subjects, such as the Copenhagen competition which usually commissions a case about a major Danish, often multinational, company. The Warwick competition, working with its main sponsors GE Healthcare and GE Healthcare Finnamore, commissions professional case writers to produce the case with a subject relevant to the main sponsor. Farah Abdulhadi comments: “We want to be able to encourage and harness multi-disciplinary talent in the solutions to the competition cases, which will interest our sponsors and judges, and which means that participating teams are encouraged to include students with discipline-specialist knowledge alongside the MBAs.”

Any case that has been commissioned for a competition brings with it high expectations: a challenging and specific brief to a tight deadline for the case writer, and the case also needs to have an appropriate flexibility and depth. According to Justin Goldbach at the Aspen Institute, “our competition cases need to not only reflect the competition’s mission around social responsibility through their subject, but they need to work flexibly: first in a 72-hour preliminary round on the campuses of the participating student teams, then, yield outcomes that can be blindly reviewed by three Aspen judges, but still provide scope for further development and presentation by five teams at the final in New York City.”

Jaan EliasThe Aspen Institute has developed a long-standing collaboration with Yale School of Management to develop its competition cases. Jaan Elias, Yale School of Management’s first Director of Case Study Research, created the ‘raw’ case study format for the Yale classroom, which, by drawing together Internet links, interactive exhibits, text and video on a multimedia web platform, lends itself especially well to case competitions. “The process and discipline of creating a case for a competition is, at its heart, the same as for one to use in class, but, a competition case needs to be developed with an additional creative approach that ‘opens up’ the separate elements of its problem, and gives potential for the students to access crucial – sometimes contradictory – information and work towards innovative solutions under considerable time pressure,” says Elias. In recognition of the fact that a case competition should, ideally, be a happy experience, “competing teams – and especially judges – also need to be able to enjoy the case,” he adds, “a creative case allows for much more interesting student solutions!”

Adding a further layer of complexity, which also requires careful planning and organisation, some student contests stage a preliminary case writing competition to produce the cases that will be used in the student challenge. The John Molson competition uses no fewer than seven cases and holds its annual Case Writing Competition, open to case writers worldwide, to source these. Valerie Consolante sets out some of the requirements: “Cases must be unpublished, untested and yet to be presented or discussed in any public form; confidentiality is of utmost importance. They can be based on field research or secondary sources and can deal with any business discipline, but the subject must be a real organisation,” she says. True to the competition’s ideals, cases can be submitted in French or English John Molson winnersand will be translated for the competition. Having selected the winning cases, “to make the competition even more exciting, two of the seven cases used are given a different format: a ‘short case’ requiring teams to ‘think on their feet’ with shorter preparation and presentation times and a ‘live case’, the ‘highlight of the student competition week’. This includes a presentation by a senior executive of a major company, exemplifying the interaction between the academic and corporate worlds, at the heart of the competition’s mission,” she adds.

Matt KiddThe Reaching Out MBA Competition used to hold a preliminary case-writing competition each year, but this was suspended two years ago. According to Matt Kidd, Executive Director, Reaching Out MBA Inc., “in 2006 there were hardly any cases being written involving LGBT subjects and issues, so we needed a case writing competition to generate case  materials for the student contest. These days, these issues are cropping up more frequently in cases written around the world. The landscape is changing and not all the cases we use today in the competition are primarily focused on LGBT issues, though teams will be asked to include this aspect in their solutions.” Kidd reports that his organisation works with a faculty adviser from Stanford Graduate School of Business to source suitable cases. “In the end, target subjects for cases are often student-driven; they report to us what they find to be important from year-to-year,” Kidd adds, “indeed, there are many new opportunities for case subjects with an LGBT dimension emerging today just waiting to be written and which also have relevance for non-LGBT business leaders of tomorrow.”

Sponsors and judges

Case competitions cost money and, even though many charge a fee to participating teams, and require them to finance their travel and accommodation, there are numerous expenses involved, from generous prize money to publicity, refreshments to venue hire and technology. While many are run as non-profit enterprises, attracting sponsors is a vital component. Philanthropy can be a motivation to sponsor, especially where local businesses are concerned but, given that competitions typically showcase some of the finest business case- solving student minds, when sponsors are also invited to participate in judging, competitions can become a useful source of talent-spotting for recruiters. For this reason, consulting companies frequently appear on the lists of sponsors and judges. As competition judges, management consultants do bring the benefit of already understanding the nature and purpose of business cases, either from their own education, or because they often use them in their work.

KPMG’s International Case Competition is actually run directly by the firm, working through its local offices worldwide in identifying competing student teams, and giving the firm a unique opportunity to get to know future high potentials in the process.

Judging may or may not be blind at various stages of competitions and is often undertaken by different panels of judges to cope with a large number of competing teams. Most competitions set out judging criteria, but, several organisers reported that winning teams frequently emerge because they have taken the judges by surprise, or differentiated themselves from other teams with imaginative and unexpected solutions, or, WBS case challenge winnersan original approach to their presentation. Companies involved in the judging process who are in fact the case subject, can be genuinely interested in new and refreshing ideas that teams come up with to inspire their real businesses. The six winning team members of the 2016 Warwick competition, coincidentally represented Warwick Business School, and stood out to judges by the ‘human’ dimension of their business solution to a case that revolved around the topical public health issue of dementia. In a further gesture the winning team donated part of their prize money to a dementia charity.

Lasting impact

Our investigation reveals that student case competitions create a lasting impact through the alchemy of the whole event – a true intersection of education and business. Working on the cases develops student skills of problem solving, teamwork, creative thinking, fact-finding and mental agility, especially relevant for employability. The competitions showcase the students; they enhance the reputation of hosting institutions, and provide unique experiences to all those involved in the competition; they provide networking opportunities and create an added excitement around the process of working on a case, which may be a new experience for some participants. The cases, like the case method itself, turn out to be the catalysts and facilitators of these new, mind opening ideas, experiences and learning.

HSBC Asia Pacific winnersWe leave the final comments to a recent Hong Kong University undergraduate winning team of the HSBC/HKU Asia Pacific Business Case Competition (from left to right on the photo): When asked what the experiences of the competition gave him, Joseph Kwong (Business & Law) included “friendship, and networking with top students from all over Asia, enhancing cultural understanding and promoting diversity and inclusion.” Wing-Yan Chan (English Studies & Global Business) felt that she “gained more perspectives on the approaches, intricacies, and priorities required to solve complex business problems; perspectives not easily gained through conventional textbook or classroom approaches.” Ivan Ho (Philosophy, Politics & Global Business) found the experience “fun, stressful and intense – but enjoyable because we got to solve real problems and present to the CEO of the case company – who, (half-jokingly!) offered us jobs after listening to our proposal.” Kelvin Ho (Accounting & Finance) felt “the competition contributed to my CV; interviewers tend to be very interested in the competition and often ask me about my experience.” It would seem that many students would benefit from the experience of a case competition at some point in their studies.

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