Choreographing executive communication with experimental cases

Professor Bill Fischer and Research Associate Rebecca Chung of IMD explore their new case approaches

New MBA participants quickly realise that if they don’t read a case properly before class, they will get little out of the discussion it is meant to support. This preparation is no mean feat, when a traditional case can involve 30 pages of small type. For executives, case preparation can be even more of a challenge.

Whether at business school on short courses, or the Executive MBA, or during company specific training, executives are short of time. They still have their day jobs and their businesses don’t stop while they take time out to learn. They are often stressed and can lack the mind space, or energy, to do a traditional case justice before the class, often reading between fire fighting calls to the office and late-night calls home.

Michael Faye cartoonBill Fischer, with twenty years of case writing and teaching experience, has been addressing these particular learning challenges executives face with some revolutionary new approaches to case content, construction and class discussion. “Learning should be fun,” says Bill, “It’s a dynamic process - not just sitting alone in a hotel room; a case is a tool that should enhance learning, not frustrate it.” Anyone who picks up Michael Faye Goes to China, written by Bill with his collaborator Rebecca Chung, will immediately smile. Instead of the traditional sparse case cover page, here we have a cartoon-inspired illustration of Michael, himself, with a thought bubble, clearly recognisable as Shanghai, China, hanging just above his head. Executive smiles must quickly broaden: not only is the case just six pages long, but also, it is all a comic strip style cartoon with professionally drawn characters and clearly printed speech and thought bubbles. Michael has recognised the timely potential of China and we follow him as he explores his hunches as to how to outsmart the competition in the burgeoning country and develops his own agenda for success - a series of self-reflective questions. The cartoons are simply and elegantly constructed, with images of a huge Chinese dragon and the Great Wall of China appearing as allegories of the mammoth challenge all business executives currently face in China. Two final brief conventional text appendices introduce us to Michael Faye’s background and that of his company and products.

Compared with conventional cases, both Michael Faye Goes to China and its companion case, Antonio Scarsi Takes Command, which explores Canadian based Antonio’s decision and move to run an indigenous Chinese company, contain an extraordinarily small amount of text. But, the apparently simple construction of these cartoon cases is deceptive. It soon becomes clear that every word and every image has been considered and positioned with a specific purpose in mind.

Michael Faye cartoonLike the Great Wall of China for Michael Faye, the roots and branches of the trees in a woodland hike become symbols of the complex and difficult path Antonio Scarsi will need to climb in China. The impression made on the reader is direct and compelling. The usual time spent in lengthy case reading is replaced by a short read which will be inevitably be followed by reflection. Rebecca Chung endorses this artistic comparison: “Working on these cases, I sometimes felt more like a movie director, than a case writer,” she says. “Whereas a conventional text case might seem like a book or story, the cartoon case is like a movie, shorter and more immediate, leaving a strong impression. It’s actually difficult to say things in few words and the pictures, literally, help paint a picture.”

Redefining the case teacher

The contrast of these award winning cases (EFMD 2006) with more conventional cases continues in the classroom. Bill has a clear pedagogy in mind. Whereas many traditional cases lead up to the revelation of a specific solution or answers in the class, these cases don’t have a particular solution, he suggests. “It’s up to the participants to find their own,” says Bill. “The cases are pointers; the important thing is the ensuing discussion among the executives.” The cases redefine the role of the case teacher. “The teacher becomes a catalyst - a choreographer - of conversation between bright people. The objective is to let them talk; to involve them in a more energised way and help them unfold layers of insight into their own worlds.“This is much more personal than a ‘one-size fits all’ preferred solution, to what is actually an opportunity for self-reflection about individual preferences.

To assist other teachers with the additional challenge of using these cases, Bill and Rebecca have put together very comprehensive and detailed teaching notes, including annotated versions of the cartoons. They encapsulate the pedagogical rationale of the format as “expressly designed to encourage the audience to talk about their knowledge and experiences and… reflect upon their own personal leadership and learning styles …” There is also a video of the real life protagonistsavailable to use in class. As to worrying whether executives might see preparing a cartoon case as not serious, the experience of Bill and Rebecca is the opposite. “Executives really seem to like this approach”, they confirm, and it appears to work for all nationalities and cultures.

This is not the first time Bill and Rebecca have innovated effective cases, which drastically reduce participant preparation time. Wendy Simpson in China (A) and (B), also award winning (EFMD 2005), explore fundamental value issues of involving a company in China and the realities of initiating that process for the organisation and the individuals involved.

The first surprise is that this case set looks like two PowerPoint presentations. Again, there is a very comprehensive and detailed teaching note with thirteen exhibits and a video. In fact, says Bill, “the case can be handed out at the beginning of a class to read in five or ten minutes. Alternatively, it doesn’t have to be read at all and can be introduced, screen by screen in class as a backdrop to the discussion.” As with the cartoon cases, the few words belie the large amount of information in the text. Bill is convinced that this is an effective approach with executives who understand the importance of detail in business and the power of attention to it. Here, the teacher is called upon to decide how many questions should be answered and Bill urges colleagues to be confident that quality of learning is more important than quantity and all possible questions do not have to find preferred solutions in one class.

What started out for Bill Fischer as interesting stories of real business executives, feeling their way in the Chinese market, have become uniquely versatile cases that can be used, especially with executives, not just to explore doing business in China, but to understand leadership, networking and personal learning style in any cultural context. “I wanted to produce cases about ‘people in the middle’, not necessarily CEOs, and focus on their trials and challenges, alongside corporate strategy, because that is where most executives are.” Bill and Rebecca, supported by IMD’s Editing and Case Services teams are planning further experimental and interactive cases, so there will be more engaging executive teaching and learning to look forward to soon. 

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