What's in it for companies?

Alt textCases need willing companies. Every field researched case involves significant time input, not just from the authors, but also from the subject organisation. Like any investigation of a problem or dilemma, the process of delving deep has the potential to become uncomfortable, and may require the involvement and agreement of management and the board. So why would any company go to all this trouble?

Why would an organisation agree to broadcast potentially difficult issues to the outside world? With over 2,000 new cases added to our catalogue in 2009, 62 per cent of which were field researched, plenty of businesses are clearly willing to go through this process – so, why? What are the benefits, if any, and do companies who have been case subjects have any words of advice to those weighing up whether to participate in a case about their organisation?

Ego and profile

Jamie Mitchell, Chief Executive of Daylesford Organic, holds the unusual distinction of having been both the author of a case about innocent1, the drinks company, while a teaching fellow at London Business School, and the main protagonist of a subsequent case written at Cranfield School of Management2, while he was the Managing Director of the same firm. “Entrepreneurs like talking about their passion – which is generally their business,” he says. “After the case is completed there is a definite ego dimension to go into an MBA class as a main protagonist and talk about the venture; but it can also be a highly stimulating exercise to listen to the thoughts that come out of the class discussion which can often bring fresh insights to the company.”

Indeed, a class of MBAs and executives on management programmes are both considered attractive target audiences by many organisations, keen to profile their company to the next generation of business leaders. The opportunity to reach these groups often represents a major inspiration to agree to become case subjects. In Lithuania, Saulius Budvytis, Director of Personnel and a main protagonist in the Swedbank case3 recognised this aspect of potential prestige and recognition, by giving the bank the chance to appear in front of an international audience that may not yet be familiar with it. In the event, the experience of working on the case with ISM University of Management and Economics, and the process of revisiting key moments in the bank’s history, presented the additional opportunity to profile it afresh to its own staff: “Those who were interviewed were able to step out of their everyday routine and take the long view of the company. We revisited internal newspapers published two to four years ago and found how many interesting things had happened. Subsequently we have collated all the newspapers of the last five years and put the books in our lounge. These documents are very popular with our employees: they show how many things we changed during those years. It gives a sense of shared history and increases pride in the company.”

Fresh insights

The process of developing a case with a business school can often lead to fresh insights and future changes for an organisation. When Marshall Ma, Managing Director of EasyFinance, a Chinese company offering training to multinationals, became involved with CEIBS in a case about the company4, he realised that the probing into the company with the case authors, the requirement to provide honest responses, and the questions posed to a case class at the end of the case, could relate to EasyFinance today and help with a current dilemma: “By reviewing our past, we obtained new learning, and we began to think more intently about our future and what kind of company we wanted to be. The result was that since the case, we have worked successfully to make our corporate image and culture more consistent and open.”

Ferio Pugliese, Executive Vice President, People and Culture at the Canadian airline WestJet, observes a clear win-win through collaboration with The Richard Ivey School of Business5. The process of case development has been followed by valuable exchanges between WestJet and the school. Ferio Pugliese regards the close interaction with Gerard Seijts, Associate Professor, as particularly fruitful: “Following a case, it is really useful to be able to speak to the member of faculty when new issues arise at the company. Gerard knows us so well after the process that his perspective is invaluable and he has taught the case at the WestJet leadership conference.” Ferio Pugliese meanwhile has attended a number of MBA classes when the case is taught and involved other WestJet staff such as pilots. Gerard Seijts is convinced of the benefits a company can get from having a case written about it: “For a company like WestJet, the process becomes a kind of outreach. Companies need visibility and there is the added benefit of getting hard-to-come-by fresh ideas from a new business generation, or sometimes even a new intern or employee whose contribution has particularly impressed during class discussion.”

Challenges and advice

But becoming a case subject is not without its potential pitfalls, which also have to be carefully managed. In South Africa, Andy Higgins, Managing Director of the leading online marketplace, BidorBuy recalls how not all his fellow board members shared his enthusiasm to become involved in a case about the company after being approached by the Wits Business School6: “The Board was split, having understood the amount of information that would have to be revealed – in particular to our competitors, while others clearly thought the pros would outweigh the cons.” Andy Higgins, a Wits alumnus, who has also done some guest lecturing, was determined that the case should not end up as a watered down version of reality compromising its classroom integrity or pedagogical quality: “The process of approving drafts was occasionally problematical and led to certain lingering issues; another time I would perhaps aim to get broader advance buy-in from all stakeholders – but overall I have no regrets.”

Andy Higgins and Jamie Mitchell agree it is vital at the outset to ensure the organisation and the case author are moving in the same direction, though it often happens that the key decision point of a case emerges as a by product of the process of developing it. Marshall Ma highlights the additional complication that all protagonists don’t always view the company’s history in the same way during the process. Ferio Pugliese goes further and urges companies not to fear the inevitable unknown in the process: “There is richness for the company in the dialogue alone, even with total strangers. If you have a good story, share it; it’s your responsibility to let students learn from best practice and more companies should be doing it.” Gerard Seijts places the emphasis firmly on case authors to explain the process: “While it definitely helps if someone has experienced cases at business school, companies need help to understand how a case works – it’s not journalism: cases are not ‘gotcha.’ The bottom line for a company is ‘what can I learn to make my organisation better?’” There is surely not a company in the world that wouldn’t like the opportunity to do that.

Case references

1 Bates, J, Mitchell, J and Rivers, O (2007), Fresh Trading (A) and (B), Ref 807-016-1 and 807-017-1

2 Brown, R and Grayson, D (2008), innocent Drinks: Values and Value, Ref 708-041-1

3 Alonderiene, R, Buta, A, Pilkiene, M and Ruplyte, B, Swedbank: Becoming The Most Attractive Employer, available by the end of 2010. This case is being written as part of a project, financed by the European Commission, to embed the case method in Lithuanian and Estonian management education (project number LLP-LdV- TOI-2008-LT-0028). View further details

4 Velamuri, S and Xin, F (2008), EasyFinance: Developing the Capacities for Growth, Ref 808-021-1

5 Seijts, G and Mark, K (2009), WestJet: Building A High-Engagement Culture, Ref 9B09C012

6 Dagada, R and Townsend, S (2010), Bidorbuy: Bidding for First Place, Ref 910-002-1

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