Can cases enhance employability?

By Emma Simmons

Can cases enhance employability? After more than 20 years writing about business education, Della Bradshaw chose her valedictory Financial Times (FT) editorial to the 2016 Global MBA Rankings, to write: “... if there has been one consistent message from recruiters and corporations in the past decade, it is that MBA graduates are, effectively, not fit for purpose. Executives need more communications and problem-solving skills, say MBA recruiters”.

The idea that future employers – rather than students themselves – are the prime ‘customers’ of education, is taking hold worldwide. While governments mould primary and high school curricula to make young people better at maths and spelling: ‘to be more employable’, universities are under increasing pressure to highlight work relevance and readiness as components of all their degree programmes. As fees for higher and further education are becoming the norm, students are compelled to measure their ‘return on investment’, take note of school rankings, and to be sure that they will be able to get a good job after graduation, regardless of the subject studied.

David GarvinGraduate schools, of business – and of law and medicine – especially those with an independent or fee-paying heritage, have always been more conscious of the inevitable connection between their programmes, their reputation and their learners’ careers. But, even for them, these have never been easy to balance. In his Harvard Magazine article, Making the Case, David Garvin recognised that “All professional schools face the same difficult challenge: how to prepare students for the world of practice. Time in the classroom must somehow translate directly into real-world activity: how to diagnose, decide, and act”.

What employers want

Student talkingThere is a wealth of supporting evidence that today's employers, worldwide, are looking first for skills, which reach way beyond the academic subject or qualification of their future recruits, and these findings are surprisingly homogenous the world over. In the 2015 edition of its annual global Corporate Recruiters Survey, the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) found that in all but one of the six industry sectors investigated (Consulting, Finance/Accounting, Healthcare, Manufacturing, Products/Services, Technology), the top desired skill for mid-level hires, was Oral Communications. Most surprisingly, for the Finance/Accounting sector, the ‘relevant’ skill of Quantitative Analysis came in last place (of five) after the soft skills of Oral Communications (1), Written Communications (2), Listening Skills (3), and Presentation Skills (4). Also in the US, a National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey asked employers to rate the skills they most value in new hires. Forbes reported: “Companies want candidates who can think critically, solve problems, work in a team, maintain a professional demeanour and demonstrate a strong work ethic ...” The employers ranked between 4 - Essential, and 5 - Absolutely Essential: “Critical Thinking/Problem Solving 4.7; Teamwork 4.6; Professionalism/Work Ethic 4.5; Oral/Written Communications 4.4”.

In Europe, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in its CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2015, found that: “Businesses look first and foremost for graduates with the right attitudes and aptitudes to enable them to be effective in the workplace – nearly nine in ten employers (89%) value these above factors such as degree subject (62%).” Meanwhile, in Asia, a substantial report, Higher Education in India: Vision 2030, commissioned by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), highlights a skills gap in the vast numbers of recruits that will be required in India. The report identifies the need for the higher education system to “stay relevant” to the Students talking“evolving needs of the economy” and specifically to: “Focus on producing graduates who are ‘ready to hire’” with ... “Key skills imparted: Functional skills that are core to the profession/industry of the students’ course; Critical thinking skills and problem solving skills to produce well rounded leaders; Soft-skills such as written and verbal communication ...” It recognises that while many of the functional skills may be imparted with vocational training, the operational skills are not so readily developed through current, academic subject-driven, education.

And then, there is plenty of free, sometimes contradictory, advice on offer – especially online – to today’s students on the skills recruiters want, such as this from TARGETjobs: “... having the right skills is more highly valued than your degree subject ... interpersonal skills are a key consideration ... flexibility and listening skills ... It’s unlikely that you’ll pick up the skills you need to get a management job purely from your university studies, so you’ll have to get plenty of experience from elsewhere.”

The opportunity of cases

Such widespread research demonstrates the timely relevance of Della Bradshaw’s provocative observation. But what is the solution? She reported: “... we will teach them yet more finance skills, comes the scholarly response”, presumably paraphrasing (unidentified) business school sources. And, while this may be an extreme view, and certainly not one held by all business school faculty and strategists, it does pinpoint the question as to whether adapting curriculum content is the answer to satisfying employer requirements. Are educational institutions in fact able to nurture the required additional skills and, if so, how best? Might other pedagogical options, especially the case method, offer a way forward, especially in business education?

Students thinkingThe above-mentioned research from India is especially interesting in this context because the stakes for the nation, expected not only “to become the most populous country by 2030”, but also, “to be the fastest growing economy in the world over the next 15-30 years,” are among the highest in the world. The report expects: “A significant proportion of this incremental requirement (for skills) will need to be serviced by the higher education system.” But the Indian report is also remarkable because it suggests actionable, practical, educational solutions. It sees a need for a: “Pedagogy that focuses on developing critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills, while emphasizing student outcomes.” It recognises the need to: “Adopt a learner-centered paradigm of education” in which there is: “Learning from peers” and the “faculty acts as a facilitator”. The report identifies the case method as a key way of being able to approach this vital skills-building challenge, especially the ‘softer’ ones: “The ‘case study’ method of teaching can be adopted to develop problem solving and critical thinking skills ... the case study method ... as opposed to rote learning”.

What cases offer

C Roland ChristensenTo case authors and teachers, it comes as no surprise that the method offers participants experiences that can develop numerous interpersonal skills, alongside academic learning and insight. Writing in the Harvard Gazette, C. Roland Christensen, one of the historically most renowned practitioners and scholars of case method pedagogy, highlighted those personal and behavioural attributes that the case teacher aspires to develop in his/her class participants: “We're trying to impact quality of mind, quality of character ... we want [the student] to start thinking about issues ... to think about the ethics of someone in a company making 10 million dollars and someone making three thousand dollars a year ... about how he or she is going to be dealing with those issues.” The Christensen Center for Teaching & Learning at Harvard Business School, which offers guidance and insights to support case teachers, explains the methodology on its Core Principles web page: “Case method instructors use questions, dialogue, debate, and the application of analytical tools and frameworks to engage students in a challenging, interactive learning environment. Not only does this approach raise the likelihood of greater retention – it also allows for learning that goes beyond the transfer of knowledge to include the development of analytical, decision-making, and communication skills, and the cultivation of self-awareness, judgment, and the capacity to lead”, many of the precise attributes we have identified that today’s employers seek.

Pierre ChandonAt INSEAD, Pierre Chandon, the 2016 winner of The Case Centre’s annual Outstanding Contribution to the Case Method Award, offered us his explanation: “Solving a case uses many of the same skills that companies are looking for in a student: multi-disciplinary analytical skills, the ability to work well in groups, and perhaps most important of all, the ability to articulate recommendations, and defend them orally, in front of a critical audience, with or without slides and spreadsheets”.

Nico van den BrinkBut it is not just the dynamics of a case class that can develop the skills employers are seeking; case content – location, scale of business, and subject person or organisation - should not be overlooked as part of the success of the process. Introducing IESE Business School’s 2015 MBA Employment Report, Nico van den Brink, Director of MBA Career Services says: “The IESE MBA is a deep dive into global business practices. Using the case-study method, students analyze over 600 real-life situations that not only provide a framework for effective decision making, but also develop key competencies such as analytical thinking, an entrepreneurial mindset and strong interpersonal skills”.

Kathleen ZhangAt the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Kathleen Zhang, Senior Consultant, Career Development Center, MBA Program, also depicts the synergy between case content and the case class process: “As case studies are derived from actual company scenarios, they provide a practical learning approach whereby students apply knowledge from classroom theory directly to real world situations ... but, success in the business world depends largely on communication and reaching alignment between stakeholders, therefore our casework is always done in groups, with students from diverse backgrounds, giving them ample opportunity to practice these soft skills.” She adds: “We observe how important it is that we incorporate cases that reflect the unique Chinese emerging business environment, with its strongly entrepreneurial aspects, but we also need to be helping students nurture the softer skills to adapt, be flexible and culturally aware, which are often associated with cases about multinational businesses.”

Employers using cases

Antonia VolletThe above comments come from institutions which understand and practice the case method as a significant part of the teaching mix; all highly ranked schools that can also boast participant employment figures, three months after graduation, heading towards the 95% mark. It might additionally interest those who do not (yet) embrace case-based learning that most of those we spoke to also reported that cases are ever more frequently being used by employers themselves in their recruitment process, as a tool to assess participants’ analytical, teamwork and communications skills in real time. Antonia Vollet, MBA Careers Services Advisor at IMD commented: “We have experienced a general increase in case style interviews, even from the ‘giants’ of industry.” The school careers’ service has reacted to this trend: “We have mandatory case study preparation, in addition to student cluster groups working directly with the big consulting firms on case preparation”. Her observations confirm that recruiters are trying to get to know an applicant beyond his/her academic performance: “One key factor we have found that makes the difference to employers is the students’ motivation – self-awareness is key to applying for the ‘right’ position”, she adds.

Students workingPierre Chandon also notes how cases are playing a direct role in the recruitment process of increasing numbers of organisations interested in INSEAD’s graduates. He mentions L’Oréal, a company he knows very well, not least through his multi-award winning series of cases: “L’Oréal organises elaborate company visits for INSEAD MBAs,” he says. “During theses visits, the MBAs attend presentations, often by alumni, about L’Oréal's brands and strategy, but they also have to participate in short case studies, in groups, and then get to present their results in front of HR and management executives. Not surprisingly, the students who are the best prepared with the case method tend to do better and get the attention of L’Oréal”, he observes.

Questions for schools 

Scott AndrewsScott Andrews, an experienced case instructor and author, has run more than 130 case method workshops for educators in 40 countries around the world. While he observes differing expectations of case-based learning in those he works with, he confirms that course creators have received the messages coming from governments and employers loud and clear: “These days, almost every teaching module has to have an aspect of relevance to employability built into its specification”, he comments. “A common approach is to adopt the case method to that end because of the slice of reality – in case subject and class dynamics – it provides”. And, while we have focused on business school graduate employability in this article, Scott Andrews also highlights the value of using appropriate cases to build skills in undergraduate teaching, when students will often have had little, or no, prior work experience to draw on. They can also be used to enhance the performance of those already in work, through executive education or in-work learning programmes: “A carefully selected case, coupled with a powerful class process, can emulate the experience of a work environment and has the potential to dramatically change people’s perspectives on their work and their role in it”, he says.

Trevor WilliamsonTrevor Williamson, another case method practitioner and experienced faculty workshop leader, feels that the intensifying focus on the development of 'employability skills' is challenging many institutions to question the efficacy of their approaches to teaching, learning and assessment. “In many vocationally driven institutions the design and delivery of the curriculum is heavily influenced by the demands of professional bodies in terms of both content and assessment. This can lead to programmes of study that give insufficient time and space for students and staff to take time out to think, and reflect upon their personal, professional and pedagogical development needs,” he says. “Extraordinary effort is widely put into helping students secure jobs through a wide range of well-intentioned initiatives, both in and outside the classroom, but, maybe, what is really required is a radical re-think of the art – as well as the science – of business education itself, involving all stakeholders”, he suggests.

These issues go to the very heart of business schools’ current raison d’être and practice. With or without case-based learning, there are dangers for business schools in first ‘taking responsibility’ for the future employment needs of their students, without still attending to their core mission as academic institutions to develop and spread new knowledge and learning.

Business Schools in the 21st CenturyRecent books and publications are exploring these issues. In The Business School in the Twenty-First Century, Howard Thomas, Peter Lorange and Jagdish Sheth, while recognising the many conflicting opinions and demands on schools, try to “rethink” the business school: ”The many criticisms ... make the case for a reconfigured business school playing a central role in the context of the new global economy and knowledge society. Such a school would develop new thinking and knowledge and provide a reflective and reflexive site for enquiry into business management.”

Rethinking the MBAIn Rethinking the MBA; Business Education at a Crossroads, Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin and Patrick G. Cullen, identify and examine “A Rising Chorus of Concerns”. Among their observations they find that: “At many business schools, faculty and deans complain of a steady erosion of student interest in, and commitment to, academics. ... As one dean noted, ‘The focus has shifted from learning to earning’.” However, the authors, believe that “... a reorientation of MBA programs is absolutely essential – and, to a considerable degree, already underway – with greater attention to action, implementation, exercising judgement when applying knowledge to practice, skill building, and personal development ...”. Recognising their own “bias” in its favour, they note that the case methodology has a strong and valuable contribution to make to this forward movement.

Students laughingAnd students? To conclude on a more positive note than we began, the softer skills that can be developed through effective case-based learning, while overlapping strongly with those that employers today want, are also skills that will help participants own more confident, collaborative and aware lives along whatever path they follow – both in work, and beyond it.

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