Going local - we explore the growing
demand for 'local' cases

By Emma Simmons

Going local Recent years have seen a growing demand for ‘local’ cases. We explore what constitutes a local case for authors and instructors, and investigate this evolving trend.

When it comes to cases, ‘local’ means many things. It can denote a case written about a business local to the author or school. Ease of access to the company, or personally knowing people may have facilitated or inspired the project. Alternatively, ‘local’ can refer to a specific case environment, such as a developing country, or a part of the world in which few cases have been set.

Roger MoserRoger Moser, at the University of St Gallen, sees a growing demand for both from his participants: “Many executives prefer a local case about a company that has similarities to their own, and the issues it faces - perhaps an SME,” he says. “For others, ‘local’ is an increasingly important concept when looking at a target market they are, or want to be, involved in, for example, in the context of doing business in Asia. Executives and students have understood that there is a need for them to better understand the people, business practices, culture and institutions of individual regions in a target emerging country because these vary dramatically and are very different from what they are used to in their European or US context”. The case Providing Access to Water in Remote Areas – Trunz Water Systems in India (co-author G. Narayanamurthy), arose out of Moser’s collaboration with the Swiss company as it worked on providing rural infrastructure solutions. “I use the case to ‘fast track’ my students in understanding the challenges Western companies face. It has already inspired three alumni to initiate a water project in Udaipur, India, and feed their experiences back to my current classes using Skype,” he reports.

Literally local

Not infrequently, The Case Centre receives cases written about an organisation located locally to a school or author in a developed environment. Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH) Pre-Admission Testing Area (PATA) won the New Case Writer Award in 2012. Kelsey McCartyKelsey McCarty co-developed the case while a participant at MIT Sloan School of Management. The case opportunity arose directly out of a long-standing local collaboration between Retsef Levi (co-author and Kelsey’s Data Modelling and Decisions course professor) and the hospital. “As part of the collaborative team of MIT Sloan students and MGH staff working on the PATA project, I drew from many of the concepts I had learned in my operations management class, in fact, the approach to the PATA problem had many parallels to how we approached cases and problems on our course,” reports Kelsey. “The need to improve efficiency in healthcare delivery is a consistently hot topic and Jérémie Gallien, my Introduction to Operations Management professor – also a co-author, suggested developing a case from the clinic’s example as a great learning tool for operations management principles.”

David GraysonAt Cranfield University, David Grayson authored the award-winning case innocent Drinks: Values and Value (co-author R. Brown), a - relatively speaking - locally located case subject and one that he had some familiarity with as an occasional external adviser to innocent. Grayson reports that the reason for the subject selection was for it to be a powerful SME case study, rather than because of the location of the company. However, “In my field of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability I have consciously sought to produce cases from different parts of the world, such as China (Shared Value from M-Health for China Mobile) and Indonesia (Silence is Not Golden: Golden Agri-Resources, Greenpeace and Sustainable Palm-Oil), to show students that responsible business practices and issues are now a global phenomenon. I believe this to be especially important in a business school with a very significant international cohort.” He adds: “I do think it helps students to understand that Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability - and presumably other management themes - are not simply Western constructs but relate internationally, and it also helps them for the future to explore how these topics work in diverse local circumstances.”

Local vs. multi-national

The search for a ‘local’ case often just means wanting a case that is not centred on a multinational business. The United Nations Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTAD) recognised that while cases on multinational organisations have their place, there is a relative lack of pedagogical material, including cases, set in more marginalised economies, and for these to develop at a faster rate, more is needed. Following the ministerial roundtable at the 2010 World Investment Forum, government leaders called on business schools to help participants identify opportunities in developing and least developed economies (LDCs), more directly targeted to foster sustainable and pro-poor outcomes. Research showed that many students were interested, but didn’t know where these opportunities were, or how to go about finding and responding to them. The resulting project Business Schools for Impact, which was officially launched at the 2014 World Investment Forum, aims to transform business programmes with a strong emphasis on curriculum innovation, of which cases are an important part.

James Zhan“There is a tendency to see the issues faced by developing countries as all the same,” says James Zhan, Director of the Investment and Enterprise Division at UNCTAD, under whose auspices the project is taking form. “However individual countries, regions and continents are all totally diverse and require a different mindset and skills in people willing to pursue the opportunities they offer. Early on, educators raised with us the lack of relevant cases, which focus on the needs and circumstances in LDCs and particular regions, and uniquely permit students to practice the skills they will need out in the field in the ‘safety’ of the classroom. So, encouraging the development of cases is part of the project alongside other initiatives such as making available internship opportunities for students in LDC contexts and the creation of a central platform which enables educators, students and entrepreneurs out in the field to connect. We are still at an early stage, but feedback so far has been excellent,” he adds.

From local to multinational

Of course, a ‘local’ case subject, anywhere in the world, may hold the potential to one day itself become a multinational. Equally, a country that has economic development needs, can also transform into a vibrant international economic centre. Eleanor O'HigginsEleanor O’Higgins at University College Dublin first became aware of Ireland’s Ryanair as a struggling new local Irish company. She was also interested in it simply as a potential consumer of the services of the new competitor to the local duopoly of established airlines (Aer Lingus and UK-based British Airways.) Ryanair’s new chief executive Michael O’Leary transformed the airline’s fortunes, and its evolution under his leadership, became the focus of Eleanor O’Higgins’ three award-winning cases on the airline, written over a number of years. To preserve impartiality, she took a conscious decision not to approach company representatives in her case research, employing primarily secondary sources, but believes that her local knowledge was a factor in developing a powerful case narrative for what would become such successful cases.

“It is easier to write about the local context,” she says. “Ireland in particular has a relatively small and very close-knit business community. Being here means one is ‘in the loop’ of what is happening. Locally, one understands the all-important context and how people here think.” Eleanor O’Higgins affirms how valuable local media was in her research. “Being familiar with local news outlets can be a rich source of material that adds colour to a case – and enjoyment to the class.” She cites as an example the fact that Michael O’Leary owns a local stud farm and the added perspective that kind of detail could add to the picture of him as a leader. In fact, when Eleanor O’Higgins informed Ryanair of the first case and its Awards’ success, the company reacted positively and this contact resulted in Michael O’Leary himself coming ‘down the road’ to attend a case class and agreeing to be videoed for the benefit of future participants, a further tangible benefit of the local aspect.

Perspective from the East

Doris JohnAt the Amity Research Centre, Chennai, India, faculty and case author Doris John observes “the shifting centre of gravity of business from West to East.” She has experienced an accompanying demand from the region’s exploding number of business students for relevant local case materials, something which has also come to the attention of The Case Centre from diverse Asian-based faculty, especially at recent case workshops. “With China and India now growing at the fastest rates in the world, cities such as Singapore and Dubai being touted as new global financial leadership centres, and home-grown businesses such as Tata and Jack Ma now making a global impact, we need a good number of case studies that narrate both the travails and the successes of the Asian region’s local businesses,” says Doris John. “The dynamics of doing business is different in the East, where cultural and ethical differences, and local rules and regulations all have their own impact. Students feel a lot more comfortable and are more responsive using the more familiar brands, situations and contexts of ‘local’ cases, and the resulting excitement in the classroom is palpable. Participants can relate far beyond the facts of the case, and to the protagonist, and hence derive a lot more learning than from more ‘remote’ or ‘distant’ subjects which require more to be left to the imagination,” she feels. “In addition, the learning derived from ‘local’ cases can be easily translated to students’ ‘real world’ and hence they readily appreciate their practicality,” she adds.

Interestingly, cases about Western multinational companies such as Amazon or Starbucks operating in the Asian market can become equally engaging ‘local cases’ for Doris John’s students because they often relate to brands in the local marketplace. And, in spite of great local variation in national cultures and context, there is also a demand for ‘regional-specific local’ cases. “There is in fact often commonality within a broader region,” she observes. Her recent case, The Bangladesh Garment Factory Disaster – Wither CSR?, produced a good class discussion with her students who identified parallels with the Indian context. “Unethical sourcing norms occur across many industries and in many countries in the region - including here in India. Students referred to child labour being prevalent in the fireworks industry, the carpet weaving and the diamond industry, and they could make the comparison with the garment industry of Bangladesh. Such case discussion becomes more meaningful and initiated a lot of interest and even follow-up,” she reports.

Facilitating cases at a distance

To satisfy the growing need for ‘local’ cases about subjects based in emerging economies, faculty at Western schools are following diverse routes to facilitate the process of local research and authoring ‘at a distance’. Ivey Publishing has taken an innovative approach by developing a comprehensive programme of ‘co-branded’ cases. To date, around 20 co-branding agreements have been made with other institutions around the globe and numerous cases have been published such as Sidhi Tribal Women’s Cooperative: Leadership Succession, co-branded with the Management Development Institute, Gurgaon, India.

Matt QuinAccording to Matt Quin, Director of Ivey Publishing, these sometimes result from an existing relationship between Ivey faculty and another school, or Ivey may have become aware of high quality case development taking place elsewhere, perhaps through a workshop experience, or in relation to a governmental drive for more cases to be created, as currently in China, for example. Before Ivey publishes and markets a co-branded case, it is put through a rigorous review process involving some of its most experienced case faculty. “The co-branding initiative is a win-win for all involved,” reports Matt Quin, “and is enabling some really excellent cases to become available to a wider global audience. In fact, these cases are not all about strictly ‘local’ subjects and include well known multinationals, in response to participants’ wishes to have cases about great companies tailored to specific environments. We see the co-branding programme as making the classroom even more relevant and opening up the case method across the world into a vibrant community,” he adds.

Pedagogy and quality

But from a pedagogical point of view, especially in today’s increasingly multicultural classes, does it really matter where a case has been authored or whether it relates to a near or far, local or multinational, subject? Celia MooreCelia Moore at London Business School, whose case output includes ‘local’ London-based cases, such as Kweku Adaboli at UBS (co-author S. Wakeman), observes that, ‘local’ does not have a clearly definable relevance at the school because its participants originate from more than 40 countries, although they do tend to request that less ubiquitous, non-American, cases be included in their programmes. In her own field of organisational behaviour, she also sees that there may be more global similarities in human nature for participants to understand, than differences. “Authoring a case about a locally based organisation has its logistical advantages while researching, and the immediacy of the subject can help students come alive to it in class. Also, there is a demand from students for cases based in developing countries and, by the same token, participants often request topical cases or cases written by their instructors. But underlying all of these factors must be the quality and pedagogical strength of the case,” she asserts. “Faculty get the idea for a case, and location may be a factor, but every case needs to begin and end with a clear pedagogical objective - and the case needs to be interesting.” Perhaps in the diverse world of the ‘local case’, subject location, like all other aspects, needs first and foremost to serve the pedagogical purpose, rather than the reverse.

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Antoinette Mills Antoinette Mills
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antoinette@thecasecentre.org