Case context: the vibrant ingredient

Indian spices We talk to Ali Farhoomand, Professor at the University of Hong Kong School of Business and Founding Director of the Asia Case Research Centre (ACRC), about a fresh approach to cases.

FocusAsia, a new case study and video series, showcases leading Asian enterprises and their executives. The series places understanding context centre stage in business decision-making.

An enduring preoccupation of Ali Farhoomand, an experienced proponent of the case method and author of many cases, is how to make cases better. In contrast to those who view the case method so enthusiastically, as to be almost completely uncritical of it, he perceives its imperfections. “Cases are about a situation in a particular time and place”, he argues. “As a means of communication, the written word has limitations, even in the most skilful hands. To understand the rich holistic environment of a particular business state of affairs or dilemma, and its nuances, we need to enrich the case package for our students and help them get into ‘thinking mode’. We need to get creative and provide three-dimensional context”.

With this in mind, and with the current worldwide interest in the explosion of business activity throughout Asia, Ali Farhoomand conceived the FocusAsia: Business Leaders Case Study and Video Series. Over the last two years, he has been putting it together, writing some of the cases himself and colleagues at the University of Hong Kong School of Business authoring others. The series comprises eleven comprehensive, classically written cases and teaching notes with charts and data, looking at a cross section of businesses and business leaders in China, Hong Kong, India, Japan and Singapore. Each is accompanied by a professionally produced, 30 minute DVD, which plunges the viewer into the vibrant, real-world context of the written case. Though each deals with a different business sector - public transport, non-profit, property development, advertising, biotech, business process outsourcing, manufacturing, hotels and resorts, broadcasting, publishing - all eleven share underlying themes such as business growth, maintaining corporate advantage, breaking into international markets and innovation. They do not have to be used as a complete series. Each volume is self contained and available individually, beautifully presented and suitable for a library shelf, with DVD and case.


The overriding theme of leadership links all these diverse case studies, set in, ultimately, very varied Asian cultures, at different stages of development. According to Ali Farhoomand, these leaders are a new breed, operating in a unique time and context. They represent a dramatically forward-looking global vision of business. He believes them to be “much more cosmopolitan than Western leaders: they are global.” Some have years of experience in the West and have returned to Asia to run businesses, such as Sir C.K. Chow, CEO of Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation Limited, the publicly listed railway company, which, while facing challenges, has a story of great profitability and efficiency to tell; a rare attribute in public transport organisations worldwide. Others have stayed in their countries and have looked out into the larger world for new ideas, such as Tong Zhicheng, once a worker on the shop floor and now Chairman of China’s Pearl River Piano Group, a Chinese state-owned enterprise and the world’s largest piano manufacturer, facing the challenge of becoming internationally competitive. The featured leaders are also a highly diverse group, including Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, CEO of India’s Biocon, now India’s wealthiest woman, grappling with global competitive pressures and how to transform the company into India’s first true innovator in the field of biotechnology. According to Ali Farhoomand, “Diversity is a prerequisite for globalisation and the most significant potential driver of economic growth. It’s all about the ability to function in an interdependent global market. These leaders are pointing the way”. Meeting them in their operating context on the DVDs adds greatly to gaining a rounded picture of them and is one of the strengths of this case study and video series.


Audio-visual accompaniments to cases are nothing new and there are many to be found in The Case Centre catalogue. A typical background video or CD-ROM often has an interview with a chief executive or other member of staff in his or her office and sound and picture quality can be extremely variable. The FocusAsia DVDs include plentiful footage of the leaders and their associates out and about and at work running the businesses featured in the cases, but there the similarity with conventional case videos ends. The FocusAsia DVDs are presented as real television programmes: dynamic, visually compelling, with a vibrant soundtrack. There is a presenter and a commentary. The interviews and profiles of all the proponents in the case, on site, on the shop floor, walking and talking, discussing operations, culture and strategic outlook, are interspersed with a professionally moderated, studio discussion between a theoretical/academic expert and a specialist business commentator on the relevant sector. This intellectual dimension gives a further perspective on the case events, for, as Ali Farhoomand puts it, “as educators, we have to expose the ‘why’ of business decisions”.

FocusAsia book The professional presentation is deliberate. Having secured some funding, Ali Farhoomand took his inspiration for the DVDs from a flagship Asian business television programme and gained the involvement of Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre and an Emmy winning producer. He felt that ACRC was in a unique position to bring together rigorous academic and theoretical concepts with the professional techniques and skills of the more visual and immediate world of journalism. His vision, to help the educator communicate the full picture to the participants through these videos, is powerful. Watching them, you feel you have actually been at the scene of the businesses in China, Hong Kong, India, Japan and Singapore. You feel more curious and sense some of the cultural difference and speed of change in these countries. You want to go there to find out more for yourself. You seem to have met the business leaders and feel their charisma. The business dilemmas look and feel different, as real people, with ideas, vision and commitment grapple with complex situations before your eyes. You feel the current energy of Asia. Giving the issues this dynamic context, they take on a new perspective. As Ali Farhoomand puts it, “the video brings the richness of the complexity”.


Ali Farhoomand is hopeful that the new ACRC case study and video series will make a contribution to helping business students worldwide understand a little more about leadership, business decision-making and what is going on in Asia. “But, it’s also about bridging the gap between what business schools teach and what business actually needs”, he adds; an issue highlighted by the business thinker Henry Mintzberg, a formative influence. “Educating, learning and leading is like the work of the artist,” he says. “It’s about leaving the linear, the descriptive and the analysis to reach the synthesis of something and communicating it. It’s about understanding and reflecting relationships and for that you need a more complete picture”. The FocusAsia series is a conscious step in that direction.


The FocusAsia series is available from The Case Centre. View more information

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If you have recently registered a case with us and would like the chance to talk about your experience of writing and teaching it please contact Antoinette.
Antoinette Mills Antoinette Mills
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