/ 21 February 2020

Why MBA case-study competitions work

(John McCann/M&G)

Business school competitions are proliferating. From Harvard Business School’s New Venture Competition and Wharton’s Startup Challenge to the John Molson MBA International Case Competition — fondly known as the “MBA Olympics” — these events are becoming much-anticipated highlights for top business schools — with students lining up to take part.

Their burgeoning popularity is partly because they offer handsome prize money — John Molson, which this year was won for the first time by an African team from the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), featured teams from 36 business schools locked in an intense battle of skill for a C$10 000 prize; the Chicago Booth School of Business Social New Venture Challenge offers winnings of $100 000.

But their appeal goes beyond the prize money. These events, particularly the case-study competitions, give all participants an opportunity to take the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired during their studies and apply them to a real-world challenge. At international competition level, this takes exceptional analytical skill, a solid understanding of business fundamentals — and practical experience in applying these across various industries, markets, cultures and economies.

Business schools use the case study method of teaching to attempt to bridge the gap between academic theory and practical application. And international competitions take this to an advanced level. Here are four reasons why they are so effective.

Fostering innovation

Intense competition adds time and performance components to case-study analysis, which fosters innovation. It pushes students to dig deep and come up with not only a viable solution but the most innovative one they can. This takes a high level of creativity, strategic thinking and agility, and requires some strong nerves on the big day.

Typically, competing teams have a short preparation time — with no access to the internet — to synthesise complex information and to formulate their analysis and solution, forcing them to rely on the knowledge and skills they bring to the table, and the mental agility to put it all into practice.

Strengthening skills

LinkedIn’s global list of the most in-demand skills includes analytical reasoning and business analysis as two of the top-10 hard skills required by recruiters in 2020. The top-five soft skills are creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and emotional intelligence.

Preparing for, and participating in, a case-study competition certainly develops these crucial skills, because it requires students to analyse qualitative and quantitative data, provide evidence of analytical reasoning, apply a high degree of creativity and have the necessary communication skills to present their findings to the judges. It also requires highly developed emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration with team members.

Intense case-study preparation, over and above the students’ MBA workload, pushes them to achieve what at first seems impossible. A growth mind-set, an essential component for career success, is shown to be achieved through seeking out challenges and by pushing oneself beyond the limit, thereby increasing the ability to learn, and to perform.

Kate Herringer, part of the winning team from this year’s John Molson competition, confirms that it was a gruelling, intense and, ultimately, life-changing experience. “The transformation I noticed in both myself and my teammates throughout the process was quite amazing. It was so rewarding to see all the technical skills we learned in our MBA programme come to life in the real world,” she says.

The benefits of diversity

The structure of a case-study team makes a big difference in the team dynamics and its ultimate performance. Diverse teams often deliver better results. But that adds to the challenge, because diverse teams naturally find it harder to integrate. Homogenous teams do not have the depth and width of life experience, field of study, industry knowledge and cultural diversity that is needed to solve big, complex problems.

The real-world challenges that teams are called on to solve come from a variety of industries, cultures, economies and markets. A team with members from diverse backgrounds, with different strengths and personalities, brings multiple perspectives to bear on the problem and this is necessary for finding creative and innovative solutions.

High-performing teams

The most important requirement for attempting to win a case-study competition is the ability to work efficiently and effectively as a team. This is often stated, but very rarely achieved in the real world, in which many teams are dysfunctional.

Giving students an opportunity to experience how a high-performing team functions is a valuable life skill and an essential business competence. It fosters leadership capability through practice and experience, adding a vital component to leadership education.

A high-performance team draws equally on all resources to build a final product that is complete — where all parts tell a coherent and integrated story. To achieve this, team members need to learn to trust each other completely, and this takes a lot of practice.

Shivani Ghai, another UCT GSB student from this year’s winning John Molson team, says: “I vividly remember being apprehensive about the competition because working with a team under so much pressure can be so stressful. But working in a high-performance team was a challenge I was willing to accept.

“Fast-forward six months, holding the trophy, I realise that was exactly what it was all about — surrounding yourself with the right people, the kind of people you can trust with your life.”

Taken together, these four elements help to ensure that students who participate competitively have an optimal chance of securing a top job after graduation or starting a winning enterprise.

Many leading organisations use recruitment processes that include case-study assessments — and a case-study competition is the best possible preparation.

An added benefit is that these events provide global networking opportunities and promote an exchange of knowledge and expertise. Students meet other students and faculty from around the world — as well as senior corporate executives and potential employers — and competitions often lead to collaborative projects with other business schools.

Quite simply, in an era of increased rivalry in the race to get a job, taking part in an international competition can give a student that all important edge. For this reason, we can expect to see the popularity of these events continue to grow.

Johannes Schueler is a senior lecturer on the MBA programme at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business and was the coach of the student team that won the 2020 John Molson Case Study Competition in January