January 2011, NUS MAB students Suwandy Lee, Diana Chang, Susan Tong, and Brian Atlee participated in the Business Case Competition held by John Molson School of Busines, Concordia University. This competition is open to business schools worldwide and is held in Montreal, Canada from 3 – 8 January 2011 during the winter season. This year, a total of 36 schools participated with 14 from Canada, 8 from US and the remaining 14 from different parts of Europe, Singapore, Israel and Pakistan.
Below is the experience sharing from each team member:
"The preparation of the team starts in late November until early January, before each team member leaves for December holiday. The team has practiced at least 8 cases with various topics, i.e. marketing, finance, strategy, integration and human resources related issues. The preparation of the cases are very essential for team members to understand one another’s working style, which ultimately the team is able to compliment on each strengths in solving the case. We have one member who always pays close attention to numbers, one member who leads the discussion forward with focus on strategic frameworks, one member who makes sure all aspects have been covered with focus on the implementation, and the other member who contributes to key analysis discussion and being in charge of the slides preparation. The task distribution is one critical factor to ensure efficiency usage of preparation time. One drawback from the training is that most of the trainings are conducted by three members only. As such, the actual competition will require slight adjustment during the team preparation.
Based on my observation, there are three key elements required to gain scores from the adjudicators: brief and broad content (strategic analysis, framework, implementation, financial & risk analysis), impactful delivery (slides outline and presentation style), and outstanding Q&A (anticipation of issues not covered in slides). The 3-hour time is very critical in delivering high quality of three key elements above. One shortcoming of the team is the insufficient time to conduct practice to ensure smoothness of presentation and anticipation of Q&A. The team basically has strong content and broad analysis on the case, however, lack of impactful delivery in certain rounds. In addition, during each rounds of the competition, it is observed that the decision of the “key” adjudicator is very critical in finalizing the scores of both competing teams. Also there is general perception that some of the decisions made by the adjudicators tend to be a bit subjective. Hence, ability to convince the adjudicators on the team’s analysis is crucial."
[Key Learning Points and Tips from Diana]
1) Layout the various strategic options clearly and give strong reasons for recommended course of action. Be clear on the selection criterias’ used and why alternatives were not considered. Judges will try to sway your position by posing very challenging questions on your recommendation, it is important to stand firm and be consistent.
2) Give relevant real world examples. Judges love examples from the real world and the implementation experiences gained. It is powerful to use those to support your implementation plan and recommendations
3) Structure and coverage – The judges are holding very structured evaluation forms and they are grading the performance of the team according to each header (e.g options considered, implementation plan, teamwork). Therefore, it is useful for the team to follow the same structure in their presentation.
4) Financials are important – In every case possible, illustrate and consider the financial impact of your recommendations. Some of the projections may be arbitrary, in such instances make sure the assumptions used can be defended and reasonable. The team did well on this.
5) Q&A – Handle this part with confidence. Our team was pretty hesitant for this segment for the first 2-3 cases. We observed that competing teams were very smooth on this although some of their answers were complete ‘bullshit. The common theme is that whatever the reply was, it must support and substantiate the recommended course of actions. We did well on this for subsequent cases.
6) Judges dependent – The judges are primarily from Canada but can come from different industries holding relatively senior positions in business practise. The perspectives can be extremely varied. In some instances, the judges may already have a pre-established mindset on what is the ‘right’ option to choose moving forward. The way out is to make very substantiated/ justifiable rationale to your decision which may minimise the extent of ‘lost’.
7) Professional vs Casual – The team has been very professional and cordial in our presentation but we observed that some winning competing schools were more casual in their approach and behaviour. Apparently, this seems to work for some judges who probably felt more at ease with them.
8) Preparation Time – Do allocate time for practising and slides editing. This is one of the most critical steps to ensure that there is flow in the presentation. Although the team dedicated time for this segment, we skipped this part when time is running out. As a result, there were apparent disjoints for some parts of our presentation.
[Susan explains the competition format]
The format was as follows: each team is placed in a division and competes in a round robin with other teams in that division. Eight teams advance to the semifinals (the winner of each division plus the three top scoring teams outside of the divisional winners). Cases are judged by a panel of >=3 judges from the Montreal business community (sometimes high profile representatives from the sponsoring companies). Scores are given based on criteria including: identification of the key issues, presentation flow, quality of recommendations and how the team handled Q&A. After the results are revealed each night, the feedback forms are available for the teams to review. The comments/score can be highly subjective. We looked at the judge’s feedback form each night and evaluated if/how we could improve our strategies/execution for the next case.
Twelve points are split between the two teams facing each other. An outright win (>1 point win) will add 30 points to the total while a marginal win (6 vs. 5) adds fewer points and the losing team also gets extra points. Objective: Win big or lose small. Teams have a chance to sit in on the presentations of other teams. Our coach used that opportunity to do reconnaissance on what other teams did well and how we could incorporate that into our game plan.
The cases we analyzed were in the areas of: Honda extending its joint-venture with its Indian partner, growth strategy for a French light bulb company, a short case on how a mining company can navigate expansion in unfamiliar/ad hoc regulatory emerging markets, a live case given by the Canadian Trade commission on how to entice foreign companies to Canada as well as how to help Canadian businesses abroad especially China/India, and final case on how the Tate Museum should handle the bad press it got from being endorsed by BP post Gulf disaster.
Aside from the actual competition, there are several activities the hosts put on in order to foster networking amongst the teams. From wine/cheese tastings to dance instruction to a ‘Black and White Ball’, these events gave us a chance to meet other participants, share our MBA experiences and create ties that may prove beneficial in our careers. For instance, we got to know the NTU team pretty well and though we were representing a small country like Singapore, this competition has been one of few opportunities for the two schools to interact.
It is obviously an honor for a student to be able to represent their school in such a high-profile, international event. Working with a team of students from a wide array of backgrounds and nationalities adds to the learning experience in ways that simple classroom experiences are not able to accomplish. The selection process used for determining the member components of the team was thorough and I believe led to the selection of students who were compatible and relatively efficient in working together. This is a key factor to success as a team that cannot work professionally and effectively together is doomed before ever starting.
Our efforts to practice case presentations prior to the December break were a necessary step in the preparation process. Teams that expect to win or place high in the final rankings must practice in advance and must practice under strict time and process criteria. We did this with general effectiveness but perhaps without the duration necessary.
The experience in Canada is one that no one in the group will ever forget. The tension surrounding late nights, early mornings, and long days certainly adds an element of stress to the case study process that is not present in the classroom. Interaction with teams from around the world is very beneficial for the participants as ideas and knowledge are shared. The long-term benefits of the competition will be felt throughout our careers as there are many skills we learned during the event that have yet to be fully realized.
The competition provides a terrific venue of learning and growth for the participants. Ensuring that teams invest the requisite time and effort to prepare ahead of time is essential for success. Modifying the travel schedules to better accommodate multi-time zone travel would significantly improve energy levels and cognitive abilities among the participants along with reduce the risk for illness during the event. The gap that separated our team from the winning teams seemed to be coaching from the outset of preparation and having a very specific pre-set strategy. NUS has the ability to be a significant competitor in this competition if the time is invested, beginning in early November, to prepare teams for the competition.