When Theory Meets Practice
In Baylor's Case Competition program, MBA students develop skills and confidence that translate into professional success.
Katie Hanson, MBA '22, remembers the first time her case competition class tackled a practice case. Dr. Patsy Norman, Associate Dean of Graduate Business Programs and the program's case competition coach, had tasked them with solving a theoretical problem that involved helping a streaming device company stay ahead of its competition.
"We spent all week coming up with a solution we were proud of," Hanson said. "Then, in the nicest possible way, Dr. Norman found the holes in our logic. We began to realize how much we had not considered."
Only four months later, Hanson and her team found themselves at the 15th Annual Big 12 MBA Case Competition hosted by Iowa State University's Ivy College of Business. The competition rules allowed each team 24 hours to devise and present their findings and solution. This particular case focused on a financial software company Kingland and its site-selection process to establish a new office location. To add to the pressure, the judges panel included Kingland executives.
Fortunately, the team had learned how to deliberate more carefully and think more strategically in the four-month interval. Instead of rushing to a solution and working to perfect it, they spent an entire day in a conference room strategically evaluating several viable options. Their hard work paid off when they won the competition and brought another Big 12 championship trophy back to Waco.
"It was an amazing feeling to come so far in such a short time," Hanson said.
Laying the Groundwork
Baylor's case competition program began as an extracurricular activity and morphed over time into an elective three-credit course. Each spring, Norman selects five student applicants to form a new team based on the skills and experience that each student would bring to the table. Through a series of initial team-building exercises, they get a feel for how their personalities and conflict styles will combine or collide.
"We may have someone on the team who needs to learn to tolerate some degree of conflict, while someone else might need to dial down the intensity," Norman said. "Every individual—and every team—has a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses."
Dr. Patsy Norman
Team-building exercises quickly progress to practice cases that require students to piece together knowledge from classes in finance, accounting, marketing, strategy and other functional areas to solve a real problem that a company has experienced. While the team brings forward skills learned in past courses, it also learns new ones on the fly. After reaching a consensus on the problem, the team creates a 15-to-20-minute presentation to present to Norman.
For the sake of learning, critiquing the process is every bit as valuable as critiquing the end result.
"After each case is completed, we take a closer look at conflict points, problems the team did not know how to tackle, and opportunities they failed to take," Norman said. "It is incredibly valuable to learn how to evaluate yourself and others in a constructive way.
"The Case Competition team does not have long to practice before they are off to a series of national competitions. Competitions typically fall into two categories: 1) those that give teams several weeks to research, create possible solutions and prepare a presentation, and 2) those that only give them only a day or two to navigate the same process.
"Both types of competition challenge students to evaluate sources of information and put together a persuasive, concise business case," Norman said, "but the short version is undeniably more intense. Students work on adrenaline."
Building a Skillset
Heidi Davis, MBA '16, says that she will never forget the rush of winning the first Big 12 MBA Case Competition her team attended. It was an enormous challenge from the outset, but that is what she enjoyed most about it.
"In case competition, there is never a clear-cut answer," she said. "You just have to do your best to assess the situation, identify key questions and take a stance in a very short amount of time."
Davis, who participated in case competition during the first year of her MBA program, found that her experience gave her a "real-world lens" to understand what she was learning in the classroom.
"I was able to identify practical applications to the concepts I was learning much more quickly than before," she said.
Davis currently works as a project change management senior consultant with Expressworks International. As she transitioned from the classroom to the workplace, she noticed parallels between her consulting work and case competition.
"To succeed in case competitions, I had to sort through a lot of information in a short amount of time to find what was relevant and then effectively communicate those findings," she said. "The same is true in my role as a consultant."
Hanson, who began a consulting role in PwC's mergers and acquisitions division earlier this year, also credits her case competition experience with preparing her to succeed.
As a new consultant, she was confronted with the challenge of joining a project in the middle of the action.
"I'm not only catching up on the work but also trying to navigate different team personalities and dynamics," she said. "Thankfully, I came in with the right skills and experience gained by participating in case competitions."
Hanson's case competition classmates looked to her to lead the group by setting the agenda and keeping the members on track. Looking back, she can see how she emerged from the experience with stronger leadership and applicable interpersonal skills.
"Participating in case competitions is a challenge, but you get to build relationships and develop these incredible skillsets," she said. "The reward is well worth the effort."
For Norman, one of the most rewarding aspects of coaching case competition teams is watching the team members translate their experience into academic and professional success.
"It is not an easy thing to get up in front of a panel of judges and defend your ideas," she said. "But if a student can do that, they can stand in front of the CEO or VP of their company and do the same thing. They enter the workforce with confidence in their ability to handle whatever comes their way."
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