Writing Business Cases Studies: Teaching the Art and Craft of Storytelling

 Dr. Mona Sinha
Dr. Mona Sinha, Assistant Professor, Department of Marketing & Professional Sales

KENNESAW, GA (Mar 6, 2018) — Once upon a time…there was a company. That seems an unlikely ending for a sentence we associate with fairy tales. Yet, for business school faculty who specialize in equipping students with the tools and skills required to navigate their corporate careers, using stories of corporations to illustrate the theories and concepts taught in class, is de rigueur. Business schools regularly deploy methods such as case study analysis to help students practice applying the knowledge they have gained in class.

The Harvard Business School (HBS) introduced the case study method over a hundred years ago and since then case study analysis is used not just in business but also in law and medicine. Students are presented with a case that is essentially a real-life story usually about a company, person or event, that helps students think through business issues and challenges to prep them for their future careers. Questions posed at the end of the cases help students, either individually or in groups, juxtapose the facts of the case with the content learned in the course/topic, and arrive at evaluations and/or decisions. Thus, case study analysis bridges the gap between theory and practice while also helping students develop higher order critical thinking and analysis skills.

No doubt, case analyses skills are valuable. However, when a student joins a company at an entry level position, the chances of being provided with the facts of a case/situation and asked to develop a strategic plan for the company are rather low. Instead, junior employees are usually assigned the task of putting together the facts that will help senior managers make informed decisions. Usually, they find themselves confronted with seemingly basic issues, such as, ‘sales in region X are declining.’ Being able to figure out why that might be the case involves in-depth research for which case writing is the perfect teaching technique.

Case writing is a skill that can help students navigate many of the expectations of the entry level jobs because it teaches them to identify a problem, recognize the types of information required to evaluate the problem, know where to look for information, learn how to write it up and display their analytical ability by crafting thought-provoking and critical questions that must be answered in order to resolve the problem being faced. While coursework teaches students WHAT to think, case writing can be used to teach the process i.e., HOW to think.

Dr. Mona Sinha’s undergraduate International Marketing class Dr. Mona Sinha’s undergraduate International Marketing class is being taught how to write international marketing case studies as part of their semester-long group projects. In Fall 2017, one case study on Netflix’s foray into India was accepted at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research for a poster presentation. Additionally, six case studies were submitted to the Kennesaw Journal for Undergraduate Research and are currently undergoing the peer review process. The topics reflect a wide breadth of marketing challenges faced by companies from different sectors, in various countries: China’s Mobike - Adapting for Success in Manchester; Netflix - Trouble in India; Amazon in India - Ecommerce Giant Meets and Emerging Market; iPhone in China - Fighting the Android Phenomenon; Tesla Ramps up in China; and Microsoft – Fighting Pirates in China. At the core are common challenges such as, balancing global identity with the need for local adaptation, cultural differences and local competition.

Dr. Mona Sinha’s undergraduate International Marketing class

The process began with groups of 5-6 students each, identifying multinationals that had entered an international market, which was significantly different from its country of origin, and was now facing a marketing problem there. To weave together their story, groups began by describing the problem, identifying the information needs, and conducting in-depth secondary research for finding the relevant information from credible sources. Naturally, topics had to be chosen based on the availability of sufficient secondary research on that company, country and industry, since students did not have the benefit of access to internal company documents or interviews with managers or customers. Multiple iterations helped weed out the irrelevant information and drill down deeper into areas that required greater scrutiny. Writing it up articulately and engagingly, to portray the struggles of the protagonist (the company) and the myriad factors to consider in that unfamiliar operating environment, was where the rigor of research meshed with the creativity of storytelling.

Dr. Mona Sinha’s undergraduate International Marketing class

At the end of the semester, the case studies turned out to be not just well-researched, analytical business reports but also fascinating stories rooted in a rich context comprising the industry including competitors, the country and most importantly, its people, market and cultures. A key take-away for students was the realization that external factors such as the target country’s economy, politics, trade relationships and regulations could so powerfully impact the company’s international marketing strategy. The deep dive into unfamiliar markets and cultures helped students appreciate how and why multinationals adapt their marketing mix in order to succeed. Learning about strong local competitors was often a humbling experience because students were often surprised at learning about small but innovative and nimble upstarts or heavy weight local conglomerates, that they had never heard of. Thus, the unfamiliarity of the target country with respect to the country of origin heightened the unknowns and made the research intriguing for students. One student called it a treasure hunt.

There were several obstacles to learning a new, unfamiliar technique and then being encouraged to submit the case study to a publication and conference. For most students, research is simply not on their agenda and encouraging them to publish their case studies requires demonstrating the corporate impact to them, over and above the value of an academic endeavor. The biggest puzzle for them was grappling with the idea that they were NOT supposed to make recommendations, as most of their previous group projects typically required them to do. Instead, they had to provide all the relevant information structured in a way that would aid decision making…HOW to think, as opposed to WHAT to think.

Uncomfortable discoveries were also made. The realization that what they believed was ‘credible’ information, was not-so-credible after all, was followed by the appreciation of a custom designed Library Guide with sources such as, the CIA World Fact Book, country/company/industry reports, white papers and magazines like The Economist. Although students were juniors and seniors, struggles with citations and writing were common and assistance provided by the librarian and writing center were invaluable. Motivated by Dr. Amy Buddie, Director of Undergraduate research and Editor of Kennesaw Journal of Undergraduate Research, Dr. Sinha’s class of MKTG 4820 (Fall 2017) has begun a movement. Her training in case writing at the Harvard Business School’s India Research Center where she once worked as a Researcher and published several HBS cases, is now taking on a new form by being used to teach undergraduates to tell a compelling business story… a very different set of skills than those learned from hearing a story. The baton has been passed to her Spring 2018 class which plans to not only submit their cases to KJUR but will also show-case their work at the KSU Symposium of Undergraduate Research on April 19, 2018, from 2-3 pm. Do come and watch them compete for prizes at a case-competition. After all, it takes a village…to tell a story.