Making a case for competition

November 28, 2003

When Canadian Blair Winsor was in his early 20s, he met an academic from Harvard Business School and asked what he taught.

"Priorities," said the academic. "We overload the students with work, we give them incomplete information and then tell them to set priorities as to how they deal with the situation. And we award marks on the basis of how well they set the priorities."

It was a description of case-study analysis, pioneered at Harvard and now common in North American business education. Student teams are given experience of the complexities of the business world through trying to solve a problem against the clock.

These are always based on companies' genuine experiences. "I've never known a case that's been dreamt up - there's never any need. You can always find a company that has (a relevant) challenge," Winsor says.

There are well-established competitions attracting teams from across North America: one of the best records is held by Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), where Winsor taught for five years before joining a high-tech company.

He has now moved to Napier University's Centre for Entrepreneurship, where, with Scottish Institute of Enterprise staff Rob McLeod and Aidan Craig, he is developing Scotland's first case-study competition in entrepreneurship.

The project has £40,000 seedcorn funding from the SIE over two years.

Teams from across Scotland will enter the competition, which began this month, and will focus on the problems of starting up a company. They must first complete a written analysis of a case over a number of weeks, assessed largely by academics. In March, they will face a gruelling session in front of a business audience. They will be given a case first thing in the morning and will have just four hours to prepare an oral presentation.

Coaching is a key preparation for the North American competitions, although coaches cannot help with the competition cases. Napier staff have just had a masterclass with a coach from the MUN that was videotaped and will be sent to other universities.

"He has 12 years' experience and told us that all the students say it's one of the best, if not the best, learning experiences they've had, and that the problem-solving skills they learnt were very useful when they went into the world of work," Winsor says.

Napier may have the lead role now, but Winsor would like to see a "travelling show" model where the winner gets to decide the competition's format for the following year.

"It's not Napier's competition, it's Scotland's."

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