Questions such as these, based on real-life case studies, are being used to stimulate all students, not just MBAs. Sue Law reports.
Case studies are breaking out of the MBA hothouse and into undergraduate classrooms. The European Case Studies Clearing House (ECCH) saw sales grow by more than 30 per cent in the first half of this year as more and more lecturers incorporate case studies into courses.
The collection of more than 16,000 cases is the largest in the world. More than a thousand cases are added every year, from the best-selling Komatsu Ltd case study to this year's favourite on amazon.com by Sandra Vandermerwe and Marika Taishoft of Imperial College Management School and the first UK winner of the European Case awards.
Working on case studies gives students the chance to develop critical skills but they also involve handing over control to the student. With larger class sizes and less time to prepare, the prospect for the lecturer can be daunting.
Case-study tutor Scott Andrews admits that a more subtle teaching style is needed: "We need to stand back and allow discussion to take place. This can be a bit scary, particularly if we have a loud rabble of first-years. "It is really a voyage of discovery, where you invite students to get into the driving seat, but you need a clear starting point and destination."
The ECCH, based at Cranfield University, is a non-profit company with 362 member universities and companies, set up in 1973. The rapid growth in demand has prompted the ECCH to consider moving into customised publishing, whereby teachers choose a set of case studies that are in a course textbook. A tutor helpline is being introduced next spring to offer advice on case selection and cut down the time needed to search website listings.
Andrews says that, while case teaching with undergraduates is still relatively new, it reflects the growing emphasis on students as individuals rather than an amorphous mass.
At a workshop on "Using case studies with undergraduates" early this month, Andrews put a dozen management lecturers into student mode to discuss Rothmans International's sponsorship of Formula One racing. He began by asking who sponsors the English Premier Football League, moving on through cricket sponsorship to television soaps. There was much laughter and a volley of shouted answers.
"Look what has happened," he told them. "We lightened the atmosphere. This is my icebreaker and a way to get people involved."
Andrews showed the group how turning points in the Rothmans case can lead into alternative next steps for teaching either the theory of fast moving consumer goods, product life cycle or broader issues of advertising and sponsorship.
"Now where do I end? I want to bring everybody back in. You might think it is a bit boring as it's just a background case, but maybe I wanted to set the scene for Rothmans Case B," he said, handing round three newspaper cuttings on the company.
"Imagine Bob Roper has just been given this by his boss and you are working with him. I could invite students to take it away and next week set up the room as a boardroom for role play of different perspectives on what Rothmans do next."
Cases such as that of Rothmans can be used even in large undergraduate classes of more than 300, by using tutorial time or breaking numbers down into smaller syndicate groups each led by a research assistant.
One of the most difficult problems is getting students to prepare a case before the lesson. Undergraduates have little experience of senior management to draw on. Ros Warren, a management lecturer at Reading University, said: "Encouraging them to take a view at the beginning so they take ownership of a particular decision is very important."
But Chris Davison of Kingston Business School said that cases are still relevant for undergraduates as they "will have to go out into the world and analyse problems".
ECCH director Jeff Gray argued that there is so much innovation in teaching that no tutor should still be relying on the standard lecture format. "With a bit of effort, teachers can make learning so much more entertaining and effective. I was first exposed to case studies on my MBA and was immediately hooked," he said.
Gray, who runs the annual case-writing competition to encourage new authors, said: "Case writing doesn't come easily to most teachers used to writing academic studies. It requires an easy-to-read style like a novel."
Case studies develop skills for real world
Government emphasis on preparing students for working life means that teachers across all academic disciplines must focus on the wider picture, says Maggie Boyle, a council member of the Society for the Advancement of Games and Simulations in Education and Training.
"More and more of us are looking at how to teach content in an innovative way, while also developing other skills. Students love case studies. It gets them engaged, they realise their opinions count and it's fun," she said.
Undergraduate groups need clear guidance on what is expected when they tackle cases for the first time, including how to work as a group, manage freeloaders and bring different skills into play.
"Many undergraduates don't value their personal skills and tutors must make explicit that the case method is not just about getting content across. It is all about developing students as people and team workers," Ms Boyle said.
She advocates an early taste of cases starting in the first year, and using assessments such as reflective writing exercises where students build a portfolio showing how group management skills have developed.