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The MBA case competition we didn't win Add to ...

Alanna Petroff recently completed her MBA at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford in Britain in 2011. She is currently living and working in London, England.

Before starting my MBA, though I had heard about case competitions, I did not know much about them. Less than one year after starting my MBA, I was flying across the Atlantic Ocean to participate in one of them.

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Dozens of my MBA classmates took part in case competitions around the globe, competing for prize money, awards and prestige. There was the INNOVATEChina competition, the IESE-Roland Berger International Case Competition and the San Diego State University International Sports MBA Case Competition, among others.

Before even beginning to prepare for the judging on our presentations, outlining solutions to tough business problems, there is much behind-the-scenes work. It begins with the process of forming teams for the competition. The teams must then be approved by either their business school, the host school, or both, at which point funding must be secured.

Students then hunker down and start working: booking flights and hotels, setting up strategy meetings and sending out a flurry of emails amongst themselves to sort out administrative, preparatory and strategic issues.

In typical case competitions, each team is given the same business case study. Teams must analyze the business issues and problems in order to devise suitable solutions, which are presented to a panel of judges, who come from industry and academia. Generally, teams only have one or two days to create their presentations, so all-nighters are common.

Other case competitions work a bit differently. In some instances, contestants choose their own topics or work on their presentations before arriving at the host school.

In my case, I formed a team to compete in the Intercollegiate Business Ethics Case Competition (IBECC) near Seattle, Wash. My group was tasked with choosing and analyzing a real-life ethical business issue and proposing a solution that was ethically sound and practical. We had a few weeks to prepare in advance of the competition.

Our team chose to analyze executive compensation and severance practices at HP, specifically looking at the large payout that HP’s ex-CEO, Carly Fiorina, received in 2005. We thought it would be interesting to learn more about the hot topic of executive compensation and we agreed that it was a sufficiently nuanced issue.

After choosing our topic, we started preparing. We consulted with experts in the field of executive compensation, combed through dozens of HP’s financial documents and looked at executive compensation practices at other firms in the industry. We conducted analyses from business, legal and ethical standpoints, then compiled our findings into a 25-page PowerPoint presentation.

I originally assumed that competing in an ethics case competition would be easy. I was mistaken.

Preparing for IBECC was extremely time consuming. Thankfully, my group was preparing for the competition over the summer months, when there was a lull in our hectic MBA schedule. However, many students participate in these competitions during the school year, which can be stressful when classes, exams and assignments are jostling for their time.

Classmates told me that case competitions are the ideal way to apply your business knowledge gleaned from lectures and textbooks. Looking back, I could not agree more. As I read through HP’s earnings statements and documents about executive compensation, I began to see the relevance of my MBA studies. My group drew upon our finance, accounting and organizational behaviour classes to better understand the case at hand.

Working with my peers was invaluable. My team of three - including myself, a consultant and an economist - learned more while working together than we ever would have from a lecture series. Upon our arrival in Seattle, we holed up in our hotel room for eight consecutive hours to review our presentation. In situations like that, you can’t help but learn from one another. It was an intensive, jet-lagged and very fun learning experience.

The actual IBECC competition involved making a variety of formal presentations to different judges in hotel meeting rooms.

For the first presentation, my team had up to 30 minutes to present our case and discuss solutions. (Timers were used to ensure we kept within our limit.) A 20-minute Q&A period followed, where we addressed the judges’ questions and concerns. Then the judges provided feedback. Our presentation was judged on our legal, financial and ethical analyses, our persuasiveness and our presentation skills.

We used the judges’ feedback to tweak our second, 10-minute presentation, which focused solely on the ethical issues of the case.

Upon completing the second presentation, one member from each team had to make a 90-second presentation about the main ethical issues in the case. These were the instructions from the administrators:

“Assume the following: You’re at a meeting … and people are discussing the topic of your presentation, but no one has brought up the ethical issues. There’s a pause in the conversation. You have 90 seconds in which to convince the group that there are serious ethical issues that need to be addressed.”

The team member who made the final presentation in our group was chosen based on the fact that he looked the least ragged and worn down. We were all visibly exhausted by the end.

This two-day competition was intense, to say the least. When we were not making presentations in our power suits, my team was sitting in our pyjamas in our hotel room, typing frantically on our laptops and sifting through financial data. Even though we had thoroughly prepared for the event, there was still more research, tweaks and changes that needed to be made during the two-day event.

Sadly, in the end, my team did not prevail. A team from Loyola Marymount University, which co-sponsored the event, won the overall prize. The team analyzed the ethical problems faced by the makers of Colgate toothpaste. They suggested the steps the company should take to deal with a potentially harmful ingredient, triclosan, found in some toothpastes.

While my team did not win, it was not all for naught. Upon returning to my business school, I spoke with the director of our MBA program to encourage him to send a team next year and suggested strategies for future teams to win the top prize. (Let’s wait and see how my business school, the Said Business School from Oxford, performs next year.)

Now that I have experienced a case competition first-hand, I would certainly recommend it to others. Yes, business school can be busy and challenging, but if you can squeeze in one extra commitment, I would highly recommend a case competition.

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