Business school is all about learning to make decisions. And case studies are a way for students to take all the theory they learn in class and apply it to actual challenges that managers have faced in the real world.
"There's never one right answer to a case, but there are a lot of wrong tacks you can take," says Tim Silk, an assistant professor at the Sauder School of Business in Vancouver.
"A lot of it is about problem identification. How do I play out different alternatives? How is the competition going to react, and who are the stakeholders?"
Every school is different when it comes to how much they rely on the case method.
The Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., for instance, teaches exclusively using cases and is also one of the world's top creators of case material, along with Harvard in the United States.
Here are three cases that professors across the country use to train the next generation of decision-makers:
MOUNTAIN EQUIPMENT CO-OP
Tim Silk, assistant professor, Sauder School of Business (University of British Columbia in Vancouver).
Course: Brand management.
Company: Mountain Equipment Co-op (Vancouver).
Issue: Deciding MEC's strategy on private-label products.
Vitals: Mountain Equipment sells major brands such as Coleman, The North Face and Nike, but it also has its own MEC house brand, which offers much higher margins. "As a retailer, you're in some ways a partner with the manufacturers, but you're also a competitor," Dr. Silk says. "So how does MEC differentiate itself? If they can innovate and not copycat, it may lessen some of the friction with the brands they sell." MEC has three things going for it: It has built its business by being "true aficionados of outdoor life;" it has a lot of credibility on sustainability; and it's a co-op, which means it has access to a huge pool of customers who are happy to give feedback on which products they're more likely to buy.
Takeaway: "The MEC case allows students to apply concepts like channel power, the role of consumer insight, and how to use a private label to innovate rather than just copycat."
Brian Anderson, assistant professor, Richard Ivey School of Business (University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.).
Company: Flyht Aerospace Solutions (Calgary).
Issue: How do you build the company in the face of all the institutional forces arrayed against you?
Vitals: Flyht is a small-cap publicly traded avionics manufacturer whose core product is, as Dr. Anderson puts it, "a black box on steroids." It collects tons of operational data that helps airlines boost efficiency – and the bottom line. Here's the problem: "Flyht is competing in an industry where innovation happens very slowly, and you have lots of what's known as institutional embeddedness," Dr. Anderson says. Even though carriers have admitted it's a better technology than what they're using now, there are lots of entrenched players and technologies, regulations and long-term supplier contracts that make it difficult for young companies to break in.
Takeaway: "It's all about building the students' decision-making abilities," Anderson says. Most students suggest Flyht continue pushing its business overseas (it already has contracts in Africa and China, for example). "But how do we do that? Do we set up a sales office in Namibia? Who goes over there? And these boxes are expensive. You don't just go down to RadioShack and pick one up."
Ellen Farrell, professor, Sobey School of Business (Saint Mary's University in Halifax).
Course: Venture development.
Case: SureShot Dispensing Systems (Halifax).
Issue: Do it yourself company-building.
Vitals: Dr. Farrell calls the story of Michael Duck and his SureShot technology "the epitome of bootstrapping." Mr. Duck moved to Halifax from the United States in the early 1980s and took a job as a maintenance man at a local dairy. Every morning, he'd stop for a coffee and end up complaining to his co-workers that his brew had either too much cream or too little. He decided to do something about. In his basement, he rigged up a machine that would dispense an exact shot of milk every time – thereby solving two problems for coffee sellers: overpouring and inconsistency. He sold that first machine, made a couple more (with minor improvements), and sold those, too. SureShot machines are now fixtures at Tim Hortons, Starbucks and McDonald's. "This is a great story of a guy who goes on to create an extremely successful business, with a product that is highly valued by the most successful companies in the world," Farrell says. "It's a great way to start a course."
Takeaway: "It gets students excited and interested," says Dr. Farrell, but there are also several key topics embedded in the story, including incremental innovation, premium pricing, hiring family and friends, and eschewing venture financing in favour of what Dr. Farrell calls the "pay-as-you-go" option.