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Bringing Divergent Skill Sets Together is Key to Case Competition Success

Monday, November 14, 2011

Undergraduate Case Competition provided means for undergrads to hone their business skills.

The friendly competitive nature between Carlson School undergraduates was on full display on October 28 during the Undergraduate Case Competition. The unique opportunity to hone their skills drew so many teams - 18 total - that for the first time two divisions were required, making it the largest case competition in school history.

"I got involved with the case competition because it is one of the best real-world business experiences an undergraduate can find in the Carlson School," says sophomore Matt Hauer, whose team made it to the finals. "It puts so many skills to the test - analytic, presentation, and the ability to work with a team to utilize its full spectrum of knowledge and ideas."

Hauer had participated in a case competition for Business Week last spring and was enthused by the experience. "I was on a team comprised of all freshmen; we didn't really know how to present the material," he says. "It was great to get feedback from that competition as it really excited us to come back this fall and compete in a case competition that was 48 hours instead of the three- or four-hour B-Week one."

In the two division format, freshmen and sophomores comprised the lower division and juniors and seniors represented the upper division. In all, twelve teams participated in the upper division tier and six in the lower tier. All teams presented in the morning and then one team from each bracket (two in lower and three in upper) advanced on to the finals.

The competition was judged by faculty, Gophers of the Last Decade (GOLD) alumni, and corporate partners.

This year's case was based around a small data-mining firm called Intelliseek. "It was a very interesting case," Hauer says. "The company had only about 50 employees and very limited financial resources. One of our team's first thoughts was that a larger industry competitor should buy this company. After 10 minutes of research, we found that the Nielsen Company bought them about five years ago."

Hauer's experiences last year helped his team prepare for this case. "After last year's B-Week competition, we had several notes on how to improve our presentation," he says. "Our team had a thorough discussion about how to pace our group, setting goals for when we wanted to have certain sections of our discussion and PowerPoint finished. However, you never know what to expect with something like this; we had to allow plenty of flexibility."

Flexibility was necessary in this case as some unforeseen obstacles arose for Hauer's team. "We were expecting more numbers to work with," he says. "It was difficult preparing our projected financial statements because we didn't know the average sales per client, average number of client projects per year, or labor costs for the 50 employees of the company. We had more assumptions in our financial projections than we would have liked."

However, despite the challenges, Hauer's team was one of those that came out on top. "Competition is very intense, and we were prepared to compete against some really strong groups, even in the lower division," he says. "We thought our initial presentation went well. We could have used a couple hours more to rehearse our presentation, but in the end, we understood the content of our presentation and were able to defend it. I think if a group can do that well, it deserves a shot at the finals."

This competition is co-sponsored by the Undergraduate Program Office and Business Board. B-Board provided pizza for all of the participants as well as cash prizes for the top two teams in the lower division tier. The top teams from the upper division tier will have the opportunity to travel to national and international competitions this spring. The coach for the traveling teams is Marketing Senior Lecturer and competition coordinator Kevin Upton.

"I started coaching the case competition teams this past January," he says. "The focus of the coaching is first to get students to decontextualize the case. That is, to seek out the core strategic issues which underlie the 'story.' Students, like most people, have a tendency to begin to solve a problem before they really understand it. You can observe this in human conversations. Listeners will often begin to answer a question, or try to solve a problem, before the speaker is even done talking."

Upton uses a series of process questions to get the students to unbundle the facts and see larger issues. Following that, he pushes them to integrate their knowledge from multiple disciplines to identify theories and practices that could be useful in shaping an answer. "From there it is a matter of team effort, challenging each other with questions, testing out ideas, running the numbers, and finally constructing their recommendation into a formal presentation. Then practicing that presentation," he says. "This competition was a first step toward identifying the teams that I will coach for the International Business School Case Competitions this winter."