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Would You Like Fries With That Case?

4/18/2011 --

Professor Scott Moore discusses the significance of delivering the case method to undergrads using recognizable firms like McDonald's.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Undergraduate business students spend most of their time studying functional disciplines, such as accounting and marketing, as standalone courses. In 2009 Ross Dean Robert Dolan, along with professors Scott Moore and Robert Kennedy, thought BBAs would benefit from an integrated overview that would synchronize those disciplines and answer the question, "What is a business?"

In 2010 they introduced the BBA elective "Business Thought In Action," which uses the discussion-based case method normally reserved for graduate students. They co-created, conceptualized, and taught original case material (which they also authored) to show how companies succeed and fail—and how leadership, corporate culture, strategy, and management influence performance.

Judging from the dearth of existing material, it's obviously rare for BBA students to get such a holistic picture of business so early in the b-school experience. And now that the heavy lifting is done and the course is fully realized, Ross is making the course pack and cases available for purchase on the William Davidson Institute's GlobaLens site.

Moore is the BBA program director, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and an associate professor of business information technology. In the following Q&A, he talks about the challenges of teaching the case method to a less experienced cohort. He also addresses key takeaways from one of his favorite cases on McDonald's.

When you first decided to offer this type of course, you realized you actually would have to create it. I guess that means this is a fairly new idea in BBA education.

Moore: There have been other introductory courses. But Dean Dolan looked at the material out there, and felt the books and cases written for undergraduate business students didn't seem to be up to the standards of our BBAs. We have smart, analytically strong students who are willing to take on a challenge. They may not know the business vocabulary, but if you tread lightly around that and give them definitions when needed they're fully capable of handling more complex business-related topics. You just have to understand where they're coming from. They're just sophomores in the second semester of their business education.

Talk about the challenges of delivering the case-based approach to undergrads.

Moore: First, we had to write the cases ourselves. We didn't see any books out there and few cases that we really thought students would be able to understand and relate to. We didn't want to write about esoteric products. We wanted it to be easy for the students to understand the business, product, and service and give them one less hurdle so they can focus on the business issue at hand. We used our experiences with the students to guide what we thought they would be ready for at that time.

How has the class, an elective, been received? You've now delivered it two times.

Moore: It's been received very well. It takes the students time to get used to the course. It's very different from almost any course that they've had anywhere. For one thing, they haven't had two or three professors in the room at once, and we respond to each other. Even though one person is running a particular session, the other person is there. Also, they haven't had full-blown cases like this at all. They've either had large lecture hall or small workshop. But this is a room with 70 students in which they're all expected to participate and engage in a conversation where they listen to the previous person, respond to that person, and elaborate or change the topic. They're speaking to each other, not the professor. It takes a while to get used to that but once they get used to it, the students end up really liking it. They're challenged to think during class. It's not just some preparation beforehand to answer some question and then sit back. It's a lean-forward class.

What do you hope are the big takeaways?

Moore: What business really is. How successes and failures happen.

These are new business school students. Some of them have dealt with business by buying things from stores while others have had jobs on Wall Street already, so there's a whole range. But we want them to understand what a business is, and how that adds value to society. Also, how hard it is, different ways that it can fail, and how you have to stay on guard against that even if you are a successful company. You can have missteps and still come back.

And a prime example of that is illustrated in the McDonald's case you wrote for the course.

Moore: Yes, and the McDonald's case demonstrates how much of a difference one man, and that man's vision, can make to an extremely large company. It's a very powerful story. McDonald's, as a company, was lost in the late 1990s and didn't really want to do business in the market in which it was the dominant player: fast-food hamburgers. Jim Cantalupo, who only led the company for 16 months beginning in January 2003 before his untimely death, had a strong vision for the company and focused the whole organization with it. His strong and appropriate guidance turned around the company's performance almost immediately and it became a force in both the fast-food market and in the stock market for the rest of the decade as the following two CEOs only tweaked his vision, knowing enough to leave a successful recipe alone. One person can affect all of those employees and all of the stockholders by just having a clear vision that's right for the times. And we have many examples of those kinds of things, but McDonald's is a really good one.

You and your Ross colleagues also wrote cases about Zipcar, Build-a-Bear, and Toll Brothers. Why those companies?

Moore: The Zipcar case demonstrates how difficult it is to come up with a new business idea, execute that idea well, do it in a way that makes money, and is defined in such a way that it is not easily copied. Build-a-Bear is all about understanding exactly what it is that you are selling. Are you selling a product? Or are you selling a product and an accompanying experience? Then, how is that experience affected by changes afforded by new technology, like the Internet? The Toll Brothers case shows how an extremely successful company with a very long track record of profits and growth can be adversely affected by an economic crisis. For the most part, we tried to choose products or companies that the students were either familiar with or could understand.

Why did you decide to offer the course pack and case material to other educators?

Moore: It was a lot of work to put this curriculum together. But that shouldn't deter other educators from delivering this kind of content. We figured we can't be the only school with really smart students in business who are ready to learn.



For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502, terrykos@umich.edu