Live Case Studies Demystified

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  • Experiential Learning

L ive case studies bring real companies with real business issues into the classroom. Not only can these experiences bring business frameworks to life for students, but they also surface unpredictable situations that further learning.

In a typical live case, a leader or team from a local company visits the classroom and presents a business problem the organization is facing. Students are then tasked to develop solutions. Sometimes they do so in a consulting team throughout the semester and then present their solutions to the professor, their classmates, and company representatives. In some instances, teams with the best ideas might present to an executive advisory board, which then chooses the strongest solution. 

Bringing Real Business Issues to Light 

Why live cases.

Live case studies offer a learning process that today’s students expect, according to a  research paper  published in 2017 by Sylvain Charlebois and Lianne Foti. Whether it is business ethics students facing a moral dilemma or commerce students designing a strategy for entering a new market, real-life situations provide added context and complexities. Live cases can also “offer incentives to students, beyond the grade, which enhance the effect of co-opetition.”

“Students are tackling and solving real-world problems,” he says. “There are no teaching notes and no solutions. Students are tasked with coming up with the solution on their own,” he says.

A few years ago, Rapp partnered with IGS Energy to conduct a live case study.

“They wanted to understand how to sell and market to millennials,” says Rapp. “Their service is deregulated energy–the idea that you have an energy choice and can select who you have as your provider.” 

When IGS entered the classroom, they asked if students knew they could choose their energy provider. One out of 40 students knew, explains Rapp. “Then they went into more detail about the potential market and how much money they could generate in profit and how they could help customers. And the light switches really went on.” 

"Students are tackling and solving real-world problems. There are no teaching notes and no solutions." Adam Rapp

Why It Works: Real-World Application

Working with clients lets students develop strategies and proposals and make real decisions. These interactions also improve students’ critical thinking and quantitative literacy.

In class, students learn about abstract business concepts. But when a company visits and lays out a specific problem—like how to restructure its incentive program—students are suddenly put inside the business. They must develop different solutions and strategies, think about their implications, and then apply real performance and sales numbers to see how their proposed solutions affect salaries and compensation rates.

Rapp notes, “That real-world application helps them get a much deeper and more meaningful understanding of the topic.”

Live cases also force students to think about how they would explain their solution to a manager or company owner. “When students know they have to defend their choices to a real client, there is a level of ownership and involvement with the process that I’ve never seen students express otherwise,” says Jessica Ogilvie, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Marquette University. Ogilvie helped build the Schey program at Ohio University and is currently designing and serving as associate director of a similar program at Marquette. “To me, they put forward a lot more work and effort—because there’s not just a grade on the line, but their reputation and persona when they stand up in front of a company and talk about it.” 

What Students and Partners Are Saying

Ogilvie shares feedback from her students and companies she has partnered with on the value of live cases:

"The live case study helped me understand how an organization thinks and strategizes. This helped me understand how to navigate a sales organization with my first job." —Former student now working for LinkedIn

"The live case study made leading my first conversations with clients easier, and I could focus more on what mattered. It also cut my ramp-up time in half compared to other new hires at the company." —Former student now working for IBM

"The value of seeing a student in a ‘real life’ sales scenario is immeasurable." —Corporate partner in the tech industry 

"Students bring a new perspective and find value in things we had missed." —Corporate partner in the industrial chemical industry

For the IGS Energy case, Rapp says, his students came up with some solutions the company has since implemented. These solutions included the creation of brand ambassadors—finding students from different universities to help circulate information about IGS across their campuses, dorm sponsorships at college campuses that help educate students about energy selection, and social media ads and sponsored ads that target the millennial market.

Live cases are most impactful when the company is trying to solve a problem and is open to hearing a new perspective, adds Ogilvie, recalling a partnership with a company that was having trouble retaining millennial hires. “This company knew it had a problem with something in that onboarding process—employees were leaving after two years no matter what they did. By asking students this question, they gained insight into the next generation and the future of the workforce,” she says. “That’s what makes these more successful projects for both the students and the company.” 

“When students know they have to defend their choices to a real client, there is a level of ownership and involvement with the process that I’ve never seen students express otherwise.”  Jessica Ogilvie

How to Involve Companies: Chicken or Egg?

When planning live cases, is it better to first map out a curriculum or to start by getting a company involved? Rapp prefers to have at least some curriculum in place before deciding on and reaching out to potential companies.

“Companies are interested in coming into the classroom and talking to students. But if you don’t have a footprint, it’s tough to offer a lot of value to the company other than just getting into the classroom,” he says. “I find it’s the curriculum and the student piece first. And then you have something to show to the company to get them excited and motivated.”

In contrast, Rapp says when companies come in and try to build academic curricula, it can be too practical and lack the educational components such as the psychology and theory—the why—behind it.

Either way, it’s important to first determine what topic this live experience should address to ensure it’s applicable to the class. “We make sure it’s a relevant topic and we explain that [the company] needs to be on campus a couple times during the semester, that they are going to have to listen in and evaluate these presentations, and they will have to host us during a final presentation in front of their executive staff,” Rapp says.

The experience is written into the syllabus, and students are prepped beforehand. “They sign a student contract, so they know they have to execute on this process with an outside group,” he adds.

Prior to the company first entering the classroom to present the problem, Rapp gives an overview of the company and students do research on the company’s representatives. This ensures that students spend more time on the problem and have more meaningful discussions with the company.

Ogilvie also presents her live cases as semester-long activities. Companies present students with the problem during the second or third week of class. Each subsequent section of the course provides information students can apply to the live case question. “What you see is a more comprehensive solution with more creative and in-depth ideas,” she says.

“Live cases are most impactful when the company is genuinely trying to solve a problem and is open to hearing a new perspective.” Jessica Ogilvie

What to Know: Be Prepared

Without a teaching note or a textbook to rely on, professors who plan to use a live case must know what is happening in the marketplace and the business landscape.

“Once the company leaves, the students will ask you 100 different questions about the problem, the situation, and the things that were talked about in the classroom,” says Rapp.

It’s also important to be prepared, to add value, and to be relevant to students. “If you are not, students will see through it very quickly,” he says.

Rapp usually meets three to five times with different people at the company prior to the start of the semester to understand the challenges and where the problem originated. He also does his own research on things like competitors, pricing, and the company’s value proposition.

Live Case Teaching Tips

Build company rapport. With the companies you invite to the classroom, get their buy-in beforehand. Consider asking for a small financial commitment to make sure they are invested at every level. To gain access to budget, they need permission from other people within their organization—so once you have that sign off, you know you have their commitment.

Set expectations. Understand a company’s boundaries, what you need participants to do, and how engaged you want them to be with students. It takes a lot of time, effort, and involvement from them to make live cases successful. Lay out their involvement from the beginning. “Where some companies aren’t as involved or engaged, it makes a really challenging and painful experience for students,” says Rapp. “I’ve had others where the company was all in, and it was unbelievable. IGS was a great partner because they had representatives visit campus multiple times and were available to answer questions.”

Define the problem.  Define the business problem at the beginning of the semester and stick to that question throughout the term.

“When I craft live case experiences,” says Ogilvie, “my biggest thing is making sure there is value in the exercise—either in the experience or in the outcome, or ideally both—beyond the grade my students are going to get for it.” 

Adam Rapp, Ohio University

Adam Rapp is a professor of marketing at Ohio University’s College of Business and the executive director of The Ralph and Luci Schey Sales Centre. His research focuses on factors influencing the performance of front-line service and sales personnel. He has taught in and built sales institutes, and most recently developed an extensive curriculum around the topic of managing millennials and sales team performance.

Jessica Ogilvie, Marquette University

Jessica Ogilvie is an assistant professor of marketing in the College of Business Administration and associate director of the sales program at Marquette University where she teaches marketing and professional selling courses. She is also an area editor at the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management. Her primary areas of research include strategic issues related to frontline management, sales, and service topics.

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