Maastricht wins case competition in Copenhagen

Lunch at the Danish parliament, Amazing Race-style sightseeing in Copenhagen, dinner with HRH Prince Joachim and Princess Marie – and the sweet taste of victory. On Friday 5 March, five SBE students were crowned the winners of the 2010 Copenhagen Business School Case Competition, defeating teams from prestigious institutes in the USA, China, Pakistan, Australia, Latvia and elsewhere. SBE coach Bas van Diepen is thrilled: “I feel proud and privileged to be involved. It’s pure class, and very inspiring to see such talented people stretching themselves to their limits. Especially if you enjoy a bit of success now and then.”

‘A bit of success’ is a bit of an understatement. SBE has been participating in case competitions only since 2005. The School made it to the finals in Hong Kong in 2008, then hit its stride last year, winning the 2009 International Case Competition in Bangkok. This victory meant SBE was invited to take part in the prestigious Champions Trophy in January in Auckland.

With the latest victory in Copenhagen just another string in its bow, SBE is now bringing case competitions to Maastricht. The International Case Competitions @ Maastricht (ICC@ M)(for more information  click here) will take place in April. And this time, the school and its students will not be the only ones to benefit: it will also open up new doors for local, national and Euregional businesses to get involved.

The real thing

In a nutshell, case competitions confront students with a real problem faced by a real company. Their task is to come up with solutions and present them to a panel of expert judges. In Copenhagen, the panel included such high-profile business leaders as Kenneth Plummer, general director of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation; and Jess Søderberg, deputy chair of one of the world’s largest brewery groups, Carlsberg. The case company was Tivoli, a Danish icon and Europe’s oldest still-functioning amusement park. The teams were given 32 hours to come up with a business strategy to boost Tivoli’s revenue, improve its operations and further develop the brand.

The emphasis lies on real-world practicality. “The team needs to come up with a concrete, feasible solution and present it in a structured manner”, says Van Diepen. “The judges then evaluate whether there’s good financial backing behind the solution and all risks have been taken into account.” One of the Copenhagen victors, Polish-born Lena Sablotny (22) – now a third-year student of International Business – explains: “We want our plans to be achievable and realistic. We need to deliver a sound concept, a well-thought out and complete solution.”

Skills and socialising

“The ideas come from the basics we learn at SBE”, says Sablotny. “But during the competition we take it up a level and apply that knowledge to the company.” In other words, precisely the sort of skill that students need to develop, and that employers want to see. Hence SBE’s decision in recent years to ‘professionalise’ its participation in case competitions. Only students with an average grade of 8 or more are invited to apply for the rigorous skills training with Bas van Diepen and Rudy Baethge, and only once they have succesfully completed this training can they apply for a spot on a specific team. “They apply in December, and find out in February if they’ve been accepted”, says Van Diepen. “Then comes the training, which lasts from February till the end of May. The first case competitions for them then start in June.”

But it’s not all hard work and no play: the competitions are known for having jam-packed social progammes. In Copenhagen this included city tours, meals, midnight snacks, a dance party and even speed dating among the participants. Van Diepen: “You can’t go into the competition only with the idea ‘I’m going to win’. The most important task that I give the teams is: make sure you have fun, expand your social network, get everything out of the week that you personally want to get out of it. Only then do we think about how we can succeed as a team and what game plan will work best.”

Recipe for success

So what makes a winning team? Presentation skills and confidence in English are naturally important ingredients. But so, too, is being open to other cultures and sensitive to different contexts. This, says Van Diepen, is an SBE strength: “Our students are used to it, because of the international nature of the education. Elsewhere you can only read about that, but at SBE you experience it for yourself.” So it’s not only about being a debating powerhouse? “For some competitions, for instance in America, you might need very strong people. But in others, like in Bangkok where you can’t treat people aggressively, people with a certain humility are needed. So the composition of the team depends on a range of factors; we look at the country, the culture, the nature of the competition and participants, the jury members and so on.”

SBE’s success in the case competitions can also be attributed to Problem-Based Learning. “The analytical skills, the structure of the analysis, the fact that the students are able to give a catchy presentation – these all flow from the impetus that PBL gives our students from their first year. This is what our students are very good at, very competent. The case competitions show that PBL effectively puts our students up there with the best of other business schools.” Sablotny couldn’t agree more: “PBL is a really good system for applying the literature to real companies and real problems. It stimulates you to come up with real-life solutions, and so makes dealing with business problems very special.”

SBE steps up

Clearly, it was high time to bring a piece of the action to Maastricht. Van Diepen is enthusiastic about the upcoming ICC@ M: “Forty volunteers and participants are now busy organising an unforgettable week. We’re planning a fantastic event, a real experience.” And one with a distinct Maastricht flavour: “The cases will be set in the European context, with sustainability likely to play an important role. The competition will probably also revolve around the ‘European way’ of dealing with people and issues; positive management, employability, the European social context, the human character.”

Hosting the competition brings a whole array of benefits – and not just for the students’ CVs and the faculty’s reputation. The ICC@ M offers an opportunity for the corporate world to get involved at a very tangible level. Companies have been invited to support the event through sponsorship, and business relations, alumni and top managers will serve on the jury. But simply being associated with a high-profile international initiative and highly respected business schools is only part of the value proposition. “Organisations will also get the opportunity to present themselves to a wider audience”, says Van Diepen. “Not only the participants, but the whole of the general public.” What’s more, they will gain a unique chance to identify high-flying undergraduates. As Van Diepen puts it, “So far companies have mainly been interested in the master’s student market. But as they’re becoming more interested in the bachelor’s market, this will give them the chance to pick out young talents early”.

Sablotny is looking forward to the Maastricht event – and not just for the chance for another victory. “I expect the ICC@ M to be something fresh for SBE. It’s really good to have partnerships with the participating universities, good for exchange and recruitment, fresh air and something new … I think it’s great that SBE has this programme. It should definitely be continued.”

And so it will: SBE intends to make the  ICC@ M an annual event. Van Diepen: “It’s too good to do just once.”

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