Solving real-time business cases

There are many reasons to like One Course At A Time. For Santhi Hejeebu, associate professor of economics and business, being able stretch her students out of their comfort zones is one of them.

Santhi Hejeebu Associate Professor of Economics and Business at Cornell College“I couldn’t ask as much from the students if we were on the semester plan,” she says. “One Course At At Time is high engagement, high accountability, and high commitment. You really see students grow and mature, even over the course of just 18 days.”

In two of her courses, Economics of Organizations and Business Analytics, Hejeebu has adapted the live case-study method of business education to take full advantage of the One Course schedule. As with all case studies, these operate using simulation of the business environment.

“Live cases help students learn about the textured, nuanced, complex environments in which real businesses operate,” she says. “The students work in self-governing teams of three to four. Collaboration is an extremely important part of the case.”

On the first day of class, students are introduced to the case narrative, written by the professor months in advance. Students question their own ability to complete the case. Before being presented with a company’s proprietary documents and data, students sign a nondisclosure agreement. In one recent case, company documents contained 130 variables and a quarter-million data points for students to digest.

After two days in the classroom to absorb the narrative, students visit the worksite and interview the partner, who could be a pricing manager, a product manager, a chief financial officer, or even a CEO. Many partners are Cornell College alumni.

Over the next 15 days, students are expected to successfully learn the industry, learn the organization, and address the problem at hand. In Business Analytics, students are simultaneously spending time in the classroom learning the quantitative techniques that are essential to addressing the case.

“With short deadlines, live cases are difficult,” Hejeebu says. “By day three or four, students start to gain clarity on the question to resolve. By day 17, they’re ready to present to the business.”

This client-centered, problem-based technique is often used in selective M.B.A. programs.

“As I develop the case narrative, I add red herrings and dead ends. This forces the students to think critically to decide if and how the information is relevant, just as business managers and executives do every day,” she says.

According to Hejeebu, the visit to the partner’s business is one of many times One Course At A Time shines.

“You couldn’t do the live business case in a semester,” she says. “If students are taking four other courses, they lose focus and they lose the opportunity to visit an organization and spend time with the leadership.”

“The live case demands a convergence of skills: analytical, communication, organizational, interpersonal skills, and of course, a strong
work ethic.”

Santhi Hejeebu
Associate Professor of Economics and Business

Among the businesses with whom Cornell students have worked are CRST International, Van Meter Inc., ACT Inc., and GreatAmerica Financial Services.

With GreatAmerica, which specializes in commercial equipment financing, the students homed in on increasing the efficiency of the application process in order to enable the firm to make a quicker decision for customers submitting applications.
“At the time we worked with them, GreatAmerica processed nearly 9,000 credit applications per month,” she says. “The class helped their ongoing efforts of identifying the key indicators of strong applications, leading to a simpler screening process.”

Hejeebu says there are risks for everyone involved: the business partner, the students, and the professor.

“We’re asking 18- to 22-year-olds to generate new ideas and to think outside the box. Many of them have not had such a challenge. They know it’s an opportunity to get the inside point of view from the business and to be asked to weigh in on the real work facing area managers.

“Because of the realism of the case, I offer students guidance, not answers,” she says. “They have to rely on their own skills, even as these are growing. The live case demands a convergence of skills: analytical, communication, organizational, interpersonal skills, and of course, a strong work ethic. The class might even meet on weekends to get the project done.

“The involvement of our alumni partners really raises the level of engagement. Students imagine possible career trajectories, and this brings out their inner drive. It’s electrifying.”

The live case study also opens their eyes to the realities of business. “Students often see the business major as safe passage to a stable future,” she says. “This way of teaching gives them a sense of managers coping with uncertainty and shifting market forces. It reveals how difficult it is to manage a business successfully.”

Hejeebu says the responses from the businesses have been “over the moon.”

“They’re very impressed with the maturity and grit of our students,” she says. “While it has never been a goal for the course to directly lead to internships and job offers, that’s happened. Overall, about a third of our economics and business majors have job offers six months before graduation. I think that’s an excellent indication that we’re preparing them well for the future.”