Archive for March, 2015

What makes a case study?

March 19, 2015

This is the season when the undergraduate final-year students who I teach are working on their projects, and many of these projects are based around one or more case studies.  The idea of a case study is very well establshed as an approach to teaching in business and management, on the basis that potentially every management situation is slightly different, and by looking at a range of different situations, you will acquire the skills and understanding to deal with whatever challenges your subsequent career throws at you.

There is a lot of academic work around about when it is appropriate to use case studies, and how the observations from a case study can be applied more generally.  So it’s a complicated subject, but as is often the case there are a few relatively simple things to remember:

  • A case study doesn’t tell you anything about the prevalence of the effects or behaviour that you observe.  Think of it this way: when the Sun runs a story about somebody claiming benefits while living a luxurious lifestyle, this is a case study.  It tells you nothing about what proportion of people claiming benefits are indeed living luxurious lifestyles – merely tells you about one approach which somebody uses to do this.  Lest this looks like a dig at the tabloid press, the same point could be made about newspaper articles which focus on people who aren’t getting the benefits they deserve
  • You should be able to say something about why a case study is interesting, and also how the lessons could be applied in different contexts.  So (given the point above) James Blunt’s irritable open letter about his upbringing and career probably doesn’t say very much about social mobility, he makes an interesting point that boarding school and a spell in the army isn’t necessarily the best start for a career in pop music.  So you could read James Blunt’s career trajectory as a case study of a rather unusual post-military career
  • You really need to have some observations of how a case study might be ‘generalised’ even if the message is that your case study isn’t typcal.  So are there particular challenges that might be encountered in a different context?  If you are drawing on some management theory, are there ways in which the case fits, or doesn’t fit, the theory which might be reflected in different cases.

This guidance is particularly aimed at anybody writing up case studies as part of a taught degree in business or management, but of course might be relevant more widely than that.

Flat-pack ready meals

March 19, 2015

Last week with my MSc economics students we spent some time brainstorming different business models for delivering groceries ordered online.  Internet supermarkets such as Ocado, or Tesco’s online presence, adopt one model which combines the range of products that you’d find in a mainstream supermarket, with home delivery.  Asda’s enterprise at London Underground stations is a neat variation of this, and from the supermarket’s viewpoint is a low-cost bolt-on to their existing model because if you can load up a van with groceries for home delivery, you can also load up a van to be serve commuters passing through the station car park.

But there are also models which vary the approach to supplying the food.  The fresh vegetable suppliers, Abel and Cole and Riverford, are examples of this.  So is Hubbub, which works on sourcing food from small retailers.  Interestingly, they compare themselves to Ocado, which is undoubtedly valid in terms of their target market and the importance of service.  However their approach to logistics is at the opposite end of the scale to Ocado, who seek to gain economies of scale by serving a very large number of customers from a single distribution centre, and indeed by working with Morrisons in parallel to its own brand operations in conjunction with Waitrose.

One other model which is worth a look is exemplified by a company called Gousto.  Like Ocado it was set up by former bankers and it has now attracted some investment from Unilever.  The idea is that they deliver a box of ingredients, together with the recipe, so that customer can cook their own meal but can follow the recipe precisely.  I guess that part of the inspiration for this comes from flat-pack furniture, where you can buy a box containing all the components of your furniture but you still need to put it together.  Think of Gousto’s boxes as a flat-pack ready meal