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

Re-issuing a classic

November 14, 2014

Somewhere I have an edition of Nairn’s London which has been in the family since it was first published in the 1960s. Ian Nairn was an architectural critic and something of a self-created grumpy middle-aged man – among other things he was incredibly scathing about the Royal Festival hall in London. With his emphasis on wandering around and observing his approach would now probably be classified as psychogeography.

Nairn’s London has recently been reissued and I was amused by this piece from the Independent about the production process. Perhaps most telling is that no artwork, and no digital original, of the cover survived, so for the reissued version the designers at Penguin needed to seek out copies in good condition on the second-hand market.

Microsoft’s latest acquisition

September 15, 2014

Having bought Nokia’s mobile phone business,Microsoft have made another acquisition in Scandinavia.  The logic behind them taking over the developers of Minecraft seems clear enough, given the popularity of this particular virtual world, but the statement by Minecraft’s creator makes very interesting reading.

Brands, coffee, banks, and reputation

September 15, 2014

Over the last couple of years there has been consternation in Crouch End, and worry in Whitstable – all caused by the emergence of a chain of coffee shops.  The branch of Harris and Hoole in Crouch End has a distinctly independent feel to it, with chunky chinaware, a blackboard advertising events in-store, and sort-of-local boys the Kinks on the sound system when I was there a week or so back.  But head further into London, and the next branch of the same chain (though not for much longer) is within the small Tesco Express store near to Highbury Corner.

Which is a clue to some curious issues around ownership and branding.  Harris and Hoole, it turns out, may have been the brainchild of three cool young siblings but just under half of it is in fact owned by Tesco.  In fairness to the business, their website is quite candid about the Tesco involvement although my recollection is that this wasn’t the case when Tesco’s stake first attracted media coverage.   Moreover you could argue that the owners of Costa Coffee, which does look and feel like a big chain, don’t expect anybody to believe seriously that their whole enterprise, including sponsorship of a literary prize, was built up by two brothers who started from scratch.  In fact, looking at the development of the coffee business over time, one might wonder why it took 24 years for the Costas to sell out to Whitbread.  So what should we read into brands and reputations?  Should it matter, if a coffee outlet looks and feels right, who owns it?

As I alluded to above, the Highbury Corner store is on its way out – although whether this reflects any sort of broader malaise surrounding the supermarket sector is debatable.

TSB brandingBranding and ownership has also been an issue in the banking sector.  The principal retail banks have used a variety of brands for many years: most notably First Direct was created as a telephone banking offshoot of the then Midland Bank (long since subsumed into HSBC) 25 years ago as a reaction to the parent company having a perceived poor reputation.  This was in a more innocent age, when banks’ reputations suffered because of weaknesses in customer service, and not because of careless governance putting the world’s financial systems at risk.  First Direct has evolved into an Internet bank, but there is still a sense that its call centre is the principal channel for customer contact, and the one into which First Direct puts most effort.  This isn’t something I’ve tested scientifically, but I’ve long suspected that there is a correlation between the prominence of the HSBC logo on First Direct’s advertising and stationery, and HSBC’s overall reputation.  So when there is bad news about HSBC in the media, their logo, and the wording about First Direct being part of the HSBC group, are as tiny and inconspicuous as possible.  When HSBC is doing well, then First Direct advertising gains more of an HSBC look.

First Direct formed a template for a couple of other Internet banks.  Famously, some of the same people involved with setting up First Direct went on to work on Egg, the Internet banking brand which has successively been operated by the Prudential, then Citi Group, and now the Yorkshire Building Society.  It was followed by Smile, which set out to move the Co-op Bank from being a rather staid but worthy bank to a more contemporary ethical institution.  Though Smile seems to have been troubled by customer unrest even before its parent company’s problems came to light.

Ironically, the Co-op was involved with the other significant change in bank branding lately – the re-emegence of the TSB brand after 18 years, as some former Lloyds TSB branches have been hived off into this separate business.  At one time the intention was for the Co-op (when it looked stable and financially solvent) to take over the Lloyds TSB branches that became TSB.  In fact TSB has been set up as a separate busines, though with a logo not dissimilar to the one that was around in the 1990s before the merger with Lloyds.  And TSB is branding itself as a more accessible, less corporate, bank than its rivals.

Of course a small, artisanal, bank is a less plausible notion than a small, artisanal coffee shop.  But TSB’s ‘local banking’ strapline, and its positioning as a bank which deals with individuals and large corporates (a position which has echoes of the role historially occupied by building societies in the UK) suggests something distinct from the large corporates.  And it’s another instance of the importance of the presentation and positioning of a brand.

Another conference season

May 23, 2014

I’ve attended one conference so far this year – the Association of Business Schools annual teaching and learning conference.  This year it was in Aston, where the website helpfully tells you that the walk from Birmingham New Street station to the conference centre should use up enough calories to justify eating one biscuit or three jellybabies.

As always, this is a great conference for sharing ideas about teaching and learning, and student engagement.  As with last year’s conference in Nottingham, I chaired a stream on flexible learning (in practice a concept which embraces a lot of different ideas) and when asked to sum up what I took away from the stream, suggested that it was about having the confidence to bring back new ideas and implement them.  And if – as is the case where I work – we’re dealing with every increasing numbers of students one of the biggest challenges is to ensure that each student gets some individual attention.

And one interesting idea, from Gwen Van Der Velden, of the University of Bath, feeds into student engagement, and universities’ relationships with students who are keen to get value for money.   Her argument was that universities could adopt a ‘commercialist’ view – where the interests of the university would be distinct from those of its students – or a ‘collegiate’ view where the interests of a university were largely congruent with those of its students.  The collegiate approach has the benefit, arguably, of being close to the traditional idea of a university as a place of shared learning.  Given the level of interest that I’ve seen recently, in academics and students working together as partners, this is food for thought.

Read around the clock

May 23, 2014

There’s a rather charming item on the BBC website this week about the emergence of the 24-hour university library – including the intriguing piece of trivia that Reading University’s library opened in the same month as Terence Conran’s first Habitat store.

My institution offers 24/7 opening at the main university library in the immediate run-up to exams.  I usually stress that the most important part of the 24/7 library is the availability of electronic resources – although those include an online catalogue.  So, if you’re interested in Russ Ackoff’s ideas on knowledge, and want to refer back to his original writing which is only available on paper, you can establish from home whether the paper item is in stock, and then come in to collect it.

But the BBC piece about the library in Reading is also a salutary reminder that a library isn’t just about its contents, and that the need for a congenial place to study is as relevant as it every has been

Nokia under new management

September 4, 2013

Given my interest in changes in the phone business, I should have seen Microsoft’s takeover of Nokia’s phone business coming – and I didn’t.  Lots has been written about the move but I was struck by this piece on its significance for Finnish entrepreneurship.

Historically Microsoft hasn’t been a huge player in mobile devices: even in the days of personal digital assistants, the portable version of Windows was a much smaller player than, for example, the Palm operating system.  I wonder if that will change following the recent news.

E-government taking shape

June 14, 2013

The Guardian’s video on e-government has a slight touch of the infomercial about it, but still it does cover some useful issues about the development process, and if you can mediate your viewing of it through the rather uncritical presentation, then it is worth reviewing as a case study of e-government.  Significantly, when I viewed it on the Guardian website, I was served with a banner advert for some perfumed inspired by James Bond, perhaps the UK government’s most famous fictional employee.

Return of the dumb-phone

June 14, 2013

Browsing the BBC website for stories around mobile technology, it was good to see one which covers both the continuing use of more traditional mobile phones (feature phones to use the currently favoured term) and the role of technology in the developing world.  When I first read about the bus-tracking service, I wondered whether part of the concept was to ‘crowdsource’ the determination of where each bus was, by asking users to report on the position of buses.  But it turns out that GPS receivers are cheap enough, and presumably GPS coverage is good enough in Indian cities, that a simple GPS box in the bus can be used to provide data.