MBA Case Competition Puts Spotlight on HR Strategy

November 19, 2007
Usually, HR is the Rodney Dangerfield of business school. But last month, leaders in the field tried to win some HR respect by sponsoring the first MBA case competition focused on human capital management.

Held at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, last month, the three-day competition featured USC, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Columbia, Cornell, Yale, Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois. The schools were selected from 25 institutions that applied.

Each team consisted of four second-MBA-year students and two first-year students who tackled a case involving employee engagement at an international law firm. They presented their answers to judges from General Electric and Deloitte Consulting.

Cornell captured first place—and $20,000 in prize money. Northwestern came in second and won $7,000, while UCLA finished third and took home $3,000.

Too often, HR is relegated to second-class status in MBA programs, according to Susan Strayer, director of talent management for Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. and a Vanderbilt graduate. So, she came up with the idea of the case competition.
“We want to elevate the importance of human capital strategy in business and business schools,” she says. “HR is the one thing that crosses every discipline.”

The winners offered just such a holistic answer.

“The key to our solution was very much tying everything to the business strategy of the client company,” says Anthony Figliolini, captain of the Cornell team.

Cornell’s recommendation for grooming law firm junior associates for partnerships included providing international rotations and teaching them to move beyond a billable-hours mind-set and instead develop relationships with clients that produce more business.

Increasing the associates’ enthusiasm for their career track, so the case argued, also produces benefits for their employer.

“This is not just about making employees happy; it’s about driving the firm’s profit,” says David Weisz, a member of the UCLA team. “The two are not mutually exclusive.”

That is the attitude that Deloitte is trying to instill through the competition.

“We want to look at all the human capital issues that a business has to deal with that affect the bottom line and culture,” says Garth Andrus, a Deloitte principal and one of its regional leaders for organization and change.

By having Deloitte as one of the competition sponsors, Andrus also was able to assess potential future hires. “It gives us a chance to look at some of the best talent out there,” he says. “It provides an alternative to traditional recruiting.”

The stature of the companies judging the case studies wasn’t lost on the contestants. “It’s signaling that this is an important area of focus,” Figliolini says.

Mark Schoeff Jr.