Evaluating skills of the nature that will be required in this course is difficult and perhaps it is even more difficult to demonstrate the fairness of evaluation. Also, it is often difficult for you to understand what is required of you and to develop a system to help you monitor your own performance. Here are some guidelines (not necessarily instructions) that you can use to monitor and self-evaluate your own performance and to see what my evaluation of your performance is based on. The skill sets I will discuss here are: analytical skills in general; case analysis; writing skills in general; case write-up.
Analytical skills in general
Analysis is at the heart of strategic decision-making. In this course, we will apply analytical thinking to cases, articles, materials from the text, and others’ comments. Over the years, I have used the following to help strengthen my analytical skills. You might find some or all of these to be useful.
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Rationale: The most critical aspect of any analysis is It is not enough to present an opinion; it is imperative to provide a strong rationale for it. For instance, imagine that as a manufacturer brand manager, you have to decide whether to produce store brands for a powerful retailer. You think that the manufacturer should not do this; adequately justifying why you think so is crucial.
Number of variables: Good analysis uses existing information and the more information it uses, the stronger (deeper) the analysis. Good analysis goes beyond known facts. In making marketing-related decisions we often use variables. The first point to remember is that one should critically choose the variables to be used for the analysis. Such a choice should be based on a consideration of the relevance of the variables to the problem at hand and also a consideration of its potency in aiding analysis. The second point to remember is that the more variables one uses, the stronger the analysis is likely to be. For instance, in predicting the future of an industry, an analyst looked at the potential growth of market share and the large number of suppliers to choose from. Several other variables such as threat from substitutable products, government subsidies to competing industries, possible threat from foreign competitors, if considered, would likely strengthen the analysis.
Point-counterpoint approach: A consideration of multiple angles strengthens an analysis. I use an approach that I call the point-counterpoint technique. In this approach, the analyst provides a point (suitably supported by a rationale), and also tries to generate counterpoints to this point. The next step is to address or “plug” these counterpoints to add strength to the analyst’s position. Often, one set of counterpoints would lead to other counterpoints and addressing those then becomes necessary. Usually, the more layers of points and counterpoints one takes care of, the stronger the analysis. For instance, given the aging population of the home economy, the marketing VP of a company has suggested overseas outsourcing of manufacturing operations. His argument is that there is currently not enough young workers to fuel the economy and hence the proposition to outsource. Possible counterpoints: (i) with the steady influx of immigrants, the age distribution of the country’s workforce is likely to become more favorable in the near future; (ii) increasing automation might eliminate the need for hard manual labor in the near future and we may be fine in using older people since their job would simply reduce to operating machines. A strong analyst would foresee these counterpoints and preempt them or incorporate them in the analysis in some fashion. So, one of the skills of a good analyst is the ability to preempt/incorporate counterarguments.
Clarity: Good analysis does not confuse but clarifies. The goal should not be to obfuscate situations but to unfold them. Ambiguity should be avoided.
Assumptions/Prerequisites: It is hardly ever possible to analyze without making assumptions. It is fine to make assumptions so long as they are based on facts and strong rationale and so long as they can be defended in the face of possible challenges. Assumptions often take the form of prerequisites in that they have to be satisfied in order for a certain thing to be valid. For instance, the idea of carbon trading as a mechanism to regulate emissions is based on several prerequisites. First, we should be able to measure emissions accurately and objectively. Second, we should be able to correctly assign carbon limits to each industry and company. More than the optimal level will unduly constrain the industry and stifle economic growth and less will not address the issue of regulating emissions effectively. Third, there has to be enough of a variation in emissions across firms for continued availability of carbon permits for trading. Finally, there must be steep enough penalties for exceeding emission limits. Indeed, detractors of this mechanism are finding holes in some of these assumptions or prerequisites.
Assessing alternatives: Strategizing typically involves choosing from among alternative courses of action. Remember that in a company, often some people would oppose the alternative you recommend, for personal gains or for genuine concerns. It is a good idea to make a strong case for your pet alternative and this can be done by highlighting (arguing) the strengths AND highlighting (arguing) the weaknesses of alternatives that did not receive your endorsement. This approach has the potential for winning support chiefly because it reduces perceived opportunity cost (of not adopting the routes that you did not endorse) and also preempts opposition.
Connecting the dots: A very useful analytical skill is the ability to integrate resources that the analyst has been exposed to in disparate episodes (across space and time) and bring them to bear upon an analytical task at a given point in time. These resources might be pieces of information (data) or concepts. In simpler terms, this skill is often referred to as “connecting the dots”. The idea is to break free from a natural tendency to compartmentalize what we learn. For instance, a manager wants to know which of three strategies (giving a stronger warranty, increasing advertising intensity, and investing on packaging) is likely to be the most effective in raising consumer intention to purchase a brand. Can we draw from resources we have gathered over the years to help the manager? If so, which ones?
Logical strength: Quite obviously, good analysis is logically strong. Often, logical weakness arises because the presented information is not coherent, that is, the parts are not well connected (problem with transition). Consider the following:
Given the low level of per capita income and insufficiency of motorable roads in country “X”, it is not advisable to market automobiles in this country. Because the people of this country are poor, they would not be able to afford luxury cars.
Here is a problem with this position:
The first sentence summarily rejects the idea of marketing any automobile in this country. Given this sentence, the second sentence is redundant and is potentially confusing. After reading the second sentence, I am thinking: do you mean that non-luxury cars may be marketable in this country? But then, you contradict what you said in the first sentence. Also, the second reason you have provided (poverty) does not continue from the first one (insufficiency of motorable roads).
If I were to present this point, I would use the insufficiency of motorable roads as the primary reason for questioning the merit of marketing automobiles in this country (this, in and of itself, is a good reason for not marketing automobiles). Per capita income may be used as a secondary reason. However, note that the argument related to per capita income is based on the assumption that a sizeable market for low-priced cars does not exist in this country. If someone provides data to show that this assumption is questionable, the analysis becomes weaker.
Also, please remember…
Cautious, time-consuming, and rational analysis is prescribed widely but practical situations often do not offer that luxury. In practical situations, analysis will be tampered by intuition, prejudices, emotion, risk orientation, degree of open/close-mindedness, experience, etc. That is just the way it is going to be and I will not prescribe that you break your head trying to disentangle yourself from such inevitability. However, in the classroom, we can try to streamline our thinking because we have the luxury of time, at least to some extent. One way of looking at this is that in the classroom we are making decisions in the light whereas in the world out there, you are mostly in the dark. We are trying to develop a flashlight in the classroom, with complete awareness that the flashlight will be of limited use in many practical situations. If this feels frustrating, just ask yourself: what would it be like without a flashlight?
Pushing yourself down a straitjacket of rational analysis should be done with caution. Among other things, it can make you somewhat close-minded. And if you tend to be a little close-minded as a person to start with, good luck! I think open-mindedness facilitates the exercise and outcome of analysis. Among other things, it will help you recognize new and relevant information and possibly incorporate it in your position. Last but not the least, please remember that you are not analyzing to drive YOUR point home; purpose of the analysis is to offer a solution that is good for all. So it is important not to be blinded by the smartness of your analysis or by your desire to win.
Cases depict specific business situations that typically involve decision-making. Thus, a typical question posed by a case is what should the company (or a specific person in the company) do and why. In addition to the analytical skills discussed earlier, here are some other things you need to be aware with respect to case analysis:
Structure is of paramount importance. Logically sequencing your thoughts is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for effective analysis. A poorly structured analysis will receive unfavorable evaluation from me, regardless of anything else.
Strategic recommendations must be supported with appropriate rationale based on information provided in the case that is either stated explicitly or from which reasonable inferences can be made. How you utilize the information presented in a case (either in raw form or in the form of inferences based on such information) is of critical importance.
A case usually contains an abundance of information not all of which will be relevant to the decision at hand. The case writer(s) has(ve) carefully selected the information and its location in the case. The details might be present in the text itself or in the exhibits, tables, figures, appendixes, etc. In analyzing each aspect of a case, it is necessary to critically use the information that is explicitly present together with what can be inferred reasonably. Also, information that might be relevant to an analysis of the decision-making question at hand may not be may be scattered disjointedly throughout the case. For instance, something that was stated in the second line of the case, in combination with something presented in one of many exhibits might present us with insight into the situation. The challenge is to present a cogent analysis based on seemingly disparate information that might be scattered throughout the case.
It is imperative that you restrict use of information to those provided in the case only. That is, you are not permitted to use any “outside information”, esp. specialized information ((e.g., fuel efficiencies of various airplane models if such information is not presented in a case on an airline company) or information about what happened after the time period to which the case applies. That is, we do not have the luxury of specialized information or hindsight. However, general knowledge (e.g., India is a developing economy; gas prices have been rising in the recent past).
Often, students prescribe strategies that cannot be evaluated based on the information provided in the case or inferences that can be made from such information. Avoid such recommendations at all costs. Let’s avoid “wild strategizing” at all costs. For instance, mergers and acquisitions are common strategies but if there is no information in the case that would helps us assess such strategies, we need to avoid prescribing them.
If you think of “n” possible strategies in a given situation you would probably find all of those strategies have succeeded or failed in real life. The question is one of conditionality or caveats, i.e., conditions or caveats under which each strategy might succeed or fail. If you simply recommend a strategy without assessing its viability in light of information presented in the case I will have no way of assessing the strength of your recommendation simply because no strategy has always succeeded or failed. Hence, it is imperative that you provide evidence-based rationale and adequately analyze the conditionality or caveats surrounding your recommendation. For instance, both mass-market strategy and niche-market strategy have succeeded (failed) in the past, depending on the conditions surrounding their execution. So, in recommending either of them you need to identify the likely conditions under which it works and whether or not the information presented in the case can be used to argue that such conditions exist for the company concerned.
Assess alternative courses of action adequately. The strategy you recommend is important and you need to focus on why one should adopt that strategy. However, it is important to evaluate alternative strategies adequately to demonstrate the superior viability of the strategy you recommend.
Information (stated or inferred) that might help you explicate, assess, strengthen, etc. your analysis will not be present in any one place in a case. Often, such information are scattered at different places in a case and the analyst must gather them to bear upon the analysis.
In analyzing a case, we will try our best to apply the repertoire of concepts that we will gather over the semester, esp. from the textbook or the articles. Such information will not be considered as “outside information”. For instance, if during the course of our discussion we came across a situation where a company developed a breakthrough strategy to deal with a situation that is similar to the one presented in a case, we should consider using it. So, what we learned will not be treated as outside information. However, it is imperative that learned concepts be applied in a relevantFor instance, forcefully applying Porter’s Five Forces Model to a case just because I have asked you to use learned concepts is not desirable and will lead to unfavorable evaluation. Use information and concepts only when they are relevant.
What we learn from one case might be useful in analyzing other cases.
To the extent feasible, let’s also keep an eye out for information that is not presented in the case but could be useful. Of course, we need to justify the need for such information and also must be able to spell out the nature and content of such information. For instance, if a case is written from the perspective of company “X” and company “Y” is mentioned as a player in the same market one might recommend that “X” be acquired by “Y” provided…Thus, here we specify conditions under which this strategy might work although the case may not directly shed light on those conditions.
Discussing the background to a case is usually the first thing we will do before I discuss the more critical aspects of a case. However, in providing such background, we need to avoid regurgitation of the material in the case and need to focus on a critical set of issues that we need to know in order to analyze the case further. Although this part of the discussion tends to be descriptive, the idea is not to throw a laundry list of information at the audience. What I am looking for is a well-compiled compact view of the various issues that we need to know to understand and analyze the case effectively while also helping us warm up for the analysis. Typically, this section includes issues such as what the case is about, timelines, industry status, company status, product information, etc. Also, remember that in compiling this section we will rely on what is stated in the case and what can be reasonably inferred from what is stated.
Writing skills in general
Here are some things that I have learned about writing:
The write-up should tell a story. It should have a neat take-away for the reader. So often do I come across writing that tries to say so much (the write-up looks like a dumping ground of facts and thoughts), but at the end of the day, leaves the reader confused as to what the contribution of the piece was. Remember that most readers are passive and unless you make it worth their while to read your piece, it is likely to be trashed (at least mentally). To me, what makes it worth my while to read a piece of writing is its take-away but I am likely to reach that point only if it is written well.
Logical sequencing of information is critical. Simply ask yourself the question: given what I want to say (that is, the take-away), in what sequence should I present the information? For instance, have I created new paragraphs where I should? How you structure your write-up can make it or break it. In most analytical pieces, often the objective is to walk the reader through a series of steps before the analysis reaches its finality. This objective cannot be achieved without proper sequencing of information. Also, use headings and subheadings appropriately.
The domain of the write-up should be clearly communicated to the reader, preferably, at the start. In other words, you must clearly tell the reader what the write-up is about. It is important to do this early in the write-up.
Ideally, every paragraph should have a single theme (purpose). Early in the paragraph, it is necessary to spell out this theme or purpose. Most readers are not patient enough to read on unless they know why they should do so and chances are that you would lose the reader’s interest unless you justify the effort spent. The rest of the paragraph should contribute to this theme.It is quite possible that the reader may not agree with what you said but the reader should have no doubt about what you meant to say.
Correct syntax is crucial. Sentences are the building blocks, and at any given point in time, they would be the focus of the reader’s attention. Wherever possible, break long sentences into shorter ones, with proper linkage among them.
Avoid informal expressions and slang unless they are necessary.
Use summary sentences whenever necessary. A good piece of writing introduces the reader to an issue (the take-away), guides the reader through a structured process in exploring the issue, and helps the reader by providing the take-away.
In writing up a case, you will basically answer/address the questions/points that I provide. Remember that your writing showcases your analysis and hence poor writing will result in unfavorable evaluation regardless of how strong of an analyst you might be. In evaluating your write-up I will use you the criteria for good analysis and writing discussed earlier in the document. Here a list that has some overlap with those criteria. Use this list and any other criterion stated earlier that this list does not include.
Structure: is the information presented in the proper sequence? Have paragraphs been created where necessary? Does each paragraph have a clearly presented theme and do contents of the paragraph coherently contribute to this theme? Has the reader been suitably introduced through the topic, guided through the process of exploring it and led to the summary of the contribution? Unfortunately, I frequently come across disjointed writing from my students. Disjointed writing will result in unfavorable evaluation, regardless of anything else.
Take-away and consistency: does the write-up tell a neat story and does the information presented clearly build up to this story? The worst write-up is one that looks like a dumping ground of facts and thoughts that have not been sewn together to create a cogent story.
Analytical/logical strength/depth: please refer to my note above on the elements of good analysis.
Formality of language: It is my hope that some or all of you would write for business magazines or other respectable outlets some day. What you write then would act as a showcase for your company. I doubt that use of informal expressions or slang would elicit much respect from the reader. Informal expressions and slang would be severely penalized.
Syntax: poor syntax is a common problem in college-level writing. More often than not, it is not just a matter of saying something; it is a matter of saying it better.
Extent and quality of application of concepts we learned from the text, articles, etc.: wherever possible, use marketing concepts from the primer material and/or other courses. However, the application must not be forced onto the problem but must ensure genuine contribution.
Overall assessment of the write-up: this is a higher-level perception based on the various elements referred to above.
 The thoughts in this document are my very own, but there might be considerable overlap with multiple printed or online sources. If such overlap does occur, it is purely coincidental.
 This is somewhat related to my earlier point about the number of variables to be used for analysis. Usually, the more variables you consider, the more layers of counterpoints are covered.
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