Some Schools Are Selling Case Studies on the Web

Customers are moving to the Web. Traditional sales and distribution methods seem outdated. How fast can an enterprise adapt to the Internet age?

At business schools, such high-stakes predicaments are ripe fodder for case studies. Amazon.com Inc.’s assault on traditional book retailing has been dissected at least 16 times in cases at Harvard Business School.

Another striking example of Internet upheaval has been unfolding right on campus: case-study publishing.

For a handful of top-tier schools, case studies are more than a teaching tool. They also generate meaningful revenue when sold to other schools that need extra material; case sales account for about 6.5% of Harvard’s business-school revenue, which was $368 million in the year ended June 30, 2006. A 20-page case typically costs about $3 to $7 per U.S. student user. Until the late 1990s, case studies were sold like books, with catalogs and boxed shipments of hard copies.

Not anymore. Most case studies now are sold through the Internet. Professors, students or casual visitors browse Web listings, then pay electronically to download cases. Well-crafted Web sites win unexpected orders from China and Brazil. Clumsy Web sites lose business.

This transformation requires business schools to do some fancy footwork. Good Web design has become a top priority. Discount pricing for customers in less-affluent economies is catching on. And video cases — long regarded as unprofitable because of steep production costs — are getting a fresh look as new Web technologies cut production and distribution costs.

At the University of Western Ontario, well over 90% of case sales are distributed electronically, says Paul Beamish, of the university’s Ivey School of Management. Shipping paper copies is “very inefficient,” he says. “The only winner when we do that is the post office.”

Mr. Beamish won’t disclose revenue but says Ivey’s sales top one million copies of cases a year. Asian business schools have become big customers, both for classic North American cases and for new Asian cases developed to support Ivey’s Hong Kong campus. In China, Ivey will sell cases in bulk for as little as $1 each, which it couldn’t have done with paper.

“We have to set prices at a level that people in these markets can afford,” Mr. Beamish explains. “If you charge too much by their norms, they’ll get a single copy and duplicate it themselves.”

At Harvard, switching to a Web-centered approach has broadened the customer base, says Maureen Betses, who oversees the school’s case-publishing activities. Historically, Harvard catered to 100 top business schools, with a traveling sales force. Now its roster of active accounts is up to 400, Ms. Betses says, with many newcomers finding Harvard on the Web. In addition to the main campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Harvard now sells cases to the BYU branch in Rexburg, Idaho.

Harvard sells about seven million copies of cases a year. Volume lately has been rising about 7% a year, Ms. Betses says, up from 2% in the pre-Web era.

At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, the Internet transformation isn’t as far along. Steve Momper, Darden’s head of publishing, estimates that only 30% of cases are sold from the school’s Web site. But Mr. Momper, a textbook-publishing veteran who joined Darden last year, plans to make more aggressive use of the Web.

Most Darden cases are text, but one bestseller is a video-based look at Enron Corp.’s rise and fall. That case includes interviews of Jeffrey Skilling, Ken Lay and other Enron executives when the Houston energy company was riding high. The executives’ comments now seem contrived, but the footage fascinates students as they ponder Enron’s demise.


Enron Corporation was an American energy, commodities, and services company based in Houston, Texas. It was founded in 1985 as the result of a merger between Houston Natural Gas and InterNorth, both relatively small regional companies in the U.S. Before its bankruptcy on December 2, 2001, Enron employed approximately 20,000 staff and was one of the world’s major electricity, natural gas, communications and pulp and paper companies, with claimed revenues of nearly $111 billion during 2000. Fortune named Enron “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years.

At the end of 2001, it was revealed that its reported financial condition was sustained by institutionalized, systematic, and creatively planned accounting fraud, known since as the Enron scandal. Enron has since become a well-known example of willful corporate fraud and corruption. The scandal also brought into question the accounting practices and activities of many corporations in the United States and was a factor in the enactment of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002. The scandal also affected the greater business world by causing the dissolution of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm.

Enron filed for bankruptcy in the Southern District of New York in late 2001 and selected Weil, Gotshal & Manges as its bankruptcy counsel. It ended its bankruptcy during November 2004, pursuant to a court-approved plan of reorganization, after one of the most complex bankruptcy cases in U.S. history. A new board of directors changed the name of Enron to Enron Creditors Recovery Corp., and emphasized reorganizing and liquidating certain operations and assets of the pre-bankruptcy Enron. On September 7, 2006, Enron sold Prisma Energy International Inc., its last remaining business, to Ashmore Energy International Ltd. (now AEI)


At Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, video cases are getting a fresh look, too. New technology makes it less expensive to create content that is easily viewed over fast Internet connections. What’s more, says Charles O’Reilly, a Stanford GSB professor, students get a deeper understanding of certain management issues if they must react instantly to a video clip rather than having hours to mull over a case.

In one recent video case, the chief executive of a small high-tech company describes his troubles with a talented but disruptive employee. “We stop the interview at several stages — and invite students to jump in and say what they would do,” Mr. O’Reilly says.

Patience, counseling, a job shuffle and firing are all options. Only one turns out to be effective — as students learn in the last snippet of video. “That’s the way business is,” Mr. O’Reilly says. “Sometimes you don’t have time to ponder. You have to react right away.”

 

 

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