Opinion: Analysing a Data-Rich Business Case, a Method Developed at Harvard, Is a Highly Effective Form of Training for Marketers

Marketing, January 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Opinion: Analysing a Data-Rich Business Case, a Method Developed at Harvard, Is a Highly Effective Form of Training for Marketers


Question: how do you build a stronger marketing team for 2012 than the one that helped you battle through 2011? Caveat: there is no budget for new talent.

The answer is obvious enough: better training for the people you have. For perhaps a fifth of the cost of a single star hire, a well-conducted training programme can raise the skills of an entire department.

In other disciplines, where continuous professional development is the accepted route to success, such a proposal would be nothing out of the ordinary. In marketing departments, systematic training remains more the exception than the norm. More typical is the occasional pep talk, perhaps featuring an outside speaker, with teams expected to 'learn on the job'.

If marketing were aviation, this would be the equivalent of the flight crew practising their newly acquired theoretical skills on a packed transatlantic flight. Instead, and very sensibly, they start in the simulator.

For a marketing leader pondering cross-department training for the first time, the variables can be daunting. How do you make it relevant for all levels? What about different learning styles? Is it better to keep it in-house, or send everyone on an external business-school programme?

With both budget and those questions in mind, here is a recommendation to consider: the case method. First developed by Harvard, and practised at the leading business schools, this is not the simplistic, illustrative-case storytelling of the imagination. It is far more interactive, and therefore far more demanding, than that.

In its purest form, students read a data-rich business case - complete with asymmetrical trade-offs, and pivotal moments - and arrive at the session ready to discuss it. The skill of the trainer comes into play here, as he or she probes the group on aspects of the case, repeatedly returning to points when the options were anything but obvious.

Although each case will replicate the full fluidity of the marketing environment, it will also have a 'centre of gravity' - not necessarily signposted at the outset. So its pivotal feature might be innovation, or segmentation, for example.

Students will be expected to find this, to probe it in teams, explore the ramifications of alternative paths at decision points, and identify the right tools and frameworks that they would reach for in similar situations.

The case method doesn't work without theoretical learning first, but it brings theory into sharp relief. It encourages teams to train their eyes on the crucial measurements at each stage, and to use tools and frameworks for what they are, rather than just sort of admiring them in an abstract way. …

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