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Collaborative Case-Writing Benefits 100,000 Students

Few local cases are available for non-Western countries. Ten business schools are addressing this challenge through collaborative case writing.

The Social Enterprise Knowledge Network (SEKN) is a 10-school partnership dedicated to co-developing cases on companies in Latin America and Spain (Ibero-America). SUSTENTUS, a sustainability centre at Mexico’s EGADE Business School, is a founding member of SEKN and shares more about the network’s powerful collaborative process.

Few local cases are available for non-Western countries.

“Eighty to ninety percent of my students say case studies are their favourite part of class,” says Francisco Layrisse, Operations Coordinator of SUSTENTUS, a sustainability centre at Mexico’s EGADE Business School. “But students are demanding current cases on local companies.”

EGADE faces the same challenge as business schools in most developing countries: Most case studies come from developed countries, making it more difficult for local students to relate to the content.

Ten business schools are collaborating to address this challenge.

EGADE and 9 other business schools, including Harvard Business School (HBS), are addressing this issue through collaborative case writing. In 2001, these schools banded together to form the Social Enterprise Knowledge Network (SEKN).

SEKN members have published over 70 case studies on Latin American and Spanish (Ibero-American) companies, satisfying the need for locally relevant material. But the power of SEKN’s work goes beyond the number of cases it publishes.

SEKN uses a unique collaboration process.

Three features of SEKN’s collaborative case writing process make it unique and effective:

  1. Members do parallel research on the same challenge: Every 3-years, SEKN members agree on a common challenge, upon which each will conduct research. Using an agreed upon set of criteria, members identify a set of organizations to research. Members then work in parallel, studying the organizations in their country using an agreed upon protocol.

  2. Each case is reviewed by all SEKN members, using three cycles of peer-review:Members use the Network’s annual meeting to discuss the first draft of all cases. This allows all members to give input on each case and facilitates analysis of trends across cases. Members then submit revised cases for formal peer review by two other schools. After the second round of revisions are made, cases are submitted to HBS for final review and publication.

  3. Outputs include both teaching cases and books: During a 3-year cycle, each member produces four rigorous cases, including teaching notes. At the end of each cycle, empirical findings are analyzed across cases and findings are summarized into a single book.

According to Kim Clark, former Dean of HBS, SEKN’s collaborative processes are a truly unique. “It is rare for HBS to engage in research partnerships as an institution, and, for sure, we have never before belonged to a partnership such as SEKN. It is not like most research consortia, where each authoring institution or academic focuses on a single subject, with their work then being collated to come up with a combined project. SEKN’s output is truly a collective effort that carries much higher value.”

SEKN’s work is made possible by funding from the Avina Foundation and private companies like FEMSA.

All SEKN resources are available online.

SEKN has covered three topics to date:

  1. Social partnerships (corporate-NGO alliances)

  2. Effective management of social enterprises

  3. Socially inclusive business

Seventy-one case studies on these topics are available, as well as three books.

EGADE Business School and other SEKN members have benefitted from collaboration.

  1. Inter-country analysis: According to James Austin, HBS emeritus and SEKN Founder, the value of SEKN’s work comes from its portfolio of cases on common issues. “This enables faculty members to lead students in inter-country comparative analysis, comparing what is occurring in their country to other contexts. This is what single institutions can’t readily do alone but is possible through the collaborative Network.”

  2. Increased student engagement: Students are better able to relate to cases on locally relevant issues and companies. “If a student in Canada were studying a case from Japan, it may be a great case, but the student will have a harder time seeing themselves in it,” says Layrisse. “Our students are greatly impacted when they learn about companies in their local community.” Approximately 100,000 students around the world have already used SEKN cases.

  3. Revenue generation: SEKN receives 40% of case sale revenues. These revenues cover the network’s operating costs, including its annual meeting.

Layrisse offers advice for those seeking to do collaborative case writing.

  1. Leverage the abundant opportunity: “Universities have been very willing to collaborate on the topic of sustainability,” observes Layrisse. “We should be leveraging that willingness.” Collaboration takes longer than working alone, but has many benefits. Case quality increases with the input of multiple peers. Collaboration also increases awareness of what’s already been done and decreases duplication.

  2. Think of partnerships while developing your objectives: Every successful alliance begins by aligning the personal agendas of its stakeholders. If you truly want to collaborate, you must be willing to fine tune your own objectives to align with those of the partnership. To do this, think ahead. Plan your long-term goals to be compatible with the common good. “Remember,” says Layrisse, “if you walk alone, you will get their faster, but if you walk with peers you will go much further.”

More Information

Learn more about SUSTENTUS, including the Social Enterprise Knowledge Network, or contact Francisco Layrisse for more information.

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  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

    Hi, I’m Chelsea. I have a Masters degree in Sustainability, where I studied ecosystem health. I'm also a Certified Life Coach. I used to be the Operations Manager for NBS, but now I just focus on my favourite part of that job – the writing! I also run a social enterprise, called Creating Me, dedicated to strengthening maternal and family well-being. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to balance career goals, impact, and one’s own well-being. When I’m not working on my own impact goals, I offer executive coaching and writing support to help researchers and change-makers grow their impact and well-being. (creatingme.ca/sustainability).

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