Lights, camera, action... case study

Masters-level leadership course uses novel teaching format
Robert Austin: 'I've always been interested in business cases as stories'

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Robert Austin, professor at Copenhagen Business School, has just completed a grand experiment: a masters-level leadership course built around a film-length dramatised case.

The case features professional actors and chronicles four years in the life of Jim Barton, a talented but flawed manager in his first job as a chief executive of a fictional aerospace company. Barton confronts a variety of management challenges, including raising capital for the company’s transformation in the aftermath of an accounting scandal and navigating a professional/romantic relationship with a scheming journalist/blogger. The case is based on the novel Harder Than I Thought: Adventures of a 21st century Leader, which was written by Prof Austin with Richard Nolan at Harvard Business School and Shannon Hessel, of CBS.

What inspired the move into this type of case format?

“I’ve always been interested in business cases as stories. Good cases have a dramatic form — they are not formulaic. In 2009, I started playing around with different engagement strategies. Jeremy Short [business strategy professor at the University of Oklahoma] and I created a graphic novel [cartoon] case about an online company attacked by hackers. We thought there was a demographic overlap between people interested in hacking and those who read graphic novels.”

Where did the idea for Jim Barton come from?

“We were writing a book for an executive education class for chief information officers. We had a couple of false starts. But then we thought, ‘what if we fictionalised the life of a chief information officer?’ We took some liberties and amalgamated events we had seen in companies.

“Shannon, a former theatre director, had the idea about using the monomyth — the hero’s journey — as the basis for the extended narrative. This is where a reluctant hero faces a difficult journey and emerges a transformed person.

“Shannon extracted dialogue from the book, lined up the actors and hired a video crew. The result is three-and-a-half hours’ worth of clips ranging in length from two minutes to 11.”

How did the class work?

“The course took a blended learning approach. We assigned students weekly readings relevant to the topics we were working on, from vision and communication to managing social media, and they were also supposed to watch recorded lectures [by Prof Nolan].

“When they came to class, we would play a video clip from the case and then would talk about the issues it raised.”

Does a dramatisation like this dumb down the content?

“There’s no reason [a case like this] can’t be fun and interesting, and not intellectually serious, too. But there is an ethical dimension to this and we have to be careful. Orchestrating a journey of discovery, especially one with plot twists and reversals, is inherently powerful. It’s why propaganda works. There is the responsibility that comes with using these kinds of approaches. We have to be conscientious and make sure that what we’re putting out there is in students’ best interests, does not contain some sort of scary bias, and is true.”

Were there any limitations to this format?

“The in-class experience overwhelmed the out of class one and there was not as much synthesis as I would have liked. There was considerable evidence that not all students completed the readings. Some did, and you could hear it in their comments and the way they referenced concepts during class discussions. But we reached students unevenly.”

Will you teach this course again?

“We are working on turning it into a massive open online course on Coursera. One of the problems with Moocs is their retention rates. Our hope is that by designing the Mooc like a Tom Clancy novel, students will want to keep going.”

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