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Leading the Pack from Behind

When we decided to modernize the delivery of case studies to better engage our students, a new product – video interview series brought CEOs and business executives from around the world into my classroom. The result is a revolution in case delivery, a platform accessible to instructors and students, and ultimately, a study in how fast the rules of the game can change. Read on to see our journey into the future, as we race to catch up.

About fifteen years ago, my colleagues at Acadia University and I found ourselves in an interesting situation. In the mid 1990’s our university had adopted lap top computers and wired all of its classrooms. By the early millennium it had established a strong reputation for innovative teaching. Our campus was beautiful and our classrooms were nice to teach in. However, regionally the number of high school graduates was on a downward trend. and at the time our tuition fees were among the highest in the country. Our business program was not well known, our marketing budget was dwarfed by those of much larger competitors and our B-school building (at that time) was unattractive. Nationally the competition for business students was becoming increasingly fierce. Further geographical isolation made it difficult to attract executives to campus to speak and interact with students. This challenge was not one faced by competitors located in large urban settings such as Calgary, Toronto and Montreal where corporate executives are often a short walk or taxi ride away. Looking ahead we knew that if we wanted to attract good students for years to come, we needed to start thinking in competitive terms and actively positioning our B-School in the marketplace.

Competing Through Positioning

As luck would have it, hard work by a few colleagues resulted in funds from a McConnell Foundation grant being made available for projects that would improve teaching through innovative uses of technology. My project was one of those funded. We built a database that allowed us to sort and search transcribed video interviews of business executives, managers and entrepreneurs. Over the next five years we filmed almost three hundred individuals on campus and travelled domestically and internationally to build our collection. Our intent was to engage as many high profile executives of large corporations as possible. Among the many fascinating individuals who participated were Cynthia Trudell the former President of Sea Ray Group and now SPO with PepsiCo, the Chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Murray Edwards, and BMO Financial Group Vice Chairman Frank Techar. Noteworthy among the interviewees was Frank Clegg, the former President of Microsoft Canada. His talk on campus was received by students in a manner worthy of a rock star. Within a couple of years we realized that the collection could help us establish a presence in the market in other ways. Specifically Pearson Canada adopted some of our collection for its digital business texts and named it the Acadia Pearson Business Insider Series. After a few years, like many good things in life, the relationship came to an end and we moved on to another stage of development.

Competing by Building Capability

Among the individuals that we had interviewed was a publishing executive. It was 2008 and we asked him about what he would do if he were in our shoes. He suggested creating a new way to deliver teaching cases that were still mostly text based. We kept this in the back of our minds and soon realized that we needed to get back in the marketplace quickly with a new product or two. Given the large number of case providers in the marketplace, we understood that we would have to compete on capability and quickly build our own case collection. We looked very closely at the organization of a typical written case and we soon realized that with a few minor tweaks the same quick and inexpensive production process that we had used for years would enable us to also create streaming video cases. We also knew that the end users, students, liked our content.

Some new grant writing brought Innovacorp and Springboard Atlantic on board as supporters to create a new streaming video case database and support from BMO Financial Group allowed us to develop new cases and interviews and learn about building a brand from some of their executives in Toronto. While our platform was being rebuilt, we reached out to Deloitte and in Halifax filmed a number of partners including Rob Carruthers, Shannon MacDonald and current Irving Oil President Ian Whitcomb about the operation of a global partnership. In Toronto, a team of executives at Compass Group Canada including former CEO Jack MacDonald and former Chartwells President Ross Munro offered insight into how this large commercial food catering firm structured itself to deliver services nationally. In Edmonton, Stantec opened its doors and four of its managers the ins and outs of managing large scale industrial projects. Our push to quickly create cases paid off as we licensed a few cases and sold a copy of the platform to Curtin Business School. Alas, soon after this initial success the world changed and moved to the cloud. Our new product platform was dead on arrival and again we found ourselves needing to change our product and how we compete.

Competing for Relationships

Jump forward to this year and we find ourselves in yet another new setting. There is a new team mate on board, Michael Sheppard. With the help of RBC Foundation and Springboard Atlantic we continue to build cases under a well-established university brand and now through a license agreement, stream them via a new cloud hosted platform enabled for both users and instructors. An agreement with Wiley allows its customers in Canada to bundle their texts with any of 230 cases.

Yet three of our recently created streaming video cases give us pause for thought. They feature young entrepreneurs who have created new markets for their products through innovative use of social media. I refer specifically to Alex MacLean of East Coast Lifestyle, vlogger David Culligan of behuman Clothing and Stephanie MacDonald of Halifax Paper Hearts. From them, we have learned that while positioning our product and building capability are important for success, we also need to compete for relationships with other organizations to attract users beyond the Canadian higher education sector.

Conor Vibert PhD. is an innovative user and researcher of new educational technologies, a practitioner of flipped classroom teaching methods, a developer of evidence based instructional techniques, and a creator of streaming video multimedia cases available through He trains individuals to use online information sources to understand company behavior and has published a number of books on the topic. Over 600 video interviews with entrepreneurs, managers and executives around the world positions him as a unique source of knowledge of business behavior.

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