2011 Strategy Competition: Multidisciplinary Teams Challenged in New Professional Responsibility Strategy Competition

Adam Field jumped at the opportunity to expand his experience beyond law school classes. Early in September he joined forces with five other students, one from the MBA program, an aerospace engineering student, and three College of Business undergraduates, to compete in a new competition.

The inaugural 2011 Professional Responsibility Strategy Competition was sponsored by the Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society, BP, the global oil and gas supermajor, the Center for International Business Education and Research, and the James Scholar Executive Committee.

Six teams took on a complex 66-page case that situated them as analysts employed by a fictional international energy company, World Petroleum, Inc. Their challenge was to create a business plan to build a long term, financially successful downstream oil business in Afrinia, a fictional developing African nation. The plan’s objectives also needed to include the team’s vision of professional responsibility within the business, as well as the Afrinian society in which it operates.

Competition judge Howard Engle, partner with Deloitte, Chicago, noted the realism of the case, “BP did an amazing job of developing a case study that was interesting, informative and ultra-realistic. The teams had to work hard to identify a solution that would address a host of competing objectives – and result in a recommendation that would lead to successful action.”

One judge asked a question about business practices and the decision to slowly enter the market and gather information that would be used to adjust their business practices: “Adjust business practices? What does that mean? You are going to start taking bribes when it gets tough, or adjust your ethics to the corruption?”

Field’s teammate Khati Samanvay responded, “We will have zero tolerance for bribes. We are committed to doing business ethically, but we also recognize that this country is not the U.S. We don’t want to impose our values on the local communities; we want to learn theirs. We will need to adapt to the culture.”

Samanvay drove home their well-considered decision, “You learn to swim better when you’re in the water.”

The intensity of the competition was heightened by the extensive preparation by organizers and students. The competition application process required students to submit their resume, a short essay describing their interest in this event, and the skills they would bring to a team. The week after the teams were announced, they were shuttled to Chicago for an overnight stay to tour BP offices, its trading floor, and their Whiting, Indiana refinery. On September 19 each team submitted questions to BP representatives who offered them an opportunity to begin shaping their individual case response strategies and perspectives. By the time they started competing on October 4, the teams were well prepared.

The judges had a difficult time choosing winners at each stage. Engle described the experience, “We found the teams impressive, articulate and well prepared. Selecting the finalists was a real challenge with several teams deserving to advance in a very competitive process.”

At the conclusion of the competition Field’s team took the title. Field later commented, “The judges in the final round were really tough, and I’m glad about that. It gave us the opportunity to show that we’d really struggled with the problems and made the difficult decisions together. Everybody on the team understood the rationale behind our proposal and had something to add.”

Because this competition is expected to run on a regular basis, the students were asked for their advice to future participants. Field offered the most straightforward assessment: “Give yourself a lot of time, and work through the case as a team.

This isn’t the most efficient way of getting things done, obviously, but you will really miss the point if you don’t approach it that way. Be patient and listen to each other. At the end of the day, you proposal will show it.”

Everyone on the winning team agreed that working with a diverse group of students was the most important benefit of entering the competition. “As a business student,” said Maheshie Cabraal, “I understand that I will have such challenges in the future and having this experience early on will definitely help my success down the road.”

Gretchen Winter, executive director of the Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society believes the competition gave students an opportunity to immerse themselves in the professional responsibility aspects of a real business problem. “The fact that students were assigned to work with students from different fields of study over a one month period mimicked the real world of business, and the judges’ questions forced the students to confront the gap between theory and reality on some very tough yet common issues.” The Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society looks forward to hosting future competitions that expand the number of participants and includes students from other universities.