Building Bridges Between Education and Business

How can Latin American universities and businesses join forces to stimulate more case writing in the region? In small group discussions at the conference, senior business executives and academics sat down to sort out the barriers and enablers they see in the case-writing process—and presented a host of suggestions for enhanced communication and collaboration in the future.
by Martha Lagace

How can Latin American business and academia work together to stimulate more case writing in the region?

Partnering for Knowledge Creation

In a set of frank discussions, conference participants—academics and business executives together—broke into small groups organized by region to talk about barriers to and enablers of collaboration across the boardroom-classroom divide.

The barriers hindering such collaboration should not be ignored, the participants agreed. But, they said, the alliances that stand to be forged and the opportunities that can be developed are unlimited.

As the moderator, HBS Professor James Austin, told the participants when they came together to report on their group discussions, "Your ideas clearly show the great dividend we can get through cooperation, exchange, and learning from one another."

Barriers Linger

Businesses have lots of reasons to be hesitant about allowing themselves to be subjected to academic study, representatives of some of the groups pointed out. "We come from a country that is closed. People are not used to opening themselves up to information, and companies are fearful of showing their own weak points to one another," said Manuel Sacerdote (MBA '68), president of the Argentine branch of BankBoston Corporation.

At the same time, Sacerdote said, many companies want to hide certain information from the authorities.

These barriers make it all the more important, he suggested, to get businesses closer to universities in a more organized fashion. "It's necessary to clarify what exactly the case will need from the business. Some businesses discover that the task is greater than they had imagined at the start. But it's also important to emphasize to the business what it can learn from the process."

Academics, suggested Sacerdote, could also focus some case studies on specific aspects of a company. It's much easier to get a business to open up about its marketing or logistics work, he said, when it doesn't feel compelled to show its overall corporate strategy.

Another group's representative added that academics should make a special effort to explain the case study process to companies. Since most businesses in Latin America are unfamiliar with the concept and haven't been approached for study before, he said, they don't know what the process entails nor how it might benefit them. It is important to be selective about approaching businesses to ensure that they are truly willing to participate in the process.

Channels Of Communication

Miguel Ochoa, of Instituto Panamericana de Alta Direccion de Empresa (IMPADE) in Mexico, said there is plenty that academics and businesspeople can do to help create the necessary channels of communication. They can form interest groups, for example, since friendships and connections are critically important to ease communication. These interest groups, he said, could work closely with the new HBS Latin America Research Center.

Another key ingredient is access. Professor Rebecca Arkader, of the university COPPEAD/UFRJ in Rio de Janeiro, who spoke for the Brazilian group, suggested plugging into the extensive network of Harvard and HBS alumni. "There are about 600 Harvard alumni in Brazil who could be a useful resource for case writing," said Arkader. Brazil already has a lot of experience with the case method, she pointed out, so the task of revitalizing case research should not be overly complex.

Several of the groups also advanced the idea of establishing a clearinghouse. Such a clearinghouse, they asserted, be it operated by Harvard Business School Publishing or not, would allow people to exchange cases written in Spanish, Portuguese or English.

Translations themselves should not take up undue effort, added Matko Koljatic, dean of the business school at Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. "In the modern world, you have to use cases in English," Koljatic explained. His group, he said, had concluded that there was no need to translate cases, since translations often bring more trouble than they are worth: translations into Portuguese, for example, might be more appropriate for people in Portugal than for Brazilians.

Others called for a Web-based database that connects existing information, such as company files or industry studies, so researchers wouldn't have to re-invent the wheel each time they set out to do a case study.

Faculty development, it was felt, also merits further work and thought. While participants praised the colloquium that was held at HBS in July, called the Colloquium on Participant-Centered Learning, they suggested that a follow-up or a similar program be organized to keep up the positive momentum.

Across The Divide

But, ultimately, it came back to improved communication between business and academia. "Businessmen often don't know which topics are of interest to teachers and faculties," commented one group leader.

If educators and executives are to work together to stimulate case writing in Latin America, it will take the kind of cross-group communication that is common in the United States, and that the participants themselves demonstrated in Buenos Aires.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.