Seneca College wins student competition

Hours of prep work help with HR/business case study
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/25/2012

Despite having to change hotel rooms at 2 a.m. because their toilet backed up and flooded, a group of Seneca College students went on to win first prize — again — at the Great Canadian HR-Business Student Conference Case Study Competition in Toronto, co-sponsored by Canadian HR Reporter.

Alexandria Coleman, Rachael Iles, Natalie Pedrosa, Lennex Szeto and their coach Tracy Porter were the winners of both the judged competition and the audience-selected people’s choice award. They each received $500 and a $500 bursary was given to their school.

The winning Seneca team was very impressive, said Bob Delaney, president of Earning Through Learning in Aurora, Ont., and host of the conference.

“They were polished, they were awesome and their pre-conference prep obviously showed. It was so obvious that these guys had put in tens of hours practising.”

In their third year of study, the team members felt it was a good time to enter a competition to test their knowledge in HR and business, said Iles, a bachelor of commerce student at Seneca. And they did plenty of prep work, averaging five to 10 hours per week for several weeks practising case studies.

“We each knew our own strengths and our own weaknesses, so we knew overall we’d be a really great team,” she said.

Teams from Seneca College, Centennial College and Humber College, all in Toronto, and Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., were presented with a case study describing a fictional restaurant chain called WrapItUp that sold healthy fast-food wraps. The company was faced with high turnover as managers were unhappy with the compensation and customers were unhappy with the service and food quality.

So the chain piloted a profit-share scheme at two of its 30 stores but while profits went up along with the compensation of managers, the work hours were longer. So WrapItUp’s HR executive had to decide on one of the following scenarios: keep the program growing and roll it out to all stores; obtain additional data by running a larger trial; temporarily stop the program and modify it; or abandon it altogether.

“The goal of the case is that it’s not specifically HR-centric and it’s not specifically business-centric,” said Delaney. “What we look for in our cases is a comprehensive business case that has HR implications, because HR is all about business. And, in order to be effective in HR, you really have to understand the business of your business.”

The case study is handed out the day before the competition, after an orientation session. The next morning, the teams are sequestered, with no access to cellphones or the Internet, and given two hours to prepare a 15-minute presentation for three judges.

“The winning team, of course, had the most comprehensive viewpoints. These are the ones that use the financial statements, that nailed the business issue, which is, ‘How do we maximize revenue and minimize costs and how do we do that effectively given the HR challenges that are in there, such as retention, training and development, compensation and so forth?’” said Delaney.

It’s recommended the teams have at least one HR major and one business major, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is integrate the academic learning that the students are doing, get them to interact with students from other business disciplines, and to formulate answers to the case study which bring in these other knowledge areas.”

The case study was really interesting, said Iles, with the Seneca team ultimately deciding to keep the pilot program at WrapItUp but make some modifications.

It’s about being able to look at the situation, as if president of a company, to see the business problem and really understand that, said Porter, an HR professor at Seneca.

“As students, they automatically first of all want to get right into solving but you have to look at it from a high level… The hardest thing is that first step.”

But the preparation work helps, she said.

“The students start out where it’s kind of hard for them to sort through the case and then, by the time they get to the day of the competition, they are so good — they’ve grown and developed so much over such a short period of time.”

The competition is a wonderful experience for students, who get so much out of it, said Porter, who also helped Seneca win at last year’s competition.

“What’s really great about it is students get the ability to look at real-world business situations and come up with, ‘What’s the problem with the business and how can HR help solve or recommend solutions to the business problem?’”

Iles said she would definitely recommend the competition to any student.

“It taught us more than we learn in the class. In doing all the different case studies, we were able to apply our knowledge in different ways.”

In its second year, the conference has only had colleges competing thus far, but it hopes universities will also take part, said Delaney.

“Colleges are now offering degrees and typically the colleges have been excluded from case study competitions by the university establishment… and that’s also the case in some HR undergraduate competitions, where colleges aren’t allowed, they’re not invited and are excluded.

“That exclusion, in my opinion, is unreasonable and unconscionable because these students are preparing the same way that students in universities are competing; they’re going to be competing for the same jobs.”

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