“By the time you finished your MBA at Hong Kong University, you’re very well placed to advance your career in financial services,” says Sachin Tipnis, HKU’s executive director of MBA programmes. “And a big reason for that is the unique way we teach you the skills you need to thrive in the sector.”
Tipnis is referring to HKU’s “pioneering” use of Asia-focused case studies, which give its MBA students (many of whom work in finance) interactive, real-life insights into what makes markets and businesses tick in the region.
HKU is taking case studies to a whole new level, including them in all the core courses (e.g. corporate finance) and elective modules (e.g. Asian financial markets and institutions) of its 14-month full-time MBA programme.
“If we’re teaching students about evaluating the cost of capital, for example, we get straight into a case study they can sink their teeth into. We might discuss an aircraft-financing deal, examining whether it’s more cost efficient to lease or buy a plane,” says Tipnis.
The approach works because HKU has a comparatively small MBA class, which is easily divided up into teams of about five students for each case study. “It’s not viable to discuss ideas with hundreds of people, but working in these groups encourages interaction and debate,” says Tipnis.
“You get to clearly hear new viewpoints from people in different industries and other areas of finance. And you can’t be a passive member of the group yourself because you’re assessed on your teamworking and what you contribute,” he adds.
Each team ultimately presents their ideas to the whole class. “Everyone can then feedback – ‘we agree with A and B, but on C we have a counterpoint’ – which opens up even more interesting perspectives on the case study.”
Students never receive all the details of a case study but are instead given several questions to answer. “It means you have to think analytically. This kind of practical, solutions-orientated learning prepares you well for working at a large bank where you’ll be constantly trying to solve problems.”
Case-study learning also builds the type of soft skills you need to succeed in banking.
“Group decision-making is common in large banks and the case study groups at HKU are similarly collaborative,” says Tipnis. “You can’t say ‘I understand that concept’ and move on – you have to find a common solution.”
This in turn helps with a crucial but “often overlooked” skill in financial services: negotiation. “When you’re putting together a new strategy at a bank, for example, you’re constantly negotiating with people across the firm.”
HKU’s case-study groups also make students work closely with people who have different skill sets and cultural backgrounds. “This mimics the experience at a bank, especially in a financial centre as diverse as Hong Kong,” adds Tipnis.
But what sets HKU apart from other MBA courses that use case studies?
“Our students want to work in dynamic Asian markets, so unlike the vast majority of business schools, our case studies are Asian focused and tailored to their needs,” Tipnis explains. “They don’t want to study something that happened in the West 10 years ago.”
Tipnis says despite the recent growth of the Asian M&A and IPO markets, most MBA programmes pay scant attention to studying Asian companies.
By contrast, students at HKU discuss the strategies of Alibaba, Softbank, Tencent, Air Asia and other major Asian players. “This is the Asian century and if you want to work in Asia, you need to understand how finance and business here work,” says Tipnis.
HKU case studies also examine the Asian strategies of Western firms. “For example, we look at Citi’s e-business strategy in India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia. And because Asian markets are less homogenous than Western ones, it’s even more important to analyse issues in an Asian context.”
Tipnis says case studies at HKU have another unique selling point: many of them are produced in-house by the university’s professors and are published by its renowned Asia Case Research Centre (ACRC).
“ACRC closely monitors emerging business strategies, economic policies, management practices and financial developments across the region,” says Tipnis. “When professors are writing cases themselves, they do more in-depth research and provide better insights to our MBA students.”
HKU also works with companies such as UBS and Schroders on ‘live projects’. “They’re similar to our case studies, but teams provide a real-time solution to an actual problem that the bank is currently facing in Asia. And each team has an experienced banker from the career services team to act as their coach.”
“You do case-study and live-project work class after class at HKU, so you get better and better at them. Your communication, leadership, and teamworking skills improve day after day,” says Tipnis.
That’s one of reasons MBA students say they enjoy this way of learning. “Gen Y don’t like waiting around for feedback. Case studies work for them because they get responses from peers and faculty on the spot. They like the continuous cycle of improvement, which allows them to assess their strengths and weaknesses on an ongoing basis.”
Becoming a case-study expert can also pay dividends just after you graduate.
“Our MBA students often look for new roles in the Asian finance sector when the course ends. And guess what banks are now using more of during job interviews? Case studies. They’ll give you a business scenario and ask you to analyse it,” says Tipnis.
“Many grads have told me that HKU’s emphasis on case studies has helped them to perform a lot better at interviews and to secure the finance job they really wanted,” he adds.