MBA Students Produce Award-Winning Case Study

Author: Angela Sienko

When North Korea launched a massive cyber-attack on Sony Pictures in 2014, three Notre Dame MBA students at the Mendoza College of Business knew the incident had all the makings of an extraordinary case study.

“We started working on the case just a few weeks after Sony announced it had been cyber attacked by North Korea resulting in an embarrassing leak of emails,” says Meredith Alexander (The Woodlands, TX). “The fact that the cyber-attack was not only able to disrupt Sony’s email communications, but that it also forced Sony to immediately pull its movie The Interview from U.S. theaters was completely unprecedented.”

“Cyber security affects every stakeholder group associated with a business,” adds Kelly Chase (Prior Lake, MN). “The attack on Sony Pictures was so widespread and affected so many aspects of the business, my team knew right away that this case was going to be in the headlines for a long time.”

“The Sony cybersecurity attack highlighted the global and technological risks that all businesses face today,” says Ashley Chase (Fairfax, VA). “By publishing a case study that delved into the ‘how’s’ and ‘whys’ of the attack, our research could help other companies protect their data from similar attacks in the future.”

Since 1990, Notre Dame students like Ashley, Kelly and Meredith have researched, written, and published more than 300 business case studies as part of the Corporate Communication course. The course is taught by James S. O’Rourke, IV, Teaching Professor of Management, Arthur F. and Mary J. O’Neil Director of the Fanning Center for Business Communication.

“These aren’t just simple research papers,” O’Rourke says. “Every case study is rooted in empirical research and empirical evidence for the purpose of beginning a classroom discussion about the case—there is no room for conjecture or anecdotal research.”

The courses taught in the Fanning Center for Business Communication — including Corporate Communication — provide students with valuable skills that apply across many industries and careers. Expertise in such categories as critical thinking, writing, conflict resolution, persuasion, interviewing and media management, are especially applicable to MBA students who are interested in fields such as investor relations, corporate communications, public speaking, intercultural communication and corporate writing.

All of these skills are put to the test when it comes to producing a case study worthy of publishing.

Relying on the wealth of resources available to them in Mendoza’s Mahaffey Business Library, teams have access to proprietary sources, such as Bloomberg and Economist databases, as well as reliable news organizations, wire services, public records databases, press releases, investment publications and the trade press—“essentially any resource that has the potential to affect a company’s public stock price,” O’Rourke says.

“Due to the magnitude of the attack and the industry, we collected information from a variety of outlets, ranging from company press reports to lawsuits and in-depth news briefs,” says Ashley Chase. “We then structured our case and looked for gaps in our knowledge requiring additional interviews and research.”

“The hardest part of the process was getting first-hand accounts from Sony employees because the situation was so fresh,” Alexander says. “But we just kept trying.”

In instances like this, O’Rourke usually steps in to try to establish a link between the students and the corporations they are trying to study.

“I’ve encountered executives who take a very personal interest in the case study because they want the students to have a positive perception of their brand. And I’ve had times where a CEO thinks his or her company is too ‘big’ to participate in what they perceive as a simple ‘Schoolhouse writing assignment,’ and that’s fine, too,” O’Rourke says. “We’re going to get someone to comment on the record, even if it is a competitor or peer company, and sometimes that makes for an even more compelling case.”

“It was challenging at times to judge what information would be critical to our narrative, and what was outside the scope of the case, such as foreign relations between North Korea and the United States,” says Ashley Chase.

Six and a half weeks after they first declared their case topic and after weeks of interview and research verification and fact checking, Team Sony put their case study together.

O’Rourke gave the case one final edit, then applied the ND trademark, the authors’ names and the copyright statement. The case was official, and it was added to the Fanning Center’s list of current cases and listed on ND Marketplace for purchase.

Many peer institutions — the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania — purchase the case studies on a regular basis, however, O’Rourke says the true purpose of putting the cases on the market is to share the thought leadership of the students enrolled in Mendoza.

After they handed in the final case study and passed the Corporate Communication class, Ashley, Kelly and Meredith thought they were finished with the Sony study. However, O’Rourke submitted their case to the Arthur W. Page Society Case Writing Competition in Corporate Communication.

In March 2016, Meredith Alexander, Ashley Chase and Kelly Chase earned Second Place in the Business Schools Category of the 15th Annual Arthur W. Page Society Case Writing Competition for their case study, “Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.: A Cybersecurity Attack from North Korea.” The team shared a $1,500 cash award from the Society, along with permanent recognition in the Page Society's archives.

The Arthur W. Page Society is a select-member association comprising the chief communication officers of the Fortune 500, the CEOs of the largest communication consulting agencies in the world and a select number of academics who teach, research and write in the field of Corporate Communication. The University of Notre Dame has won the Page Society's Grand Prize four times in 15 years—more than any other university or college.