Teaching Tools for Tumultuous Times

Business cases and online databases help students master the art of making decisions when markets can change in an instant.

Teaching Leadership in Tumultuous Times

Global leaders have always had to deal with chaotic events, but the perception of turbulence has intensified in a world where we can access new information almost instantly—and situations can change almost as fast. One tweet from Donald Trump can shift trade policy and spark retaliation from a foreign government, adversely affecting a company’s stock price or changing the flow of foreign direct investment decisions that were made years ago.

That is exactly what happened to Harley-Davidson when Trump rescinded the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that would have decreased tariffs for U.S. firms. In 2007, Harley-Davidson had been granted permission to sell motorcycles to customers in India when Indian companies were allowed to export their mangoes to the U.S.—the “mango-for-bike-deal.” But ten years later, Trump declared his America First policy, and Harley’s CEO Mark Levatich had to reformulate the company’s plans to expand into India.

The case study called “Harley-Davidson: Internationalization in the Trump Era” neatly underscores how the president’s use of social media can alter the decisions of leaders in the U.S. business community. The case is one of the many teaching tools I use in my global business management course at Villanova University. In that class, we not only consider the multifaceted aspects of international business, but also the best ways leaders can make decisions in a volatile and uncertain environment.

In the course, I cover the many issues associated with global leadership, such as managing cultural differences, developing effective cross-cultural communication skills, and assessing ethical dilemmas. I also discuss practical issues such as evaluating the viability of emerging markets, analyzing the foreign direct investment incentives of host countries, and protecting intellectual property rights. My goals are to stimulate controversy in an ethical context, help students understand “grand challenge” problems, and teach them how to rely on data when they make decisions.

I achieve these goals with two main tools: case studies, including those from Harvard Business Publishing and Ivey Publishing, and a variety of online databases that offer both qualitative and quantitative resources. I also make sure to keep students engaged by bringing relevant, up-to-date issues into classroom discussions. Through these methods, as well as experiential exercises, I facilitate active rather than passive learning—and prepare students to be leaders in times of turmoil.

The AI Arms Race

One of the most controversial topics we study in my class is the issue of privacy. For several years, I taught a case that considered whether Apple should grant the FBI access to the iPhone of a suspected terrorist. But recently I found that this “back door” controversy was getting stale. Almost all of my students own iPhones, and most of them support their personal rights to privacy—factors that do not lead to great debate in the classroom. So it was time for a change.

For the global ethics module of the course, I adopted the case “Google and Project Maven (A): Big Tech, Government and the AI Arms Race,” which examines the controversial issue of using drones in the U.S. military. I considered this a wild-card case, because I was not sure how my millennial students would respond. Hollywood films such as “Eye in the Sky” and the Amazon miniseries “Jack Ryan” depict the extent to which military personnel and political leaders are struggling with the ethics of drone warfare. Would these productions influence my students to favor the military’s position? Or would they feel empathy for the Google employees who requested that their firm withdraw from its work with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)?

Much to my surprise, the first time I taught this case, the students embraced it with undaunted vigor. Their viewpoints were so strong and so divergent that I expected them to race from the classroom and “storm the Oreo,” an iconic campus sculpture and gathering place, so they could loudly share their opinions with the whole student body. But they stayed in class and debated whether companies like Google and Amazon have an obligation to share their AI technology with the DoD. We also explored how their reactions were shaped by their sense of patriotism or their belief that we may be losing the AI arms race to China.

Students in the first section of the course had more empathy toward the Google employees; those in the second section supported the DoD and the evolution of technology that enables the use of drones in military actions. Overall, my mission was accomplished—the students actively participated in this real-life ethical dilemma.

The Problem With Water

Another issue my students have tackled in the course is the looming worldwide water shortage, considered one of the “grand challenges” of the 21st century. In my own research, I have examined the concept of demarketing—getting consumers to use less of a product or service, such as sugar, alcohol, or emergency medical care. But what happens when a corporation is using too much of a limited resource?

That is the question at the heart of a case called “The Water Wars: Colas and Sustainability in the 21st Century.” In 2004, Coca-Cola used 2.7 liters of water to make one liter of Coca-Cola; in 2017, the firm had decreased its consumption to 1.97 liters. (The company describes its efforts on its website.)

The case highlights the concept of water rights as well as the plight of consumers in emerging markets, where companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi are depleting scarce local groundwater. In the ensuing classroom discussions, I point to analogies in the energy sector where countries have clashed over the rights to oil reserves. I ask students to consider the ways water shortages might heighten global tensions in the future and to come up with plausible solutions for the problems.

Then I encourage students to look closer to home by pointing out that Americans are the largest consumers of water in the world. We might track our “visible” consumption by knowing how much water we use in the shower and the dishwasher, but we pay little attention to our insatiable “invisible water” appetites. For instance, do any of us think about how much water is used to produce that liter of soda or the other foods that we consume? Having students look at personal consumption is a provocative way to address this global problem.

Of course, there is more to learn about the grand challenge of water. I also have students consider the sustainability efforts that companies and consumers use, such as harvesting rainwater or recycling the “black water” of office buildings. Future leaders will need to understand all aspects of the water conundrum if they are to make informed decisions.

The Details in the Data

That ability to make informed decisions will be so crucial to tomorrow’s leaders that I spend a lot of time in the course teaching students how to use data when they are faced with tough choices. Primarily, I have them use online databases such as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Market Indicators and Forecasts, which offers enormous amounts of quantitative data; MarketLine, which prepares qualitative reports; and Euromonitor International, which presents robust industry sector reports and infographics. I also design written experiential exercises in which students practice using these sources of information.

For instance, in one exercise students determine market feasibility for a cholesterol-lowering pharmaceutical drug in Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, or Turkey. These countries, which are emerging as large potential consumers of pharmaceuticals, are sometimes called “pharmerging” markets. Students use quantitative data from the Economist Intelligence Unit to assess the four markets to determine which one is most promising.

However, I want them to rely on their intuition as well as hard data, so I stress to them that there is no right answer. For instance, if they are going to select a new market based on the size of a country’s population, the clear choice is Turkey. But they should consider other variables in each target country, such as the rates of obesity, the unhealthy eating habits of the local population, and the willingness of the medical community to prescribe anti-cholesterol drugs.

In a second exercise related to market demand, students evaluate the viability of entering the Chinese wine market. They not only read a case called “Wine in China: The Wild West of the Far East,” they also consult Euromonitor International and MarketLine databases for more information.

Students first assess the current distribution channels for selling wine in China. Through Euromonitor International, they learn that 81.2 percent of Chinese wine consumption is store-based, as customers buy products through small grocers, supermarkets, and extremely large hypermarkets. The other 18.8 percent of wine is distributed through internet retailing—but that percentage is expected to rise. The Euromonitor report provides four pages of infographics that contain additional data, such as the annual sale performance of grape wine and nongrape wine and the state of seller fragmentation. For instance, students learn that the company Zhejiang Guyue Longshan has the largest market share of the Chinese wine market—but that share amounts to only 2.9 percent.

Students can supplement their knowledge by reading separate reports from MarketLine that cover both the global wine industry and the market for wine in China. If they are focusing on a specific firm, they also can download a current report about the company, complete with an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Accessing information takes only a couple of minutes, so finding data is not the deliverable in my class. Instead, I want students to understand how to use data to make judgments. Over time, they will develop their own heuristics for solving international business problems in a turbulent world.

Prepared for the Future

Tomorrow’s leaders must learn to anticipate and embrace all the uncertainties that will come with doing business in the future. I try to prepare students for the challenges ahead by addressing current critical issues, stimulating debate through “wild card” cases, and teaching them where to look for the data that will shape their decisions. I welcome the challenge of developing leaders who can make thoughtful, informed decisions in the midst of these changing and turbulent times.


Peggy ChaudhryPeggy E. Chaudhry is an associate professor in management and international business at the Villanova School of Business at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

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