This Report Just In

The advantages of teaching with corporate reports instead of case studies. 
This Report Just In

A COMPANY’S ANNUAL report is an opportunity for its CEO to address shareholders, but I’ve found that it’s also a useful teaching tool. For the last three years, I have integrated corporate annual reports into my traditional and online MBA capstone strategy courses at Xavier University’s Williams College of Business in Cincinnati, Ohio.

ADVANTAGES FOR LEARNING

When it comes to providing students insights into a business or industry, corporate annual reports offer several advantages over the case study method:

  • Their information is more current and comprehensive than many textbook case studies.
  • They can be assigned immediately after they are publicly available.
  • They allow students to perform more in-depth analyses of a company’s strategic plan, financial situation, and global position.
  • They allow students to apply finance, management, operations, and economic theories that are the foundation of strategic management.
  • Their use minimizes plagiarism among students, since no analyses exist from previous years, either online or from past students.
  • Their use offers an efficient tool for the assessment of student learning.
  • Best of all, they are available online for free, resulting in savings for students.

MY METHOD

Although I find annual reports to be invaluable as tools for teaching and learning, I admit that reading and analyzing them can be onerous. To make this process easier, I have created a table that displays how the parts of an annual report relate to various strategy topics and theories. (See my table below.) I share the table, as well as additional related articles, with students to provide them with a roadmap for reading reports most effectively. I require both my online and face-to-face students to read these materials in the first and second week of class.

This Report Just In chart small

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I also have created two tutorials to prepare my students for the task. The first explores popular strategy concepts that they’ll use in their analyses. The second relates directly to the assignment; in it, I walk them through my table, including what they should be looking for as they analyze each section of an annual report.

I use annual reports in three student assignments. In the first, I split students into teams, assigning each team a different annual report. As they learn to sift through the information, students who are more proficient at the task help bring others up to speed. Students then present their analyses to the rest of the class. (Online students use Zoom to present their analyses in a synchronous format.)

In the second assignment, students write individual analyses of a single annual report. And in the third assignment, students work in teams once again to analyze both the annual report of a parent company after an acquisition has been completed and the report of the target company from the year preceding the acquisition. Each team assignment takes approximately eight to 14 hours for students to complete. The individual assignment is more time consuming; it takes approximately 15 hours for students to complete and accounts for 25 percent of their grade in the course.

A SAMPLE ASSIGNMENT

In the spring 2019 semester, I asked my students to analyze the annual reports of retail pharmacy CVS and insurance company AETNA for their third assignment. CVS had just acquired AETNA, so I asked students to address this question: How could CVS best fulfill the expectations of key stakeholders, given its now diversified portfolio?

The assignment can be broken down into three parts:

Review. Even though this was their third analysis, I began with a review, not only of what my instructions were and what rubric I would use to evaluate their work, but also of how to read an annual report. We also reviewed previous lecture material on value chain, business and global strategies, external environment analysis, and internal environment analysis such as SWOT.

Read. Next, I asked students to read over our past lecture material on corporate diversification, financial statement analysis, corporate finance and portfolio management, and corporate governance.

Evaluate and recommend. Finally, students used all of the concepts they had learned to analyze CVS’ current portfolio, as well as evaluate the strategic and financial viability of its acquisition of AETNA. Then, they created their presentations in which they recommended plans of action for CVS at the corporate level, business unit level (including AETNA), and functional levels.

After their analysis, students offered a range of recommendations. For example, teams suggested that CVS close its underperforming locations and even rebrand itself as a health management company rather than a pharmacy. Others recommended that the company improve its approach to customer education and service, design more efficient retail layouts, and rotate top and middle management across strategic business units to build leadership capabilities.

The depth and breadth of information in an annual report provides the information students need to conduct a thorough analysis of a wide range of factors, including a company’s industry, past strategies, financials, HR practices leadership, and corporate social responsibility. I believe that this assignment helps MBA students cultivate practical analytical skills that will serve them well, not only in their career development but in their personal financial planning.

FIRST STEPS

The first year I used reports in my courses, I had to create my own teaching manuals each semester—a cumbersome and time-consuming process. However, there are several ways that a professor can make the first-time use of reports easier:

  • Choose reports from companies that you are familiar with and have taught before.
  • Start small, with just a single assignment, and limit students’ analyses to a single company. You can assign reports of diversified companies and those engaging in M&As once you’re comfortable with the method.
  • Assign the same annual report to every team to minimize instructor preparation time. However, introduce minor changes in the instructions for each team to retain students’ interest.
  • Give students a visual, such as my table, that introduces a report’s structure, important parts, and relationships between those parts.
  • Ask students to start their analyses with the corporate report’s financial statements. Next, direct them to the notes, then to the CEO’s address to shareholders. I’ve found this order to be the quickest way for students to absorb the content.

Today, I have become more adept in analyzing corporate annual reports, which in turn has led to my growth as a teacher and scholar. Moreover, my students have told me that analyzing corporate reports has enhanced both their skill sets and their career development. Both of these outcomes have motivated me to retain and continue to refine the use of this teaching tool.

Hema Krishnan is a professor of management and entrepreneurship at Xavier University’s Williams College of Business in Cincinnati, Ohio. To receive a copy of Krishnan’s table, or to request more information on her approach, contact her at krishnan@xavier.edu.

 

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