Last fall four undergraduate commerce students from McGill University returned from an international case competition in Portugal with an unexpected prize: an on-the-spot invitation to come back this spring and implement their winning idea.
"It was not something we were expecting and it was not something the organizers were expecting to do, either," says team member Aarushi Kumar, who graduates this spring from the Desautels Faculty of Management.
In May, she and her teammates head to Portugal for a month-long, all-expenses paid trip to advise the northern city of Porto, site of last fall's competition, on how to raise its profile as a magnet for startups.
The McGill team's real-world experience, even before graduation, illustrates how international case competitions have become serious business for students, schools and employers.
"It has got genuine business relevance," says London-based Iain McLaughlin, head of global resourcing and mobility for KPMG, noting the growing appetite for global case competitions.
"I think the days of it being something of a niche campus event are long gone," says Mr. McLaughlin, whose firm runs its own global competition, which started 13 years ago.
"It is absolutely understood that it is about brand and it is about talent."
This year, KPMG's competition in Lisbon in April will attract teams from about 30 countries – a total of 92 students winnowed from a pool of 21,000 applicants – giving the consulting firm a head-start in the search for talent and a venue for positioning KPMG to a new generation.
"It's an opportunity for us to talk about who we are and what we do," says Mr. McLaughlin, whose firm worldwide recruited more than 35,000 recent graduates last year.
His message is not lost on business schools or students.
"In the past few years you can see an increasing number of Canadian schools being represented internationally," says Rose-Lyne Boghos, director of competitions for the Canadian Association of Business Students. "Definitely, universities are putting more resources into it."
In response, case competitions have become sophisticated events: global in scope, tackling real problems posed by companies and, through preparatory courses for competitions, increasingly integrated into the curriculum.
Desautels information systems professor Richard Donovan, a case coach for 20 years, estimates the number of top-rated international competitions has doubled to about 20 today from 10 in the late 1990s.
Case competitions were typically extra-curricular in nature, but schools now offer courses in problem-solving, analysis and presentation skills to prepare students for the experience. McGill, which hosts its own international competition, offers a three-credit case course that students must take to earn a berth on an international team.
"More and more schools are looking at making this [preparation] more formal," says Prof. Donovan.
In 2009, the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University made case competitions one of its strategic priorities, introducing a course (renamed Sprott Competes in 2012) to train students for the rigours of competing in a high-stress environment, sometimes in a foreign country, before a panel of industry judges who, in selecting the winner, can do some early talent spotting.
Over the past eight years, Sprott has expanded its commitment to international competitions, participating in seven this year, compared with three in 2009. The number of participating students also has climbed – to 33 currently from 18 in 2009, with all of them required to take the Sprott Competes course as a prerequisite for selection to an international team.
Earlier this month, in Finland, Sprott undergraduate commerce students won the Network of International Business Schools competition for the third time in four years, defeating teams from five continents.
Sprott dean Jerry Tomberlin, who has overseen his school's growing commitment to competitions, views them as a learning tool in an uncertain world.
"In spite of nationalism and other things that are happening, the world is global and it is not going to stop being global," he says. "The more they [students] can hone their skills in an international cultural situation the stronger they are going to be."
The classroom cannot compete with the experience of travelling abroad, adjusting to different cultures and networking with students and industry leaders. Dr. Tomberlin says the competition setting "just develops a whole range of skills that I don't think get developed as well elsewhere."
Sonia Fendt Ledermann, a fourth-year commerce student from Venezuela, is a member of the Sprott team that won in Finland this month. She and her teammates presented on six case studies in five days, hobnobbed with industry leaders and experienced Finnish ice swimming (followed by a sauna).
One of her team's biggest challenges, she says, had nothing to do with the business aspects of the case: the Sprott students talked too fast for the judges, whose first language is not English. "We are going to face those challenges in the international business world," says Ms. Fendt Ledermann.
What she most likes about case competitions, she says, "is the opportunity to connect what you are doing in class to a real-life situation."
Ms. Fendt Ledermann says her case competition experience also proved useful when talking to prospective employers. This summer, after graduation, she joins a Toronto-based international consulting company.
For some students, participation in a case competition becomes a catalyst to rethink career goals.
In 2014, then an MBA student at the Lazaridis School of Business at Wilfrid Laurier University, Eric Goll was on a four-person team that won first prize at the Aspen Institute's Business and Society International MBA case competition held in New York.
"It awoke my social conscience," says Mr. Goll, of his participation in a competition focused on global social innovation. "With an MBA, you can get focused on how to optimally run an organization and how to be a great leader and sometimes the social impact can get lost in that."
Based in Kitchener, Ont., Mr. Goll recently founded his own business to coach families and individuals with disabilities.
Meanwhile, success in international competitions creates a challenge for business schools: how to pay for students to attend.
"The only thing stopping us now is funding," says Linda Schweitzer, as associate professor of management and strategy at Sprott and a volunteer coach for the winning team in Finland. With funding from the business school, industry donors and crowdfunding, she says a committee decides which competitions to put on the annual calendar. "It's a bit of a juggling act," she concedes. "Last year, we made the finals of every competition we applied for."
Back at McGill's Desautels, Ms. Kumar hopes to land a job in consulting after she returns from Porto this spring. Participation in the FEP-UPORTO International Case Competition last fall, she says, gave her a window on her future career.
"I felt it was the best application of my knowledge," she says. "I see how all the different parts of what I had learned over the last three and a half years came together in one presentation. That was very rewarding."