2022 EFMD Case Writing Competition winners interview series: Hidden Champions

Hidden Champions

EFMD encourages and rewards innovative and impactful cases in management development each year. This year again brought an exceptional variety of winning cases across various industries. We interviewed the winners to find out more about their motivation, inspiration and significant challenges. The following interview is with Onajomo Akemu & Atanu Rakshit of Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Business, the winners of the “Hidden Champions” category.

‘Coming of Age in Central Asia: BI Group’s Quest for Growth’

What was the inspiration for your case?

We were inspired principally by two factors. The first was our students’ need for cases that they could relate to. We teach MBA courses using cases about Western firms. Initially, we were agnostic about the national backgrounds of the firms we studied. After all, we thought, the particulars of a teaching case don’t matter as much as the illustration of management theory. Yet, our students, who are mostly Kazakh, wanted to grapple with management challenges peculiar to their country. Hence, we resolved to find local cases where managers grappled with the challenges of managing a rapidly-growing business in Kazakhstan.

The second inspiration for the case was curiosity. “How,” we wondered, “do successful Kazakh firms, such as BI Group, the subject of the case, craft and implement a strategy?” We wanted to understand the firm’s strategic planning process in order to compare it with those of Western multinational enterprises we were familiar with. Our curiosity led us—through many twists and turns—to focus on the internationalization challenges facing BI.

What were the major challenges in designing the case?

I can think of at least three challenges in writing the case. First, we struggled with the story. As in much qualitative research, the most important question to answer was, “What is this a case of?” We had access to interviews, archival and publicly available information. We were practically flooded with data. So, we had to decide which story to tell. The internationalization story, in hindsight, seemed appropriate because it has elements that are common to internationalization decisions across many industries (e.g., which markets should the focal firm enter first) as well as elements that are unique to Kazakhstan (e.g., the limited heft of the state to champion its firms abroad.)

The second major challenge was assuring accuracy in reporting. A case study depends on access to organizational insiders. We were lucky that BI’s leaders granted us access to key decision-makers. We spent a significant amount of time cross-checking the claims of our informants—triangulating, in the jargon—to ensure accuracy.

The third challenge was writing the narrative with nuance to capture the dilemma facing our key informants while maintaining authorial control. We didn’t want to tell a linear story such as, “Event X happened, then Y happened, followed by Z.” Therefore, we wrote and rewrote the case to achieve the right narrative pace to engage a typical reader.

What would you like to highlight from your case?

At least two things. The first is the messiness and uncertainty associated with strategic decision-making. Even though BI’s leaders had ample data and did the requisite analysis, they could not be entirely confident in their choice of foreign markets. The best decisions emphasized incremental learning in the foreign market instead of plunging headlong on the basis of their analysis.

The second theme in the case—a latent theme, we would argue—is the importance of embeddedness in building competitive advantage. In the construction industry, BI had to develop cutting-edge technical capabilities as well as deeply understand the needs of influential decision-makers in the industry’s main customer, the state.

Embeddedness may be a two-edged sword. On one hand, it might enable a firm to outcompete its competitors in the home market. On the other hand, embeddedness in the home market may not be a capability that the firm can leverage to compete internationally.

How do you believe your findings could impact society and business in the future?

Our aims in writing the case are rather modest. We hope that the case triggers readers to recall familiar themes in strategic decision-making, such as incremental learning, assessing firm capabilities and wrestling with growth. In addition, we hope the case illustrates less familiar themes, such as the impact of the state in internationalization, the double-edged nature of local embeddedness and the dilemmas associated with escaping a small home market.

In our research, we have been fascinated by Kazakhstan’s business environment, and by the drive and ambition of many young Kazakh entrepreneurs. We hope the case communicates that fascination with clarity, rigour and nuance.

Delve into a wealth of valuable insights within the remaining Case Writing Competition interviews.

The Sponsor’s Commentary

The category “Hidden Champions” is kindly sponsored by EBS Business School. EFMD greatly values the sponsorship, the expertise and the effort of the sponsor to contribute to the Case Writing Competition.

Matthias Waldkirch from EBS Business School shares more information about sponsoring the category.

Case writing is a craft and art form. Telling a story that has educational value, allows to craft an engaging session, and is, on top, a pleasure to read, is not an easy task. Yet, further infusing such a case with a meaningful context and insights into a geographic area that has received too little attention is what makes this case outstanding and a truly deserving winner of the Hidden Champion Category of the 2022 EFMD Case Writing Competition. We would therefore like to again congratulate Onajomo Akemu and Atanu Rakshit for a truly outstanding case study.

In the current global context, why is case writing and teaching on Hidden Champions important?

Business studies often tend to orbit around what might be called ‘mainstream’ topics – be it contexts that are particularly well-known or powerful (the Silicon Valley!), be it organizations and individuals that are widely known (Apple and Steve Jobs!), or be it implicitly shared prototypes of how business should be done (go for a venture capital funding and early exits!). It is precisely because of this that the category of Hidden Champions is so vital, directing our glance toward those organizations and contexts that remain hidden behind the obvious but that are often so much more engaging and provide deeper learning. As with the case of BI Group, the reader leaves the case with a newly found appreciation for Kazakhstan and its business life and for the ingenuity of BI Group’s leadership and strategy work. Collecting, utilising and sharing such stories is why the category of Hidden Champions is so vital.

What are the reasons EBS Business School encourages case writing on Hidden Champions by sponsoring this category?

Since its inception in 1971, EBS Business School has been focused on what is by now called ‘challenged-based learning’. As such, bringing students into contact with practice from the inception of their programs and letting them experience business not just through in-class education but in interaction with firms has been at the core of what makes our university special. Therefore, cases about how firms make decisions, make tradeoffs, and position themselves in the market are key to our school. Often done in cooperation with the actual companies, casework is among the most engaging ways for students to learn about the practice of business and to apply what they have taken away in class.

What would you like to highlight from the winning case?

The case of BI Group fosters student discussion while simultaneously managing to introduce students to a business context (Kazakhstan) that usually receives little attention. It is written in a compelling manner and draws on both primary and secondary data, which it uses to great effect. The case is well written and builds an interesting and relevant problem in the beginning. This problem provides the case with an important forward momentum, thus making it clear to the reader why they receive all the background information. The case innovation lies in its expert integration of exhibits, context insights, and the problem that students need to solve. The teaching note holds and even extends the high quality of the case and provides several insightful ways in which to teach the case. Taken together, the case study is a worthy winner of the Hidden Champions category by shining light on a relevant business in a surprising yet meaningful context. Congratulations!

About Sponsorship

EFMD Case Writing Competition is proud to have dedicated sponsors who drive management education towards impactful teaching and learning. Sponsoring a category allows you to showcase your institution’s expertise in the specific field of management education in the wide EFMD network. The choice of category, its exact definition and any specific conditions are the privileges of the sponsor. Sponsorships for the following categories are currently available – Bringing Technology to Market, Continuous Improvement: the Journey to Excellence, Hidden Champions, Responsible Business, MENA Business Cases, and Responsible Leadership. If you are interested in sponsoring the mentioned categories or launching a new category relevant to case writing and teaching, please check out our category sponsorship opportunities page or contact Hansol Park at .

More information about the 2022 EFMD Case Writing Competition can be found on the EFMD Case Writing Competition page. Please visit The Case Centre’s webpage to access the collection of the winning cases. See other interviews from this series.