Covid-19 Case Studies Make Their Way Into M.B.A. Curricula

It is spring 2020, Covid-19 is exploding world-wide, and you are leading a pharmaceutical company seen as behind rivals in finding a vaccine. Should you accept government money, and the strings attached with it, to try to catch up?

Scenarios like that are already being studied by first-year M.B.A. students at Harvard University and other business schools around the country. The courses are aimed at analyzing management decisions—good and bad—made during the pandemic and gleaning what lessons can be taught, given the benefit of hindsight.

“My aspiration was to give them, as future leaders, a way to judge these things. How do I ask the right questions? How do I make a reasoned judgment?” Harvard Business School professor

Willy Shih

said about this pharmaceutical case study used in his fall course, which also exposed students to the inner workings of the life-sciences industry.

The travails of Princess Cruises, whose quarantined Diamond Princess ship was anchored in Japan early last year, was the subject of a case study.


Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

His technology and operations-management class—which was taught online and in person on the school’s Boston campus—considered how the company could offset the costs of clinical trials and ramping up manufacturing by accepting funding from Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government’s coronavirus vaccine program. But the M.B.A. candidates also had to weigh whether the company would want the requirements that come attached to such funding, including allowing the government to control how the vaccine is priced.

After more than an hour of debate, most students agreed that the drugmaker should forgo government funding, Mr. Shih said. Many advocated the company stick to private development, saying it was better for the long-term health of its vaccine business that it doesn’t rely on government help.

The case study was based on the real-life example of


& Co. The drugmaker didn’t accept funding from Operation Warp Speed to develop a vaccine but got $38 million in May from a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services to help with development. Merck began testing its first vaccine in humans in September and has said it hopes to produce a single-dose shot.

Willy Shih, Harvard Business School professor, used a pharmaceutical case study in his course.


Kent Dayton

As the spring semester gears up, professors at top programs have written new case studies. Fresh HBS cases include deep dives into how companies like

Zoom Video Communications Inc.


Airbnb Inc.

rapidly shifted their marketing strategies to appeal to consumers during the Covid era, as well as how to manage a crisis and stay mentally healthy, featuring

Jan Swartz,

president of Princess Cruise Lines and Holland America Group.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School added a new online class for this coming semester for all its M.B.A.s and executive M.B.A.s called “Leadership in Challenging Times.” Students will hear each week from guest speakers, including the CEOs of

Johnson & Johnson,

Anheuser-Busch InBev,

Vail Resorts Inc.


Progressive Corp.

, on how they navigated through 2020, said

Michael Useem,

a professor of management at Wharton.

William Lauder,

executive chairman of Estée Lauder Cos., is a co-teacher of the course with Mr. Useem and another professor. “How do we think through and make sure we’re making the right decisions to sustain the organization into the future” is the fundamental premise of the course, he said. “How do you think through these challenges and come to what appears to be the right solution when there is no perfect answer?”

Kathryn Harrigan,

a strategy professor at Columbia Business School, wrote a new case study on Smithfield Foods Inc., the largest pork producer in the U.S. It asks students hypothetically whether the food giant should invest more in technology to automate its meatpacking plants, an industry that employs thousands of workers across North America, a percentage of whom got sick with Covid-19 last year.


What lessons can managers learn from companies’ pandemic responses? Join the conversation below.

“There was a heated debate in class about whether Covid was the right motivation for a factory modernization,” she said.

Students discussed the downsides of factory automation—from job losses and the time and cost it takes to implement new technology—to the added costs that come with it, such as high-wage technicians needed to repair robots when they break down. The beauty of such a current case, Ms. Harrigan said, is that it has no concrete answers yet.

“The government won’t let them shut down the plant. The labor union wants protection for the workers,” Ms. Harrigan said, adding that all Smithfield can do is extend a reasonable amount of help to its most vulnerable workers. “We are still working through it in real-time.”

Smithfield has invested more than $700 million in protective measures for its employees, including on-site Covid-19 prescreening, air purification systems, physical barriers at work stations and employee protective equipment, said

Keira Lombardo,

the company’s chief administrative officer. Smithfield has also already invested tens of millions of dollars in robotics and other processes to automate production at its facilities; the efforts are ongoing, the company said.

Write to Patrick Thomas at [email protected]

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