Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Models, structures, frameworks... (in Case Study)

Dmitry asked:

In an E3 exercise of the practice workbook (for Strategic Case Study) there is a request to evaluate the proposed acquisition of a company. Answering it I have used the SAF (Suitability, Acceptability, Feasibility) model, while the suggested answer tells about possible benefits and risks; each is described in detail. I remember from our classes that if we are asked to evaluate a strategic option, SAF suits best in any case. Would you recommend to stick to SAF in such cases or could be there any reason to use another (less formal) approach?
Good question.
In general terms, there is no problem with using a 'common sense' approach (advantages/disadvantages, risks/opportunities...) to evaluate any strategic option.
However, I find that people doing so tend to concentrate on the 'suitability' factors (strategic fit, SWOT factors...) and to neglect acceptability and feasibility. This leads to favouring a strategic option because it 'looks sensible', but failing to realise that either the stakeholders wouldn't be happy (acceptability) or the company does not have the resources, finance, skills or time (feasibility) to do it.
Two good reasons to use SAF, then:
  1. It covers all the relevant issues.
  2. It shows 'evidence of learning', which is one of the objectives of the Case Study.
Even in 'real life' (i.e. outside of exams) I would always use SAF. I'm a management consultant, and I often use it for clients.
I hope that helps

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Preparing for an OT exam

I had a comment on the P3 post about how to prepare for an OT exam, so I thought I'd make my reply a post. The comment was "For strategic OT, do we have to study the textbook thoroughly (almost to the point of memorizing every bit of the content) and do not have to go through past questions and answers?"

My reply was (with added bits, to cover all of the OT exams):

Good question! The answer is "yes, and no". Let me explain...

Yes, you need to study the textbook, 'almost' to the point of memorising it. OT questions will test your knowledge, understanding and ability to apply to simple contexts. (At the Operational Level, more knowledge and less application, at Strategic Level, more application and less knowledge)

No, you DO still need to practise questions. There are no 'past exam questions', because all the exam questions stay in CIMA's database for further use. You need to buy/find realistic practice questions. An 'exam kit' from one of the usual publishers? Online at CIMA there are also practice assessments for each OT exam (but only 60 questions) (you get to these through your MyCIMA account). Some publisher, and all good colleges, also have mock exams. (Try to practice at least 120 questions - the equivalent of 2 full 'real' exams, but the more the better.)

As usual, passing is about a combination of learning and practice.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Problems with the (new) P3 OT exam

John Costello wrote
Hi David, I am undertaking CIMA P3 and was hoping you might have some advice on how best to prepare for the OT exam. There has been a lot of negative comment from students on the chances of obtaining a pass as questions seem to be long in nature and subjective. The issue of multiple select all question also seems to be causing distress. Do you have any suggestions regarding a plan of attack. Kind regards, John

Thank you for your question, John.
Yes, I'm aware that many of you are struggling with P3. It seems to be a combination of three issues which, when you compound them, can become one big "I can't pass!" issue:
  1. Long scenarios, some requiring calculations, which take an age to read, understand and answer.
  2. 'Subjective' OT questions, where most/all of the answers 'might' be true.
  3. 'Select ALL that apply' questions, where it doesn't tell you how many.
OK. Here's my general preparation approach to study preparation, and it would be true for ANY OT exam:
  • Make sure you've read the textbook, and have good knowledge and understanding of the topics.
  • Make sure you've practiced all the OT questions you can find. There are some on CIMA's website (the practice exam), and others available through various publishers, either in their text/kit or online.
Now here's my specific 'exam technique' approach, for P3 (which would also work for other OT exams, but P3 seems to need it the most):
  1. The moment the exam starts, 'click through' ALL 60 questions, looking for ones that seem to fit into one or more of the 'issue' categories, above.
  2. Each time you find an 'issue' question, 'flag for review' (there's a button top right) and move on. Don't read the question in detail, and don't stop to try answering it. This should take you no more than 5 minutes in total.
  3.  Go back to the beginning, and do all the questions that you HAVEN'T flagged for review (i.e. the 'easier' ones). This makes best use of your 90 minutes, and ensures that you don't run out of time before attempting ALL of the 'easier' questions.
  4. Check how much time you have remaining, and divide it between the 'issue' questions that you flagged. There's a summary page at the end of the assessment, I believe? Hopefully, you'll get something like 2 minutes or more per question.
  5. Now start on the 'issue' questions, and try to spend no more than the new 'allowed time' on each.
  6. If a question has a long scenario, read the question (at the end, normally) first, so you know exactly what you're looking for in the scenario.
  7. If a question looks 'subjective', stop thinking too much. Look for what it probably says in the textbook. Try the 'simplistic' approach. It's normally the right one. If you over-analyse, you'll get more confused.
  8. If it's an 'ALL that apply' question, select the most obvious answers. It's least likely to be one or all of them, so 2/3/4 should be your 'favourites'. I've seen one question where it was 'all', but if there's only one correct answer, the writer would normally choose a multiple choice format, I think.
  9. If you find yourself using far too much time on a question, guess and get out!
  10. Try to attempt ALL the questions in the 90 minutes, even if you have to guess at a few.
I think that's what I would do, if I were sitting P3 or, indeed, ANY OT exam at the Strategic Level.
Does that make sense? Do any of you have any suggestions for improvements?

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

More thoughts on OT questions

An objective test (OT) question is any question where there is one ‘right’ answer. No ‘almost’, no ‘that’s close enough’; it’s either right or wrong. Professional bodies like CIMA love OT questions, for two reasons. Firstly, they can be examined on computer, and the computer can ‘mark’ your answers. This is cheaper (as all the cost is in developing the technology, rather than paying markers) and faster (as the computer can tell you whether you passed or failed, and often give you feedback on your answers and skills straight after the exam. Secondly, each question can be short, often only one mark each, so an exam can cover most (or even all) of the learning outcomes/objectives, rather than just a selection.

Let’s have a look at a selection of OT question styles, just so you can see what I mean by ‘objective’. These questions were written for E1…


An organisation which does not have profit as its primary goal, and is not directly linked to a national government, is a .
non-profit organisation
non-governmental organisation
public sector organisation


In order to be of value for performance measurement, objectives should be expressed in a form which is ‘SMART’.
Which of the following is NOT normally included in the SMART acronym?


The concept of lean production was developed by the Japanese car manufacturer, Toyota. It is a philosophy that aims to systematically reduce waste.
Which THREE of the following are included in Toyota’s concept of ‘waste’?
Surplus staff


Henry Mintzberg suggested a totally different way of looking at organisation structure.
Drag and drop the following items into their correct places on the diagram above.
Operating core
Support staff


Stakeholders outside the organisation are sometimes classified as either ‘external’ or ‘connected’.
Drag and drop the following stakeholders into the correct category.
External stakeholders
Connected stakeholders
Finance providers
Local community
Trade unions


You can see, from the above examples, that there is a wide range of OT question styles. They all have one thing in common, however – there’s a ‘right’ answer.

Although students, and many lecturers, think that exam technique doesn’t apply to OT questions, that’s far from true. There are many ‘rules’ you can apply, to make sure that you get as many marks as possible in such an exam. Let’s have a look at the most common.
  • If you’re stuck, use a ‘process of elimination’, and rule out the options that are clearly not right. Remember Sherlock Holmes: “once you have ruled out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer”.
  • Don’t ‘leap in’, by selecting the first ‘possible’ answer. Always look at all of the options given, as there might be a ‘better’ answer, elsewhere.
  • If it says ‘which THREE…’, don’t select fewer or more than the number specified. You’ll be wrong, and there aren’t any ‘part marks’ (i.e.2/3) available.
  • It's often possible to rule out one or more of the answers as being completely unreasonable, so just guessing from the remaining possible answers may improve your chances of earning a mark (on a purely random basis).
  • Believe it or not, it's still amazingly common for candidates to not answer some of their OT questions. You must, as there's no penalty for getting them wrong. Always, always have a guess at OT questions, even if you don't have a clue what they're about.  

Come to think of it, ‘have a go’ is quite a good bit of advice for any exam question. There are very few guarantees in exams, but one of them is – if you write nothing, you'll get no marks! I often see student answers with gaps, where the students have convinced themselves that they don't know anything, or haven't got a clue what the question means. It's always worth taking a guess, as there are no ‘negative’ (or penalty) marks in these exams.

So, to summarise, the key to avoiding the most common mistakes in OT exams is to slow down a bit. Don't be in too much of a hurry to answer, make sure that you know exactly what the question is before you do, and always ‘have a go’.


Sunday, 1 March 2015

Skills in the Strategic Level Case Study (SCS) exam?

Daniel wrote:

I am currently due to take the SCS (Strategic Level Case Study) case exam in two weeks and am a bit puzzled on how much the required format for the answers has changed from the old syllabus.

When I look at a most of the mock exams and solutions provided by course providers for CIMA, they recite models (identically from their text books) in great depth. In the old syllabus, I was under the impression that this was a big NO NO as it would gain you no marks.

Anyone can copy text from a text book so, looking at the solutions, they provide  no help. I know the models so don’t need anyone to tell me what they are.

What I am looking for is some guidance on what CIMA is looking for under the new syllabus when structuring an answer in the case study.

 Do I just continue to answer questions in the same format I have done previously, in the old strategic case study exam?


Great question, Daniel. I taught a group of students, a couple of weeks ago, who are also sitting the SCS exam in March. Before teaching them, I obviously did a lot of research, and here are my main findings:

  1. The SCS exam is a much more direct test of the Strategic Level syllabus content than the old T4B TOPCIMA Case Study was.
  2. SCS seems very similar, in terms of style and skills, to Section A of the old Strategic Level exams. You need good recall of all the relevant Strategic Level models, theories and frameworks, as the SCS exam is testing the higher skills (analysis, evaluation, advice…) whereas the new Strategic Level OT exams (2015 E3, P3, F3) are testing the lower skills (comprehension, application).
  3. Pretty much all the marks available in the SCS exam are for the use of what you’ve learned, in the context of the pre-seen and reference materials, to analyse and solve problems in the organisation. There are few marks available for your logical argument, structure etc. There are similarly few or none available for the theory itself. As long as the points you make are valid (i.e. relevant to the context and technically correct), they’ll be rewarded.
  4. The lowest skill being examined appears to be application. CIMA has said, several times, that no marks will be given for knowledge or comprehension, unless that knowledge is applied to the case. To quote from CIMA’s own study guide, “The Case Study examinations are intended to demonstrate that you can apply the technical, business, people and leadership skills from the learning outcomes in the three subjects at a particular level in a business context.”. (Note – you’ll have to log into MyCIMA, to view the study guide)

So, the question remains, why do so many publishers still have so much theory in their answers? I can only assume that it’s because they think many students will be using published study materials as their only means of preparation. Publishers therefore include all the theory “as an aid to learning”.

I, too, think such answers are misleading, as they give the impression that it’s that style of answer (one crammed with theory) that CIMA wants. As far as I know (and this is a new exam, so time will tell) it isn’t. Time will tell, of course, as we receive further guidance from CIMA and feedback from students who have attempted the exam. For now, I hope my answer helps.