Using published sources to write cases

By Emma Simmons

Tulips in a bagWe talk to case authors and instructors across the globe about developing cases without field research.

Cases based on published sources are frequently used in today’s classrooms worldwide. An analysis of the winners of The Case Centre Awards and Competitions over the last five years reveals an almost equal division between those authored using material gathered out in the field (52%) and those created solely at the desk (48%). In spite of this, there is a widely held view that cases based on original field research are pedagogically superior to those that are not, and should therefore also be the most popular. Indeed, according to Writing CasesLeenders, Maufette-Leenders and Erskine in their classic book, Writing Cases: “Cases are field-based. The source of every case rests ... in an organization ... A case researcher visits ... and collects the data that comprises the case.” So, what explains the large numbers of cases based on publicly available, or published, sources that are produced and frequently selected - and re-selected - by instructors for classroom use? What reasons lie behind their development and do they have a particular role to play in the classroom?

What are published sources?

Publicly available, published sources cover a vast range of materials. This data can be statistical in nature, or testimony relating to involved individuals. They often include newspaper, journal and online articles, documents, reports and analysis, which can be contemporary to today, or historical. According to John Heath in his book Teaching & Writing Cases: A Practical Guide: “Particularly rich sources of Teaching & Writing Cases: A Practical Guidecase data are the Offer for Sale documents of companies being floated on the Stock Market (which) usually contain detailed accounts of the origins and development of the company, information on its directors, its recent performance and an outline of its future strategy.” Today the internet offers quick and convenient access to a vast pool of additional materials, including those of social media, which may add colour and personal comment to a desk researched case.

Reasons to use published sources

Debapratim PurkayasthaDeveloping a case using publicly available, published sources is frequently the result of a conscious decision by the author, for example when there is a fear – or certainty - that the subject company might not be completely truthful, may want to control what is written or published, or refuse to become involved at all. According to Debapratim Purkayastha, ICFAI Business School (IBS), and winner of The Case Centre Outstanding Contribution to the Case Method Award in 2015, the use of published sources can be “particularly important when writing cases on serious lapses (e.g. ethical) on the part of an organisation, or on sensitive or controversial subjects.” He argues that in today’s economic climate, particularly following the Global Financial Crisis, it is particularly important to bring such topics to the classroom and therefore “the only – and better – way is to develop well-researched cases using published sources.”

Jean-Louis BarsouxAt IMD, Jean-Louis Barsoux highlights one advantage of using published sources as allowing the author to “tell the story you want for the case objective, rather than what the company wants.” He, too, sees this as being particularly useful if the purpose of the case is to learn from a corporate failure, when only very few companies are willing to share or explore these experiences in any depth. He cites another advantage of using published sources as being able to get a better sense of how events looked ‘at the time’. “It’s often easy to be wise after the event – for example, when case interviewees in field research reflect on past failures - or for whom particular (good) decisions seem ‘obvious’ in retrospect,” he observes. “The published sources allow you to go back and put yourself in the shoes of the person at the time: what was the protagonist thinking then – what pressures were they under?”

Deborah CompeauThere are occasions when a company may not be able to discuss an issue for legal reasons, making the use of publicly available material the only realistic strategy. At The Ivey Business School, Deborah Compeau recalls working with her co-authors on NASDAQ OMX: The Facebook Debacle which looks at the systems problems that occurred on the day of the Facebook IPO. “This case dealt with a very public corporate ‘failure’ which was still in the midst of legal proceedings at the time we wrote the case. It is doubtful that anyone from NASDAQ could have spoken to us about the case given the complexity of the legal process,” she observes.

Opportunities and practicalities

Writing cases based upon published sources can be a solution when field researched cases will be very costly, in terms of both time and money, especially when travel is involved. Many faculty and institutions are not in a position to command sufficient of either of these resources to develop such cases. In his book, John Heath refers to cases based on published sources as being “very cost effective compared with field research.” Additionally, using published sources today, enables most work to be done anywhere and anytime with a laptop, and, very fast. While acknowledging her general preference for writing field researched cases, Deborah Compeau has found particular benefit in researching cases using public sources in the fast-moving area of emerging technologies. She comments on co-developing cases on social media and companies such as Google and Twitter: “A public sources case in these situations can sometimes be completed more rapidly allowing us to get material into the classroom very quickly,” she says.

Debapratim Purkayastha has found that sometimes it is the subject organisation itself – rather than the author - that may not be willing or able to commit the time and effort required to develop a field researched case study, which, he comments, can often exceed a year of engagement. In that situation, “the only viable option before an educator who wants to bring the interesting developments into the classroom is to develop the case from published sources,” he says. This also offers the potential for the author to weave in multiple perspectives (i.e. not just those of the subject organisation.) “The author can more easily take a critical view,” he says, “working with published sources allows for more flexibility on the content and the design of the case to focus on the learning outcomes, without unnecessary external ‘distractions’”

Jean-Louis Barsoux sees perhaps the most practically significant advantage of using published sources as being able to bypass the lengthy approval process by the subject company, which, in the worst case scenario, can result in a field researched case never seeing the light of day. “Over the time of developing a case, sponsors may move on, or their communications departments become involved and too cautious, so that you can end up with a ‘plain vanilla’ case – or no case at all,” he warns. As long as case authors can document the published sources used, control of a successful and rapid publication outcome should rest in their own hands.

Potential pitfalls

Tom OsegowitschBut there can be challenging aspects to using published sources for research. Tom Osegowitsch at the University of Melbourne highlights accessing sufficient sources to get a comprehensive picture, and the variable quality of published material. “The most obvious issue would seem to be the one of ‘fit’: available information may only have limited relevance to the case topic. Depending on the work done by the original author or publisher of the source, data may also lack accuracy or comprehensiveness, and not knowing details about how that research was done, case authors may not even be aware of these limitations,” he warns. In particular, journalistic sources such as newspapers, with their lack of referencing and disclosure, have the potential to seriously mislead, he feels. “I have come across many instances where erroneous information had been recycled several times (by different journalists) to end up as ‘popular myths’. If the organisations concerned have no incentive to correct erroneous information in the public domain, such factoids can linger for many years.”

Debapratim Purkayastha agrees that there are issues of research quality to contend with. Published sources can range from overwhelming in volume, to a paucity of data necessitating hours of painstaking labour to work through such gaps in information. He further sees the potential mistake of relying on too few sources. “Poorly researched cases are of little value in enabling learning and can give cases based on published sources a bad name,” he feels. “Equally, it is important for authors to ensure they are not infringing anyone’s copyright or IPR by using published materials,” he adds.

With the time pressures faced by many faculty, using published sources to write a case, though potentially a much faster process than undertaking field research, also fails to take advantage of the synergy of providing a second outlet for proprietary primary research, usually destined for publication in academic journals. By the same token, not having direct access to a protagonist can limit the ability of the skilled case author to unveil those more personal thoughts and feeling of those involved in the case scenario, a point highlighted by Deborah Compeau.

The bridge to field research

To address some of these concerns, when nearing completion of a case developed using published sources, some authors decide to put the draft before the subject organisation for interest, comment, or even to provide further input. Where case research has been particularly thorough and comprehensive, Jean-Louis Barsoux has known subject companies to be very impressed at the effort that has been Eleanor O'Higginsmade to understand their scenario: “The case itself can even serve as an introduction to get access to the company or its CEO for the future; alternatively, they may decide to invest time in further shaping the story with the author, if appropriate,” he observes. This can sometimes lead to a company deciding to become involved in the subsequent classroom process, as happened with Eleanor O’Higgins’ first, award winning, Ryanair case, authored from published sources at University College Dublin, when, after reading her case, CEO Michael O’Leary himself came to class.

Debapratim Purkayastha has even experienced a company’s disbelief that an ‘insider’ had not been involved when he showed them a final case draft. He has also received a request that a publicly sourced case not be published as the information in the case related to the company’s competitive positioning and strategy. “The company had never realised quite how much information was available in the public domain,” he says. As is the prerogative of any author of a case based on published sources, he and his co-authors felt unable to honour the company’s request and went ahead to publish the case. However, reports Deborah Compeau, things can still go wrong at this stage: “It is not unknown for a subject company, having been shown a completed case based on public sources, to exert such pressure, perhaps at the highest level in a business school, for the case to still not make it to publication.”

In practice, Tom Osegowitsch feels published sources and field research both pose challenges – in some respects they can be quite similar, taking many forms and involving parallel kinds of data; to pit them against each other represents, he believes, a ‘false dichotomy.’ “Ideally, I’d always use both, when compiling a case,” he says. “Both primary and published sources can cover a broad spectrum, and both can suffer from qualitative and quantitative limitations depending on who has provided the original information. Both can have been built on a comprehensive picture or, alternatively, a limited perspective. Ultimately, ‘it depends’ on which particular published sources are at hand and what kind of field research has been conducted. It will be up to the skill of the author to negotiate between the two and make the most of what is available. Multiple ‘lenses’ are also more likely to uncover a larger amount of the contradictory or inconsistent data invariably associated with real organisations, and allow the case to paint a truer picture.”

Classroom test

Although Leenders, Maufette-Leenders and Erskine question whether an ‘armchair’ case is in fact the real thing, they agree that ultimately, “a new case is tested in the classroom, as its final assessment lies in its application. Did the case accomplish the educational purpose intended?” At Imperial College Business School, Angela Dalrymple uses a variety of cases, including, recently, the 2015 award winning CSR and the Tobacco Industry: A Contradiction in Terms? which is based on published sources. Angela DalrympleThe origin of research is important, but is not always the main influencing factor on her decision to select a case for teaching: “It is the overall quality and the interesting content of the case that matters,” she affirms, a view seemingly shared by her participants who rarely comment on the distinction, “although it is important for executives, in particular, to be able to encounter field research in case studies used in class,” she adds. Tom Osegowitsch has identified a credibility advantage in his students when they know that “data has come straight from the horse’s mouth. In addition, the detail and nuance that we often get from field research can make it easier for students to step into the shoes of a protagonist – a key consideration in case pedagogy,” he says.

Classroom success will always be a balancing act with today’s sophisticated business school audience of MBAs and executives, who are always keen to be taught using topical materials. For Debapratim Purkayastha, this is where cases based on published sources can come into their own and have an important role to play in management education, especially when the subject is ‘critical’ and falls outside the mainstream of topics. “Such cases are popular as they often help bring contemporary issues for discussion and debate into the classroom almost in ‘real time’,” he says. But as the classroom also represents a competitive marketplace for teaching materials, research rigour and pedagogical quality will be essential for success. We conclude with his advice to case authoring colleagues: “Only good cases make it to class irrespective of the data source. Before you start writing the case, collect all the information you can find on your topic until you can find no more. Developing a case from published sources is a rigorous, sometimes mind-numbing exercise, but it has the potential to end up even above the quality of a typical field researched case. Such a case will always effectively compete for classroom use.”

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