100 years of shoes - what makes a great case?

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In 1921, thirteen years after its foundation, Harvard Business School (HBS) published the first business teaching case – The General Shoe Company. That pioneering, one-page, document was to fundamentally change how business and management were taught. The centenary gives us an opportunity to reflect on what makes a great teaching case, on what has changed and evolved, and what the future might hold. Cases were already in use at Harvard medical and law schools. The approach was tried at HBS as early deans and faculty realised the importance of teaching with business ‘problems’ and saw the potential of using discussion pedagogy to work through them. They wanted to equip HBS students to return to their organisations armed with not only a grasp of business theory but also the practical approaches to apply it.

Subject

We cannot know for sure why the topic of the first published case was chosen. In an HBS video about The General Shoe Company, Jan Rivkin informs us that by the 1920s, Massachusetts and Boston itself had become centres of a burgeoning shoe industry, and understanding its structure was the focus of one of the school’s first pieces of faculty research. School participants came from many sectors, so we can imagine that other industries faced similar problems to the core dilemma of that first case: workers not staying active on their tasks to the end of their shifts, although there were more orders to fulfil.

Many hands holding up shoes

Remarkably, the shoe/footwear industry has featured regularly in cases across the 100 years, right up to the present day. So, we consider here what makes a great case with the help of faculty from across the globe who have published cases featuring the sector. A search of The Case Centre catalogue using key words ‘shoes’ and ‘footwear’ reveals hundreds of available items, including award winning cases. Usage data reveals that it is not only the most recent of these cases that are still selected for class, underlining the fact highlighted by many we spoke to that topicality can be, but is not necessarily, the marker of a great case. Brands such as Adidas, Bata and Nike have made many repeat appearances over the years, such cases centring their business dilemmas across diverse management areas from strategy and marketing, to accounting, and production and operations management - and beyond. Case locations have cut across multiple geographies both global and local, and many allow discussion of ever more topical business issues such as entrepreneurship, ethics and sustainability. 

Story and engagement

One of the first strengths of a great case is that it - usually quickly - captures the attention of the audience and then proceeds to engage participants. This is partly achieved through skilful case writing; specialists exist to help, and there are also workshops to help faculty develop their own skills. Fundamentally, the case story must allow participants to rapidly and easily connect with it and often also identify with its key protagonists.

At ESCA School of Management, Imane El Ghazali and Zoulikha Maaroufi authored the 2020 EFMD Competition-winning The Benson Shoes Case in Morocco. This case also featured in the inaugural edition of Case Focus - The Journal of Business & Management Teaching Cases, Middle East and Africa Edition. When looking for a case to use in their classes, Imane El Ghazali and Zoulikha Maaroufi insist “on both the quality of the writing and the story effect. The art of telling a story is so important even in technical cases such as finance or accounting.” They observe that: “Class engagement depends first on both how the case is written, and how the captivating story is presented to students, involving the learners in the decision making, and challenging and intriguing them.”

At Stanford Graduate School of Business, Jennifer L Aaker authored (with Sara Gaviser Leslie) the 2010 Award winning Zappos: Happiness in a Box, and (with Sara Gaviser Leslie, Ravdeep Chawla) Nike We: Design Meets Social Good. Her primary research includes studying the power of storytelling and how storytelling helps build brands and organisations. In Harnessing the Power of Stories we hear how stories are more memorable than facts alone, and that “The most powerful stories take the audience where you want them to go.” Because of the element of storytelling in a case, these reflections help us understand how a strong case story can achieve this pedagogical mission. Jennifer L Aaker identifies four target characteristics of an effective story that an author needs to address:

  1. Why are you telling this story?
  2. How does it grab attention - why would the audience want to listen?
  3. How does it engage - why would your audience care?
  4. How does it enable action - why would the audience want to share the story?

Those same questions resonate for authors developing a mesmerising case.

Learning journey

At the London College of Fashion, Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas and Ana Roncha authored the 2017, Case Centre Award winning, TOMS Shoes: The Buy-one-give-one Social Enterprise Business Model.  “A nice, interesting and well written story is important to a great case, but on its own it’s not enough for it to work in the classroom”, Ana Roncha points out. “The crucial question is whether there is an underlying issue, a principle or problem embedded in that story; is there a trigger to identify and enough data so that the instructor can direct students and their critical thinking towards what you want them to explore - concepts, theory, outcomes etc? It’s about the case having the potential to create a learning experience and journey.”

Others also highlight how the best cases have their classroom purpose at the forefront of their construction. When Derek Abell published his Technical Note (1996 updated in 2003) on what makes a good case, his first of ten criteria was to make sure “it’s a case and not just a story.” He comments today that his many years of case teaching and extensive supervision of case writing have shown him that a strong case is necessarily underpinned by “really clear and tightly conceived teaching objectives. In a good case the author has thought about actually teaching it before sitting down to write and that often should include writing the teaching note in parallel.” He adds: “An effective case is a kind of platform or springboard that the instructor can use to jump off to go in many different directions; in good cases the real problem may not be immediately obvious.” According to Derek Abell: “The case teaching process must also be able to accommodate the experience and input to the discussion of students so as to take them on a journey and then bring them back to the learning points they will take away after class.”

As newer generation case authors and teachers, working in an emerging business education context, Imane El Ghazali and Zoulikha Maaroufi also have the classroom process foremost in mind when they evaluate how successful a case might be. Their personal checklist comprises twelve characteristics: 

Characteristics of a successful case
  • Topic and issues are innovative and original.
  • Deals with real-world life and a real situation.
  • Challenges learners and pushes them to the analysis.
  • Allows learners to recognise when their own reflections are not sufficient and pushes them to deepen the analysis and find more ways to make more optimal recommendations for the situation.
  • Facilitates the discussion of concepts and makes them concrete.
  • Is easy and enjoyable, pleasant to read.
  • Provides both density and clarity of information and data it includes.
  • Allows rich class discussion.
  • Enables the learning objectives to be achieved.
  • Deals with a diversity of specific markets e.g. African, Mediterranean, Arab contexts, MENA region etc. - of great interest nowadays.
  • Is produced in close partnership with the company, having their signed release to collaborate in the case writing and publication.
  • Has a well structured teaching note which includes all possible suggestions of resolution and a wide range of tracks of analysis.

Imane El Ghazali and Zoulikha Maaroufi

 

PAGE 2 

Accessible, flexible: skill

Of course, the success of a class depends not just on the case and its potential, but also on the instructor, and the audience of participants - whether local, national or multinational, undergraduate, masters, or executives. A case needs to be accessible to whoever is in the class. According to Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, “A good case helps the class get into what could be an overwhelming topic. Even an apparently simple case narrative needs to have complexity underscoring it. Perhaps it illustrates how smaller acts or decisions can have a growing, even a massive, impact. Such cases give participants alternatives to think about; to wonder what they would do in the situation. And, most importantly, the problems in the best cases leave the class with the students, who may want to talk about them afterwards with their friends, family or colleagues.”

Successful cases are often flexible, enabling the core problem or dilemma to be widely accessible and applicable. In 1978, Malcolm McDonald authored Southern Shoe Company. He underlines the need for the instructor to be audience aware. “Putting the case in context has always been crucial,” he says. “The requirements of a case to teach undergraduates with no commercial experience are different from those to teach postgraduates with lots of experience. Not only the case needs to be flexible - it’s also down to the instructor, who needs to adapt, being totally familiar with both the facts of the case, the composition of the class, and the objectives of the particular course.” At ICFAI Business School (IBS), Hyderabad, Jitesh Nair, author (with Bitra Vasudev) of the 2021 case Bata’s Direct Marketing Initiatives, agrees: “Irrespective of whether a case is average or extremely well written, or whether a student is only moderately prepared, success boils down to how the faculty uses it to actively engage the students in the discussion, focussing on the situation to be addressed and the decisions that must be made.”

At INSEAD, Luk Van Wassenhove recently published the case series EMMA Safety Footwear (A): Designing a Circular Shoe (with Andre Calmon, Anne-Marie Carrick, Anne Nai-Tien Huang), and (B): Implementing the Circular Business (with Anne Nai-Tien Huang). “A good case is flexible,” he says, “people from different management disciplines should be able to use it, and we don’t do that enough right now. A strong case can often be taught on a very technical and narrow level, but also for a wider strategic or decision making purpose.” But he urges instructors to view a case as more than just a vehicle to teach an audience. “A great case is not just a pedagogical instrument - it also provides the author or the teacher with the opportunity to learn and think more deeply about a problem.” He adds, “The very act of writing a case is an opportunity to learn because it forces you to explore things interesting businesses are doing, and then to translate your own learning into something that can be communicated to others.”

Lots of Nike trainers

One of HBS’s most celebrated proponents of the case method, C Roland Christensen, authored (with David C Rikert) a 1984 Nike case series (updated in 1990). In the introduction to the 1987 edition of his book Teaching and the Case Method (with Abby J Hansen; 1994 third edition also with Louis B Barnes) he, too, see the wider, more holistic context of a powerful case between research, pedagogy and learning: “A teacher who views the classroom as a laboratory gains both knowledge and insight. Students in their naiveté pose wonderful research questions. Opportunities for experimentation abound.” 

Many we spoke to highlighted the crucial difference a teaching note can make to the successful use of a case. For Jitesh Nair, a good teaching note represents a learning opportunity for the instructor, when using someone else’s case: “From the case writer’s perspective, the case should be able to engage and captivate the students, while the teaching note should engage and captivate the faculty taking the case to the classroom.”  Teaching notes also often contain data or indicate how to access it. For Derek Abell this is important: “A good case has the data required to tackle the problem - roughly what the manager had; in the real world you have some and you don’t have some. Make it realistic!” In these days of fast Internet access to almost any data, he cautions: “A good case is not about what’s online, it’s about how you look at it.”

Case evolution

So has a great case changed appreciably over the last hundred years? Obviously, the vast majority are now distributed - and often used - electronically. Historically, most highly regarded cases could easily run to 30, densely typed, pages - plus attachments. It is something of an irony that the first case was just one page in length because the trend towards (much) shorter cases is evident today. Malcolm MacDonald highlights the potency of a well constructed shorter document. “A so-called ‘mini case’ is rarely longer than a single page,” he says. “I frequently use such cases on executive courses where there is a lot of learning ground to cover and they can be brilliant at getting across points related to ‘theory’ and to anchor it in a practical context.” Faculty we spoke to felt that cases have had to get shorter in recent years because participants are no longer willing to read as much. This puts the onus firmly on the author to reduce case length while maintaining its functionality. Anecdotally, students’ attention spans are also shorter and pre-class preparation time competes with all other electronic connections to the world outside. Some felt that this was especially problematic for executives, whose companies can nowadays expect them to carry on working and being in contact while away on a programme, which in the past might have been primarily viewed as time away from the office to reflect.

Expectations have also changed with some students anticipating class to be entertaining. Engaging audio visual elements are frequently included for popular cases and these undoubtedly enliven the session, whether videos of companies and interviews with protagonists, direct links to information or data via the Internet looked at in class, real time polling, or simulations. Instructors recognise it is what you can do with a case in class, rather than just the case itself that determines how effective it will be.

The pandemic of 2020/21 and the switch to online teaching has had an unexpected and profound impact on what a case needs to comprise in order to succeed, whether in synchronous, asynchronous or hybrid teaching mode. The pace of evolution has accelerated. “Teaching online has constituted a massive shift and put pressure both on teachers and on case content,” observes Ana Roncha. “Where we might previously have focused on searching out more interesting brands to teach with, Covid-19 has forced everyone to rethink their teaching and writing practice. More than ever, the teaching process needs to be included in the case objectives, alongside the learning objectives. Online, especially in hybrid teaching, you can rarely just throw in a role play or follow a spontaneous diversion in the discussion, so having detailed suggestions on how to teach the case remotely, and planning the online session have become really important and have laid bare which cases hold enough content to create an online learning journey, and which do not.”

For Luk Van Wassenhove, things that might previously have been done informally in a case class have now become necessary elements to plan in. “The really interesting thing with a great case class is when something unexpected comes up,” he says. “Facilitating this online is much more difficult, so the case and its attachments need to adapt to be chunked and maintain engagement throughout an online session.” The impact of these new necessities may well be positive for cases. Topics and companies will also be subject to change as the pandemic has plunged so many industries and sectors into transition - not least the footwear industry - and the most compelling cases will reflect these shifts and changes in society such as incorporating greater diversity, more local businesses and SMEs, and by including more pressing topics that students are passionate about such as sustainability.

Four golden stiletto shoes

After one hundred years, “the fundamentals of the case method are still very sound,” believes Jan Rivkin. In the fifth of a series of articles by the HBP (Harvard Business Publishing) Editors to mark the centenary, he adds: “The experiences that engage students, the experiences that force them to think critically, to sort out important from unimportant facts, to think for themselves, listen to others, explain their views to others, make a decision - those experiences will continue to deliver powerful learning.” The HBP Editors are also optimistic about the future of great cases: “We argue that the most memorable cases help students feel more connected to the case protagonists or others who are affected by the protagonists’ actions. When students feel the prospect of connection, they are more willing to use their imaginations, to bridge the gap between their own circumstances and those presented in the case, and to step into another’s shoes.”

And apropos of shoes; do we know why footwear has been one of the few industries to feature as a prime case subject across one hundred years? “First and foremost, shoes are familiar,” observes Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas. “They present no barrier as a topic to engagement, no matter where you are in the world or who you are. But the footwear industry also offers flexible options for cases: you can go as deep as you want, say into production and global supply chains, or you can look at fashion and marketing. I had taken a conscious decision to develop a socially responsible curriculum and to focus on businesses trying to ‘do good’ so my students could engage with alternative and sustainable ways of business thinking, and develop their emotional intelligence. I become interested in researching our case subject TOMS, with its ‘buy one - give one’ message, through a presentation about branding. When research and developing a case can go hand in hand, this maximises the use of academic resources and increases the chances of the case being believed in, relatable, and learning activated.” She adds: “A good case can ripple out into other things; if you use cases as a teaching philosophy, a multi-layered case can have influence far beyond class.” As Jennifer L Aaker says: “… go out, share stories and move people to action.”

This article was published in Connect, Issue 53, September 2021.

Page 1

Subject

We cannot know for sure why the topic of the first published case was chosen. In an HBS video about The General Shoe Company, Jan Rivkin informs us that by the 1920s, Massachusetts and Boston itself had become centres of a burgeoning shoe industry, and understanding its structure was the focus of one of the school’s first pieces of faculty research. School participants came from many sectors, so we can imagine that other industries faced similar problems to the core dilemma of that first case: workers not staying active on their tasks to the end of their shifts, although there were more orders to fulfil.

Many hands holding up shoes

Remarkably, the shoe/footwear industry has featured regularly in cases across the 100 years, right up to the present day. So, we consider here what makes a great case with the help of faculty from across the globe who have published cases featuring the sector. A search of The Case Centre catalogue using key words ‘shoes’ and ‘footwear’ reveals hundreds of available items, including award winning cases. Usage data reveals that it is not only the most recent of these cases that are still selected for class, underlining the fact highlighted by many we spoke to that topicality can be, but is not necessarily, the marker of a great case. Brands such as Adidas, Bata and Nike have made many repeat appearances over the years, such cases centring their business dilemmas across diverse management areas from strategy and marketing, to accounting, and production and operations management - and beyond. Case locations have cut across multiple geographies both global and local, and many allow discussion of ever more topical business issues such as entrepreneurship, ethics and sustainability. 

Story and engagement

One of the first strengths of a great case is that it - usually quickly - captures the attention of the audience and then proceeds to engage participants. This is partly achieved through skilful case writing; specialists exist to help, and there are also workshops to help faculty develop their own skills. Fundamentally, the case story must allow participants to rapidly and easily connect with it and often also identify with its key protagonists.

At ESCA School of Management, Imane El Ghazali and Zoulikha Maaroufi authored the 2020 EFMD Competition-winning The Benson Shoes Case in Morocco. This case also featured in the inaugural edition of Case Focus - The Journal of Business & Management Teaching Cases, Middle East and Africa Edition. When looking for a case to use in their classes, Imane El Ghazali and Zoulikha Maaroufi insist “on both the quality of the writing and the story effect. The art of telling a story is so important even in technical cases such as finance or accounting.” They observe that: “Class engagement depends first on both how the case is written, and how the captivating story is presented to students, involving the learners in the decision making, and challenging and intriguing them.”

At Stanford Graduate School of Business, Jennifer L Aaker authored (with Sara Gaviser Leslie) the 2010 Award winning Zappos: Happiness in a Box, and (with Sara Gaviser Leslie, Ravdeep Chawla) Nike We: Design Meets Social Good. Her primary research includes studying the power of storytelling and how storytelling helps build brands and organisations. In Harnessing the Power of Stories we hear how stories are more memorable than facts alone, and that “The most powerful stories take the audience where you want them to go.” Because of the element of storytelling in a case, these reflections help us understand how a strong case story can achieve this pedagogical mission. Jennifer L Aaker identifies four target characteristics of an effective story that an author needs to address:

  1. Why are you telling this story?
  2. How does it grab attention - why would the audience want to listen?
  3. How does it engage - why would your audience care?
  4. How does it enable action - why would the audience want to share the story?

Those same questions resonate for authors developing a mesmerising case.

Learning journey

At the London College of Fashion, Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas and Ana Roncha authored the 2017, Case Centre Award winning, TOMS Shoes: The Buy-one-give-one Social Enterprise Business Model.  “A nice, interesting and well written story is important to a great case, but on its own it’s not enough for it to work in the classroom”, Ana Roncha points out. “The crucial question is whether there is an underlying issue, a principle or problem embedded in that story; is there a trigger to identify and enough data so that the instructor can direct students and their critical thinking towards what you want them to explore - concepts, theory, outcomes etc? It’s about the case having the potential to create a learning experience and journey.”

Others also highlight how the best cases have their classroom purpose at the forefront of their construction. When Derek Abell published his Technical Note (1996 updated in 2003) on what makes a good case, his first of ten criteria was to make sure “it’s a case and not just a story.” He comments today that his many years of case teaching and extensive supervision of case writing have shown him that a strong case is necessarily underpinned by “really clear and tightly conceived teaching objectives. In a good case the author has thought about actually teaching it before sitting down to write and that often should include writing the teaching note in parallel.” He adds: “An effective case is a kind of platform or springboard that the instructor can use to jump off to go in many different directions; in good cases the real problem may not be immediately obvious.” According to Derek Abell: “The case teaching process must also be able to accommodate the experience and input to the discussion of students so as to take them on a journey and then bring them back to the learning points they will take away after class.”

As newer generation case authors and teachers, working in an emerging business education context, Imane El Ghazali and Zoulikha Maaroufi also have the classroom process foremost in mind when they evaluate how successful a case might be. Their personal checklist comprises twelve characteristics: 

Characteristics of a successful case
  • Topic and issues are innovative and original.
  • Deals with real-world life and a real situation.
  • Challenges learners and pushes them to the analysis.
  • Allows learners to recognise when their own reflections are not sufficient and pushes them to deepen the analysis and find more ways to make more optimal recommendations for the situation.
  • Facilitates the discussion of concepts and makes them concrete.
  • Is easy and enjoyable, pleasant to read.
  • Provides both density and clarity of information and data it includes.
  • Allows rich class discussion.
  • Enables the learning objectives to be achieved.
  • Deals with a diversity of specific markets e.g. African, Mediterranean, Arab contexts, MENA region etc. - of great interest nowadays.
  • Is produced in close partnership with the company, having their signed release to collaborate in the case writing and publication.
  • Has a well structured teaching note which includes all possible suggestions of resolution and a wide range of tracks of analysis.

Imane El Ghazali and Zoulikha Maaroufi

 

PAGE 2 

Page 2

Accessible, flexible: skill

Of course, the success of a class depends not just on the case and its potential, but also on the instructor, and the audience of participants - whether local, national or multinational, undergraduate, masters, or executives. A case needs to be accessible to whoever is in the class. According to Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, “A good case helps the class get into what could be an overwhelming topic. Even an apparently simple case narrative needs to have complexity underscoring it. Perhaps it illustrates how smaller acts or decisions can have a growing, even a massive, impact. Such cases give participants alternatives to think about; to wonder what they would do in the situation. And, most importantly, the problems in the best cases leave the class with the students, who may want to talk about them afterwards with their friends, family or colleagues.”

Successful cases are often flexible, enabling the core problem or dilemma to be widely accessible and applicable. In 1978, Malcolm McDonald authored Southern Shoe Company. He underlines the need for the instructor to be audience aware. “Putting the case in context has always been crucial,” he says. “The requirements of a case to teach undergraduates with no commercial experience are different from those to teach postgraduates with lots of experience. Not only the case needs to be flexible - it’s also down to the instructor, who needs to adapt, being totally familiar with both the facts of the case, the composition of the class, and the objectives of the particular course.” At ICFAI Business School (IBS), Hyderabad, Jitesh Nair, author (with Bitra Vasudev) of the 2021 case Bata’s Direct Marketing Initiatives, agrees: “Irrespective of whether a case is average or extremely well written, or whether a student is only moderately prepared, success boils down to how the faculty uses it to actively engage the students in the discussion, focussing on the situation to be addressed and the decisions that must be made.”

At INSEAD, Luk Van Wassenhove recently published the case series EMMA Safety Footwear (A): Designing a Circular Shoe (with Andre Calmon, Anne-Marie Carrick, Anne Nai-Tien Huang), and (B): Implementing the Circular Business (with Anne Nai-Tien Huang). “A good case is flexible,” he says, “people from different management disciplines should be able to use it, and we don’t do that enough right now. A strong case can often be taught on a very technical and narrow level, but also for a wider strategic or decision making purpose.” But he urges instructors to view a case as more than just a vehicle to teach an audience. “A great case is not just a pedagogical instrument - it also provides the author or the teacher with the opportunity to learn and think more deeply about a problem.” He adds, “The very act of writing a case is an opportunity to learn because it forces you to explore things interesting businesses are doing, and then to translate your own learning into something that can be communicated to others.”

Lots of Nike trainers

One of HBS’s most celebrated proponents of the case method, C Roland Christensen, authored (with David C Rikert) a 1984 Nike case series (updated in 1990). In the introduction to the 1987 edition of his book Teaching and the Case Method (with Abby J Hansen; 1994 third edition also with Louis B Barnes) he, too, see the wider, more holistic context of a powerful case between research, pedagogy and learning: “A teacher who views the classroom as a laboratory gains both knowledge and insight. Students in their naiveté pose wonderful research questions. Opportunities for experimentation abound.” 

Many we spoke to highlighted the crucial difference a teaching note can make to the successful use of a case. For Jitesh Nair, a good teaching note represents a learning opportunity for the instructor, when using someone else’s case: “From the case writer’s perspective, the case should be able to engage and captivate the students, while the teaching note should engage and captivate the faculty taking the case to the classroom.”  Teaching notes also often contain data or indicate how to access it. For Derek Abell this is important: “A good case has the data required to tackle the problem - roughly what the manager had; in the real world you have some and you don’t have some. Make it realistic!” In these days of fast Internet access to almost any data, he cautions: “A good case is not about what’s online, it’s about how you look at it.”

Case evolution

So has a great case changed appreciably over the last hundred years? Obviously, the vast majority are now distributed - and often used - electronically. Historically, most highly regarded cases could easily run to 30, densely typed, pages - plus attachments. It is something of an irony that the first case was just one page in length because the trend towards (much) shorter cases is evident today. Malcolm MacDonald highlights the potency of a well constructed shorter document. “A so-called ‘mini case’ is rarely longer than a single page,” he says. “I frequently use such cases on executive courses where there is a lot of learning ground to cover and they can be brilliant at getting across points related to ‘theory’ and to anchor it in a practical context.” Faculty we spoke to felt that cases have had to get shorter in recent years because participants are no longer willing to read as much. This puts the onus firmly on the author to reduce case length while maintaining its functionality. Anecdotally, students’ attention spans are also shorter and pre-class preparation time competes with all other electronic connections to the world outside. Some felt that this was especially problematic for executives, whose companies can nowadays expect them to carry on working and being in contact while away on a programme, which in the past might have been primarily viewed as time away from the office to reflect.

Expectations have also changed with some students anticipating class to be entertaining. Engaging audio visual elements are frequently included for popular cases and these undoubtedly enliven the session, whether videos of companies and interviews with protagonists, direct links to information or data via the Internet looked at in class, real time polling, or simulations. Instructors recognise it is what you can do with a case in class, rather than just the case itself that determines how effective it will be.

The pandemic of 2020/21 and the switch to online teaching has had an unexpected and profound impact on what a case needs to comprise in order to succeed, whether in synchronous, asynchronous or hybrid teaching mode. The pace of evolution has accelerated. “Teaching online has constituted a massive shift and put pressure both on teachers and on case content,” observes Ana Roncha. “Where we might previously have focused on searching out more interesting brands to teach with, Covid-19 has forced everyone to rethink their teaching and writing practice. More than ever, the teaching process needs to be included in the case objectives, alongside the learning objectives. Online, especially in hybrid teaching, you can rarely just throw in a role play or follow a spontaneous diversion in the discussion, so having detailed suggestions on how to teach the case remotely, and planning the online session have become really important and have laid bare which cases hold enough content to create an online learning journey, and which do not.”

For Luk Van Wassenhove, things that might previously have been done informally in a case class have now become necessary elements to plan in. “The really interesting thing with a great case class is when something unexpected comes up,” he says. “Facilitating this online is much more difficult, so the case and its attachments need to adapt to be chunked and maintain engagement throughout an online session.” The impact of these new necessities may well be positive for cases. Topics and companies will also be subject to change as the pandemic has plunged so many industries and sectors into transition - not least the footwear industry - and the most compelling cases will reflect these shifts and changes in society such as incorporating greater diversity, more local businesses and SMEs, and by including more pressing topics that students are passionate about such as sustainability.

Four golden stiletto shoes

After one hundred years, “the fundamentals of the case method are still very sound,” believes Jan Rivkin. In the fifth of a series of articles by the HBP (Harvard Business Publishing) Editors to mark the centenary, he adds: “The experiences that engage students, the experiences that force them to think critically, to sort out important from unimportant facts, to think for themselves, listen to others, explain their views to others, make a decision - those experiences will continue to deliver powerful learning.” The HBP Editors are also optimistic about the future of great cases: “We argue that the most memorable cases help students feel more connected to the case protagonists or others who are affected by the protagonists’ actions. When students feel the prospect of connection, they are more willing to use their imaginations, to bridge the gap between their own circumstances and those presented in the case, and to step into another’s shoes.”

And apropos of shoes; do we know why footwear has been one of the few industries to feature as a prime case subject across one hundred years? “First and foremost, shoes are familiar,” observes Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas. “They present no barrier as a topic to engagement, no matter where you are in the world or who you are. But the footwear industry also offers flexible options for cases: you can go as deep as you want, say into production and global supply chains, or you can look at fashion and marketing. I had taken a conscious decision to develop a socially responsible curriculum and to focus on businesses trying to ‘do good’ so my students could engage with alternative and sustainable ways of business thinking, and develop their emotional intelligence. I become interested in researching our case subject TOMS, with its ‘buy one - give one’ message, through a presentation about branding. When research and developing a case can go hand in hand, this maximises the use of academic resources and increases the chances of the case being believed in, relatable, and learning activated.” She adds: “A good case can ripple out into other things; if you use cases as a teaching philosophy, a multi-layered case can have influence far beyond class.” As Jennifer L Aaker says: “… go out, share stories and move people to action.”

This article was published in Connect, Issue 53, September 2021.

Contributing insights

C Roland Christensen
Latterly, the Robert Walmsley University Professor, Emeritus
Derek F Abell
Founding president and Professor Emeritus
Imane El Ghazali
Assistant Professor of Economics
Jan Rivkin
Senior Associate Dean and Chair of the MBA Program and a Professor in the Strategy Unit
JenniferAaker
General Atlantic Professor and the Coulter Family Faculty Fellow
Luk Van Wassenhove
Emeritus Professor of Technology and Operations Management
A guide to case teaching

In this introductory guide to teaching with cases we ask why teach with cases, explore how to preparing for case teaching, and introduce some tools and techniques. 

Picture representing 'A guide to case teaching'
Picture representing 'A guide to case teaching'
A guide to case teaching

In this introductory guide to teaching with cases we ask why teach with cases, explore how to preparing for case teaching, and introduce some tools and techniques. 

Discover more