In the October Issue of Connect, Greg Merkley of Kellogg School of Management, talks about the magic of cases, his favourite case, plus much more.
Greg, what is it you like about writing case studies and teaching with the case method?
I like how they both combine specific and general learning. Immediately after business school, I worked for a few years as a strategy consultant. One of the things I enjoyed about that job was the opportunity to jump into an unfamiliar organisation, function, or industry and quickly get a basic understanding of what was happening. I’m naturally curious, and writing and teaching cases scratches that same itch.
Of course, a case is more than just a story. The real magic of a case is revealed when a specific situation provides an opportunity to learn lessons that can be applied to entirely different contexts. A student might never work in fertiliser production, but a well-written and well-taught case can do far more than familiarise them with the specific business setting of the problem - it can help them see patterns and commonalities that might not have been obvious.
How does the case method come alive in the classroom?
I’ve observed dozens of instructors teach cases, which has convinced me that there is more than one way to successfully use the case method in the classroom.
The classes I enjoy the most have generated a lot of dynamic discussion with as many quiet moments of reflection. The right case, instructor, and students can combine to create something close to a real-life situation in which the participants behave as if they have a personal stake in the outcome.
My favorite moments occur when a student changes their mind based on something another student has said. That tells me they are learning they need to listen and not just talk. I think it’s just as important to recognise weaknesses in your arguments as it is to present them convincingly.
What’s your favourite case, and why?
I will be selfish and choose one of the cases I helped write, Enterprise Rent-A-Car. My favorite quote from the case is, “There are two types of rental car companies: those that lose money and Enterprise.” In my research, I was shocked to learn that this family business is much larger and more profitable than the well-known airport rental companies. Not surprisingly, it’s also more averse to press coverage.
The lessons the case teaches are valuable but not so obvious. Students can see how Enterprise applied strategic focus to developing its unglamorous base business and built interlocking capabilities and processes that made it hard for other companies to replicate its success.
If you could be transported into another profession for one week, which would you choose, and why?
The beauty of my job is that I get to simulate this every time I write a new case. If I were to do it in reality, I would choose to be a craftsman who makes something, like wood furniture. I have minimal experience and probably no native talent, but I would enjoy creating something more tangible than words written on a page or spoken in a classroom.
How do you relax?
After not touching the instrument for over 50 years, I started piano lessons during the pandemic. I enjoy improving my music-making ability, but the process is very, very humbling. It’s been a long time since I’ve chosen to do - and persisted in doing - something I’m not very good at.
Do you have a favourite quote or guiding principle?
On the topic of humility: “Humility does not mean convincing ourselves that we are worthless, meaningless, or of little value…We don’t discover humility by thinking less of ourselves; we discover humility by thinking less about ourselves.” Dieter F. Uchtdorf