Re-stating the case

How revisiting the case method’s historical development can help us think differently about case teaching and the future of business schools

By Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings and Colm McLaughlin

re-stating the case A common explanation for the success of Harvard Business School is its unwavering clarity and continuity of pedagogical purpose – that the aim of business education is to teach students how to solve real business problems through cases that put them in a manager’s ‘shoes’. We argue that this continuity of purpose is not so clear cut and that by recognizing this we can rejuvenate both how we teach with cases and the purpose of business education.

The past

Most histories of the case method start in 1870 when the Dean of Harvard Law School decided law would be best studied by deriving principles from numerous examples. Rather than give his usual lecture, he asked a surprised student to ‘state the case’. In 1919 Wallace Donham was appointed Dean of Harvard’s fledgling Business School. Shortly after taking office, he outlined his vision for the school in a memorandum to faculty.

Wallace Donham “How can we state the aims of the school? the student training for practice in dealing with business problems. This requires practice in 1) ascertaining facts; 2) appraising and sorting facts; 3) stating business problems in a business way; 4) analyzing business problems; 5) reaching definite conclusions; 6) presenting such conclusions orally and in writing.” 

Donham saw the aims of the school as providing students with a practical training in business. He wanted students to solve real business problems, rather than learn abstract theory that they wouldn’t need in the business world. Donham had been trained in the case method as a student at Harvard Law School and believed it to be ideally suited for fulfilling his vision.

The present

Harvard studentsFast forward 100 years and not much seems to have changed. Cases typically present business problems, position students as managers and ask them to develop recommendations for action.

Some criticise the Harvard case method for what they see as too much emphasis on taking action and not enough on thoughtful reflection to see things from different perspectives. Others say it promotes an instrumental, amoral approach to managing where making decisions which maximise profit is all that matters, ignoring the social responsibilities of organisations.

Supporters and critics agree on one thing – that Harvard’s case method is the same today as it was 100 years ago. Our paper, based on archival research at HBS’ Baker Library, presents a new and different history. What is understood as the case method today is what Donham articulated in his 1920 memo, but missing from existing histories is how his thinking changed throughout the 1920s and 30s, as the United States was gripped by social and economic crisis. Conditions which are not dissimilar to today.

Alfred North Whitehead

Donham was greatly influenced by English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who joined Harvard’s philosophy department in 1924. Whitehead believed that society’s pursuit of money had become divorced from a consideration of values. He called on business leaders to show ‘foresight’ – to think deeply about the relationship between business and society.

In partnership with Whitehead, Donham wrote a book in 1931 which put forward radical proposals for addressing the economic crisis. A review in Time magazine said that “beneath all the learning at Harvard Business School there is a philosophical undercurrent, the ingredient most recommended by Dean Donham to his countrymen.”

Donham now realised the case method, in its original conception of training students to solve business problems, was too narrow. Students needed to develop skills in how to think about broad social problems. Sadly, this promise of a different kind of case method was soon forgotten after World War II. Capitalism stabilised and the demand for business schools to address social issues faded.

The future

Our article argues that institutional histories which suggest that a straight line can be drawn from the past to today can limit our thinking for the future, because it makes innovation and change more difficult. And our more complex, contested history of the development of business education at Harvard provides a useful spur for rethinking the case method.

‘Re-stating the case’ means writing and teaching cases that ask students to do more than solve business problems, that take labour relations and other social and environmental issues seriously and stimulate critical reflection on the assumptions we make about management and organisation. By developing the case method in these ways, we can better engage our students with the global challenge of building more inclusive, ethical and sustainable societies. A mission not just for the case method, but for business education as a whole.

Find out more

Read the full paper

Re-stating the case: How revisiting the development of the case method can help us think differently about the future of the business school
By Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings and Colm McLaughlin (2016).
Academy of Management Learning and Education, 15(4): 724-741.

Download the full paper at (AoM subscriber access required) or at (pre-proof version, no subscriber access required).

Watch an animated summary

About the authors

Todd Bridgman

Todd Bridgman is Senior Lecturer at the School of Management, Victoria University of Wellington.
tw @ToddBridgman

Stephen Cummings

Stephen Cummings is Professor at the School of Management, Victoria University of Wellington.
tw @strategybuild

Colm McLaughlin

Colm McLaughlin is Associate Professor in Human Resource Management and Employment Relations at the UCD School of Business.

Share this page:

Case method training

Case method training

If you'd like to learn more about the case method why not take time out to participate in one of our case teaching or writing workshops?

These short, practical workshops cover topics such as:

  • what is a case and why use cases?
  • course planning using cases
  • preparing to lead a case class
  • managing the classroom process
  • assessment
  • the case writing process
  • developing a teaching note

Our open events are held regularly at a variety of locations worldwide. We also provide customised programmes that are often held at an institution's own site.

Find out more