Practising corporate reality with asymmetric case studies

Professor Martin J Eppler and Dr Jeanne Mengis of the University of Lugano (USI), Switzerland discuss their innovative approach to dual version cases.

Alt textWhat makes cases such a great learning experience? Is it their engaging content, the complex business issues and dilemmas they contain, their intriguing and thought provoking decision-making constellation, or the frequent touches of personal drama and pressure? Probably all of these things matter for the quality of a case study, but the key aspect of a good case is its closeness to real-life managerial situations. This authenticity of cases can be further improved by introducing knowledge asymmetry in the case studies, an element that is characteristic of complex decision-making situations.

Participants learn most effectively through a scenario similar to what they will encounter as managers. They learn to evaluate contextual information, apply analytic tools in a ‘real’ setting, and take and defend ‘real’ decisions ‘as if’ they were the managers described in the case. However, in traditional case studies, this ‘as if’ experience is limited by the information provided (eg facts about an organisation and its market) and the specific decisions to be taken (eg strategies to be modified, projects to be launched or stopped). While the beauty of case studies lies in their closeness to actual corporate life, they should try to simulate as many facets of managerial decision-making as possible, from exposing students to typical situations, time pressure, information abundance, to knowledge asymmetry. This last factor can be greatly enhanced by producing more than one version of a case and assigning varying information to different roles played within a case class. In this way, the analytical skills of participants and their communication and team work abilities can be fostered.

The asymmetric case

At least two versions of the same case are developed. Each version is written from one perspective (eg that of a business unit or functional department). Some basic information is included in all versions (key facts of corporate history, organisational structure etc), while about two thirds of the information is specific to the particular perspective. In the class case game, students playing different roles need to pool and share information, align points of view to agree on a proposal for a sound course of action. Instead of a plenary session, where the case teacher guides the discussion, asks questions, summarises key contributions, and steers the collective conversation to a close, the asymmetric case study is first discussed in smaller participant teams that reach a case solution in a self-directed manner.

After their deliberations, the teams present their proposals and rationales. The teacher facilitates the subsequent discussion and conducts a debrief, which typically includes a reflection on the team process and the information that was or was not shared during decision- making. Participants see how other teams were more or less effective than their own by considering all teams’ insights into the organisation’s challenges.

The authenticity challenge

Asymmetric cases strengthen the ‘as if’ experience of cases and move it closer to the limited and dispersed information setting of real organisations where important strategic decisions are made by diverse groups of people. Each manager has his or her perspective and represents particular interests and priorities without knowing what other team members do or do not know. Expertise must be pooled through strategic conversations. Different interests need to be aligned and complementary perspectives on a corporate situation integrated. The asymmetric case method tries to simulate these real-life differences, characteristic of strategic decision-making.

We wrote Knowledge Management Light at Securitech Inc about a small, knowledge-intensive company that aims to ramp up its activities to support a new business strategy. Five possible knowledge management projects need to be prioritised and three implemented. Each student team is asked to evaluate the proposed measures, taking into account the objectives and problems of the company, and to decide which should be implemented. We have developed two versions: manager, with more information on the corporate situation, and expert, with more detailed information on the projects. Participants have one hour to discuss the situation in groups of two knowledge management experts and two managers. Based on the briefing by the experts and a subsequent case discussion, the managers have to decide which measures to implement and which to abandon. Participants know that not all team members are equally informed about the corporate context and the proposed measures. They know their own roles but do not know to what degree their information differs: the hidden profile situation. They have to present their decisions to fellow teams and the debriefing discussion on the key lessons learned begins - both in terms of case content and team communication process.

Our experience shows that asymmetric cases enable students to learn about the dispersed nature of a managerial problem and how to tackle it efficiently in a team setting. They learn how to ask for information, how to present pertinent details that others lack and how to argue their point of view. In this way, asymmetric cases simulate a crucial element of corporate decision-making: distributed expertise, which requires group deliberation and information sharing. In addition, the hidden profile situation makes the case experience more lively and less tutor-centred. Asymmetric case studies rely on the ability of students to self-direct their problem-solving steps.

We have used asymmetric cases in strategy and knowledge management with executives (MBA and short courses) and undergraduates. Mature communication and meeting management skills help students take full advantage of the asymmetric case method. Our experience has confirmed that this approach may be better suited to MBAs and senior executives than to undergraduates who may require coaching in sticking to their agenda and to actively seek out relevant information present in their team, especially while working under considerable time pressure in the case game. 

Differences between traditional and asymmetric case studies

  Conventional case study Asymmetric case study
Learning goal Deeper understanding of a business situation, its options and the decision’s implications Deeper understanding of a business situation, its options and the decision’s implications as well as experience in integrating knowledge for joint decision-making
Information base Identical for all students Different students receive different information according to their role in the case game
Student tasks Analysis of the business situation, in-class discussion of situation and development decision options Analysis of situation, gathering missing information, joint assessment, discussion of implications, definition of a group consensus on a course of action
Role of the case teacher Central impresario who facilitates the case discussion through the help of analytic frameworks or Socratic questioning Observer and facilitator of debriefing session
Time requirement Typically two hours preparation and two hours case session One hour preparation, one/two hour(s) team deliberation, one hour results presentation and debriefing
Infrastructure needed Class room, black board Student team rooms, plenary class room, possibly group decision support tools

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