Working with case writers

By Emma Simmons

Working with case writers - a partnershipIn conversation with faculty, case schools, publishers, and professional case writers from around the world, we explore how case writers work with authors to support the development of a case.

What are case writers?

Read the cover page of any case and you will find the names of the lead faculty author(s), the school(s) of publication, and often any research associates and/or case writers. So, who are case writers? What do they contribute to the development of a case and how do they become involved?

First and foremost, faculty are busy people and it is often difficult to ring fence time for writing cases, especially if it is seen as an additional, rather than a core, responsibility at their school. Researching and putting together a case that will be robust enough to work in the classroom requires significant commitment and a suitable stretch of time. So, strong case producing schools often employ one or more staff case writers or research associates, or use regular freelance case writers to assist faculty with the development of a case.

In spite of the name ‘case writer’, our research shows that the actual writing of the case text is just one task among many others that they undertake. Case writers often take on much more of the process from research to release, and those that are experienced have many additional skills, ranging from understanding and guiding the pedagogical direction of a case and interviewing companies, to proposing and managing the production of appropriate accompanying, multimedia elements such as videos, and developing individual case websites. Such case writers become invaluable collaborators for faculty in getting the case from idea to publication, and into impactful classroom use.

How do case writers get involved?

Typically the impetus for a new case comes about when a member of faculty needs one for a specific class. They may have the subject already in mind as a result of research, or they have identified a topical issue or company they want to look at with their students to achieve a specific teaching objective, or teach a piece of theory. It is at this point, depending on the individual and the school circumstances, that a case proposal may be made, development budgets set and approvals given, after which a case writer or research associate may become involved to support the process, especially if a time deadline applies to the class the case is destined for.

Fraser JohnsonBut cases come about, and case writers of many hues and backgrounds become involved by other routes. “One of the oldest reasons someone might become a case writer,” reports Fraser Johnson at Ivey Business School, “is that they have an idea for a case and they want to write it. This could be an MBA student who realises they have a relevant story to tell from prior experience, and they approach faculty to explore writing the case under their leadership and guidance.” Schools sometimes recognise this as independent research and give academic credit to the student, and even payment may be made for their work ‘writing’ the case.

At INSEAD, Felipe Monteiro has authored cases that developed from initial conversations with both former MBA and PhD students, who then undertook much of the writing and associated developmental tasks. “Students can be really knowledgeable – and passionate – about a particular company or region. They understand what their fellow students will like and connect with, and I have found them to be deeply engaged in both the research and the topics as case writing collaborators,” he reports.

Ivy BucheExperienced, in-house or freelance, professional case writers may also initiate a case. Ivy Buche at IMD has worked as a ‘case writer’ for many years across the globe. “Sometimes, when I have previously worked with a member of faculty, and I know his or her area of interest, I have proposed a lead for a case which has been accepted and followed up,” she reports, reflecting the close understanding that can grow between individual faculty and case writers.

Expertise

At ICFAI Business School, Debapratim Purkayastha has observed how accrued expertise in a case writer can particularly assist those faculty who have never authored a case and become an invaluable resource for schools keen to encourage this activity: “Experienced case writers, who have previously been involved in writing a number of cases with other faculty members, may be able to initiate faculty who are new to case writing to this critical activity.” He highlights how mutual respect is necessary to the collaboration: “Of course, this is workable only when the case writer recognises the faculty member as the subject matter expert, while the faculty member acknowledges the former as the case writing expert.”

Amit JoshiIndeed, it is perhaps in conversation with faculty new to case development that one begins to appreciate the full scope of interventions an experienced case writer may provide. At IMD, Amit Joshi recalls the assistance he received on his first case: “The techniques of case writing are very different from those of academic research writing, notably creating a flow for the case in line with practices standard to the method; an experienced case writer really helps with this,” Amit observes. “In particular, during my first collaboration, the case writer helped identify and clarify exactly which quotes, statements and interviews would be most relevant to include, and where they would be best positioned in the written document. As a first-time case author, such things were not immediately obvious to me. The case would not have emerged as it did without the additional input to the optimal questions to ask the subject executives, and the extensive background research on the company and its context, which the case writer contributed to the process,” he adds.

At the Asia Case Research Centre, University of Hong Kong, Jeroen van den Berg has years of experience commissioning and guiding many cases to publication, often being responsible for seeking out qualified case writers. He is in no doubt about both the breadth and depth of skill required: “Case writers can add real value especially when working with pure research academics, not least because they can often bring with them relevant experience from real life” he says. When recruiting case writers, he looks for many criteria: “Ideally, they need general business knowledge and subject specific knowledge relevant to the case, especially in heavily numerical areas such as Accounting and Finance. They need outstanding English language skills for the majority of cases, the understanding of what a case is and what must be included to fulfil its teaching objectives.” Important to the fact that developing a case is a complex undertaking, he adds: “Case writers also need to be able to manage the process and meet deadlines.” 

Howard YuHoward Yu at IMD has written cases both alone and with case writing support and is clear about one particular area of value such collaborators can add: “The right experienced case writer or research associate can be amazing at suggesting and implementing delivery methods such as media like filming, or flipping the classroom for the particular case; a case study needs to be constructed to help students reach key decisions and case writers are more familiar with enhancing the pedagogy in creative ways in the modern context; they get the nuances, plus I wouldn’t have the time to think about ‘repackaging’ some of the material, let alone some of the practical skills needed to make such elements happen” he says.

Collaboration

So, what happens when a case writer first sits down with a member of faculty to work on a case? According to Fraser Johnson, “As the faculty author and lead who will ultimately hold the intellectual property and carry the responsibility for the content of the case, my main job at the beginning of a case development process is to ensure that it is properly framed - as its opening paragraph will probably reflect. That is also what will usually be sent to the subject company to ensure that they are comfortable with it, before the writing process goes any further.” Fraser emphasises the importance of a subject organisation feeling reassured of confidentiality and quality during the whole development of a case, right through to their granting the all-important release; maintaining faculty visibility and access throughout the process will often be important. “Some companies prefer to speak directly to the faculty member, especially where issues may be sensitive,” he reports.

Ken MarkAlso at Ivey, Ken Mark has worked as a case writer on hundreds of cases, including a number with Fraser Johnson. “To get the best results, I begin by working to understand what the ideal case – according to the particular faculty member – should look like and the key lessons to be conveyed when it is to be used in class. This involves also looking at the course for which the case is to be produced, reviewing research or textbook chapters that will additionally be deployed, and examining any teaching materials the proposed case may be replacing – including other cases,” he reports. As part of this initial stage of collaboration between faculty member and case writer, Ken highlights the importance of identifying potential future obstacles that may be encountered and addressing them up front: “This is especially important when we are looking at in-depth cases that rely on public sources or field cases in which we are tackling a sensitive topic,” he says.

Ivy Buche concurs: “Having clarity about the teaching objectives and the target audience (e.g. MBA, undergraduate, executive) is essential to defining the scope of the case, although some faculty will seek to frame their cases more broadly from the outset with a view to ultimately getting wider usage from them,” she observes. This early stage can be complex: “Usually, significant secondary research is required to align the case with the teaching objectives, but, this research also informs the questions to ask during interviews with key people at the subject company. This, in turn, reaps other later benefits because companies are generally appreciative when they find that the case writer is well informed and goes to the crux of the matter,” Ivy adds.

Anne-Marie CarrickAnne-Marie Carrick has many years of experience as a case writer and research associate at INSEAD. She highlights how unexpected things inevitably arise during the process of developing a case: “There is no rule about how you will end up ‘writing’ a case; they are all different, as are the faculty, and you need to remain flexible throughout,” she explains. “For example, it is the case writer or researcher that frequently organises, and often also conducts, many of the interviews with the company or other featured protagonists, and, as you investigate further, other areas of interest or different angles to the case study can emerge. This influences the initial case drafts and the following stages of discussions with faculty and decisions on how to proceed.”

Challenges

In fact, field and desk researched cases each pose different challenges for the case writer charged with uncovering material relevant to the case. Several people reported that the world of information immediately accessible on the internet has made desk researched cases in particular more challenging than in the past because the potential amount of relevant information available is limitless. Case writers need to stay aware that companies have often put information onto the internet that they chose, so it is important to research around it to look for the ‘truth’. Equally, the potential for erroneous information to have been spread and magnified is a fact of daily research life on the internet. Faculty and case writers together often find themselves needing to take decisions to focus, limit, or re-frame research, with a critical eye, for example, along the lines of specific quality criteria or geographical spread.

The collaboration between case writer and faculty itself can be a source of challenge and all those we spoke to agreed that personalities and working styles need to harmonise for the endeavor to be fruitful. Jeroen van den Berg speaks from experience: “Very often, the most difficult part of the case process can be managing the relationship between faculty and case writer.” Several people advised that if initial meetings between a faculty member and case writer reveal a clear difference in expectations, it is important to try to resolve these - one way or the other - at as early a stage as possible.

Debapratim PurkayasthaSchools, too, face the challenge of finding competent case writers: “It is difficult to get the candidates with the right skill sets,” reports Debapratim Purkayastha “Attracting, motivating and retaining the talent is difficult as there are few people who fit the profile and they may not see a clear career path.” Research for this article revealed that freelance case writers will often be employed on a fixed fee basis, for a project that will very often not take a ‘fixed’ amount of time. And while some were comfortable with the title ‘case writer’, others felt that ‘research associate’ might better reflect their input, and conflict less with the title of ‘author’ that belongs with the lead faculty.

So how might faculty at a school that does not employ staff case writers, but are interested in writing a case and receiving the kind of support we have described in this article, go about finding someone to help? There are no straightforward answers because the vast majority of case writers have come to the activity by chance. Professional case writers can come from a wide range of backgrounds and the role may be have been taken up in a serendipitous way because the opportunity fitted with their skills and experience at a particular life stage; former MBA students or executives on a career break for family were mentioned by more than one of the people we spoke to. Others may come to it quite by chance while studying or working at a business school.

So, for faculty looking for a case writer, proactive or interested students at various levels, perhaps with relevant professional experience; or, existing research associates with an understanding of case pedagogy, might be good places to start. On the basis that it is difficult to find all the desirable attributes in a potential new case writer, another approach could be for the aspiring case author to break down and prioritise the many different skills required (research, text drafting, interviewing, multimedia, deadline management and so on) Skills iconsand to identify those areas in which they feel least confident or able themselves. At this point a dialogue with the research publication office at the school, or a relevant dean of teaching or research could make sense. And case writing training is available; The Case Centre’s case writing workshops, for example, are designed to be just as helpful to current, or would-be, case writers as to faculty case authors.

 “The case writer needs to have good technical skills - sound understanding of the subject - and good written communication abilities. They should have good reading, interviewing and comprehension skills. Intellectual curiosity is a must, and this or the lack of it may be the difference between an excellent and a mediocre case writer. Case writing also requires lots of concentration and can be a lonely activity, and not everyone is cut out for it,” confirms Debapratim Purkayastha. It should, perhaps counter-intuitively, be pointed out that most people we spoke to felt that journalists rarely make optimal case writers. This may be due to a general lack of knowledge of case method pedagogy, but also to their cultural approach to writing content, which may lack the necessary academic rigour, detail and objectivity, while also being required to work to more unpredictable, often stretch, deadlines than they are used to.

The teaching note

Case writers are also being increasingly involved in writing teaching notes – some even for cases they have not written. Most faculty and case writers we spoke to reported that a ‘final’ case draft is completed first, though some evolved the draft teaching note in parallel. For almost all, testing is then carried out in the classroom and the case writer will very often sit in to give feedback to the instructor and take notes on how the case is working.

Felipe MonteiroFelipe Monteiro particularly values the input of the case writer at this stage: “Of all the many skills a professional case writer can bring to the table, seeing how the students react in the classroom is invaluable because it allows us to adjust materials and timings and we reflect this in the teaching note. Sometimes we carry out pre-class surveys with the students and we can include helpful answers in the teaching note." Anne-Marie Carrick adds: “Getting the teaching note right is at least as important as the case, which could be one page long, but the teaching note might be several. I have also written alternative teaching notes for the same case targeted at different audiences because the needs of each group of learners will be different. The workload for a teaching note can be heavy for the writer, but it is here that the input of the professor I am working with is absolutely critical for ‘getting it right’.”

Howard Yu reports how when writing a case alone he will generally evolve the teaching note alongside the case. “With a research associate or case writer the process becomes much more inductive,” he says. “The teaching note might come at a later stage, when we might decide, for example, to cross reference to a newer journal article or to tailor it, say, to a specific group of executives. Speed of delivery will always be crucial – today’s ‘hot topic’ may well be old in six months so we need to keep moving apace to get a new case to class,” he advises.

Credit

Jeroen van den BergThis article reveals an enormous amount of mutual respect and recognition between faculty case authors and case writers/research associates in what is frequently a true team undertaking and involves complementary expertise from all involved parties. And, whereas schools we spoke to recognised, valued and credited the contribution of collaborators on a case, there are those less consistent in doing so. Indeed, there is no formal and binding convention to acknowledge input. While developing a case often competes for time, resources and recognition with academic journal publication, it could make sense to consider adopting some of the latter’s conventions and practices regarding attribution of input, as specified in the publication criteria of leading medical academic journals, for example. Jeroen van den Berg puts it well: “Academic institutions need to uphold the highest academic standards, including in recognising authorship; this should also apply to the authorship of teaching materials, especially cases.”

 

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