Classic cases - why do some cases stand
the test of time?

Classic cases

Management educators the world over are familiar with student demands to include both locally relevant and up-to-date teaching materials in their programmes. The business environment is constantly changing and, to succeed, the managers and leaders of tomorrow want to learn lessons from the successes - and failures - of today.

At the best of times, teachers need to approach classes of young, ambitious and highly intelligent minds with considerable courage, but especially if they come armed with a vintage case study. Yet many do; in 2017, over a third of case units sold by The Case Centre were more than ten years old. As we publish the latest compilation of 'classic cases' we look at why some cases remain popular.

Benihana of Tokyo - flexibility

While many of the 'classic cases' were written between ten and twenty years ago, the most enduringly successful case, Benihana of Tokyo, (Benihana) is now a remarkable 45 years old. Over the past five years, we still delivered almost 2,100 copies worldwide for teaching. It was originally created to fulfil a specific purpose as part of a new second year MBA elective: Management of Service Operations. At Harvard Business School, author, W Earl Sasser, now a Baker Foundation Professor, working with then senior research associate John Klug, got the idea for the case from a magazine article. In 1972, the Benihana restaurant was a new concept dining experience created by Rocky Aoki, a Japanese immigrant to the US, to feed seated restaurant customers - fast. Having been to New York City to research the business first hand, the authors and their teaching colleagues quickly noticed that the case was a winner in the classroom, provoking robust discussion and allowing a number of key learning points to emerge. Benihana restaurantW Earl Sasser recalls: "One of the keys to the popularity of the Benihana case for the students, and faculty teaching the case, was the number of 'aha's' during the analysis of the service delivery system designed by Rocky Aoki."

Dr Stein Bjornstad of BI Norwegian Business School first came across Benihana on an international faculty programme. He uses the case regularly and agrees: "The case has several layers; it makes the learning experience special for students." He teaches the case on a New Ventures Creation elective and takes the approach as though it were a mystery to solve: "Students typically think that successful new businesses arise because there is a new idea and an opportunity - in the case of Benihana, fast eating with a new cultural and theatrical twist. But when they delve a little deeper into the case, they realise that one of the crucial drivers of Benihana’s success turns out to be operational innovation and efficiency. The students love the case and it is an exciting teaching experience every time."

At Imperial College Business School, Dr Marcel Cohen, Director of the MBA (Distance) programme tends to use the case early in the Marketing module. He originally came across the case by chance through The Case Centre' case search facility and also finds that students really enjoy it, even if they often first ask why they can’t have a more up-to-date case. He feels "age doesn’t matter - it’s not relevant to the effectiveness of a case." Like others, Marcel Cohen himself, "loves the case - there are so many lessons to be drawn out about enterprise, aspiration, service, marketing, culture, family business and even ethics and issues around wealth and core principles of life." He also finds that it lends itself well to teaching the required core concepts in both marketing and service theory.

W Earl Sasser, still teaches Benihana himself in the Program for Leadership Development. He says that it has been edited only slightly since 1972, mostly "clarifying issues that were confusing students or removing a sentence or two to shorten the case." Indeed, at just 17 pages, of which many are exhibits, it is a comparably short case, which may be another facilitator of its popularity. Teachers also highlight the accessibility of the subject matter: everyone has eaten at a restaurant and has an impression and opinion on the subject.

easyJet: The Web’s Favourite Airline - familiar subject

Another subject, familiar to all participants, crops up several times in the 'classic cases' rankings: Airlines. easyJet: The Web’s Favourite Airline (easyJet) was written in 2000 at IMD by Brian Rogers under the supervision of Nirmalya Kumar, now Professor of Marketing at London Business School. The case tops the Strategy section of our classic cases’ with almost 1,600 copies distributed during the last five years, plus sales of its Spanish translation and abridged version. In fact, the case is the highest achieving case of all time in terms of units sold by The Case Centre.

Nirmalya Kumar is delighted at this enduring success, which is important to him because it represents endorsement from his teaching faculty peers worldwide and lends his work its real impact by imparting knowledge. easyJet planeA prolific case writer, Nirmalya Kumar feels that is it actually not easy to create a case that will be widely adopted because it needs to be strong on multiple levels: "A great case needs to be about an industry people can identify with," he says. "It needs to be well written - 'easy to consume' - a story that takes you on a journey that can be used to look at many different aspects."

Indeed, like Benihana, easyJet can be used in the classroom for various disciplines, including entrepreneurship, marketing, operations, strategy and innovation, and also allows teachers to lead participants to a discussion and learning of core theoretical concepts, such as value innovation. Like Benihana, it too can be taught to multiple audiences, and, although it is most widely used for classes of MBAs and undergraduates, it was, in fact, originally created for teaching executives, necessitating its successful 'to-the-point' approach. Nirmalya Kumar still teaches with easyJet and believes it is the quality of the case that matters, not its age: "I regularly use other older cases, including a retailing one from 1994; if it is a great case, well taught, with lessons relevant now, it doesn’t matter how old it is."

Dr Graham King, a management development specialist with a particular focus on high technology and European programmes regularly uses the easyJet case with a variety of executives in the IT industry. He first came across the case at a business school and puts its success down to "a good combination of business strategy, information systems and being an organisation familiar to the students." He likes the way the case also provides plentiful opportunities for rich discussion around some of the theoretical concepts such as Porter's Five Forces, SWOT on strategic choices, redesign of business models etc, and has every intention of continuing to use it. Dr Paulo Sobral, who teaches Strategy to MBA and postgraduate students at University of Porto Business School, concurs: "I will definitely continue to use this case because it is the best one I know of for the purpose of discussing the activities of a firm based on a low cost strategy."

Nike, Inc: Cost of Capital - unlocking theory

Being able to use and re-use a case seems to be an important success factor, probably because of the detailed preparation required by faculty before a case is ready to be taught to any particular set of participants. Nike, Inc: Cost of Capital, (Nike) authored by Robert F Bruner (and prepared by Jessica Chan with the assistance of Sean D Carr) at Darden School of Business in 2001, is one of the most successful 'classic cases' in the Finance category. Dr Luc Soenen, Professor of Finance at TiasNimbas Business School has used the Nike case many times in graduate finance classes in several countries. Luc Soenen likes the fact that the case is short and deals with a company familiar to his student groups. He feels that the case allows many core finance concepts around valuing firms to be explored, but he puts its success primarily down to the skill of the author in not immediately providing all information needed, but "forcing students to think more deeply.... a good case allows for several answers depending on the data chosen. This case is always a winner in the classroom and I plan to use it again and again," he says.

Perhaps it needs a great case teacher to develop a great case. On the University of Virginia website, in a remarkable tribute to Nike author Robert F Bruner (current Dean of the Darden School of Business) as a Teacher writingcase teacher, Trip Davis, president of the Darden School Foundation and a former MBA student echoes from the point of view of a participant, the success factors highlighted by Luc Soenen: "There is a remarkable clarity with which you end a Bruner class, and that's the magic of case study teaching. You go through this 80-minute process of competing ideas and outcomes and this maestro professor brings it together in the last three to 10 minutes. Bob will lean against the sideboard scribbling down the takeaways from the class. The confusion melts away and you walk out with clear lessons."

Dragonfly: Developing a Proposal for an Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle - peeling back the layers

Dragonfly: Developing a Proposal for an Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle (Dragonfly), is not a case about a well known brand or type of organisation students are likely to be familiar with, or even a real company, yet it is the second most popular 'classic case' in the Production and Operations Management category in terms of units sold by The Case Centre over the last five years. The case deals with the requirement to plan out and evaluate a robust production schedule for a prototype light aircraft. Authored at INSEAD in 2000, it was originally inspired by a real story of a missed project deadline in the same commercial sector, and created by its authors to fill a gap in teaching materials and academic literature, which then had virtually nothing on the basic operational skill of production scheduling. Christoph Loch, now Director of Cambridge Judge Business School, developed the case in collaboration with Arnoud De Meyer, now President of Singapore Management University and, then, INSEAD PhD student Stylianos (Stelios) Kavadias, now Professor at the College of Management, Georgia Tech.

Christoph Loch feels that Dragonfly covers the theoretical ground in an area in which there is still little material for teachers to select from: "The case demonstrates that the old idea of the critical path is a limiting concept; project duration is always a complex affair to estimate and through a matrix approach we aim to lead participants to this realisation." He feels that the case’s flexibility comes from its ability to work on many levels: "We deliberately structured the case so that it would work for multiple layers of analysis, suitable from beginners and undergraduates, through to MBAs and executives; and we wanted its reach to extend to further concepts such as project risk management."

Stelios Kavadias, now himself a teacher, uses the case regularly and concurs, "The case is effective because it is simple enough to convey the basic and traditional messages about project management (critical path etc), yet it lends itself as a good departure point for more 'advanced' discussions; one can move beyond the simple critical path calculations and discuss the challenges from 'feedback loops' during the project (another term would be redesign iterations). In that regard the case offers the flexibility to build an entire project management (basics) overview on it." In spite of this rich potential in the classroom, at nine pages, Dragonfly is a short case, although a much longer teaching note is available, and cases with teaching notes are more frequently selected by educators than those without. "We originally wrote the teaching note for ourselves," says Christoph Loch, "We were teaching the case with differing groups in several countries and took a conscientious approach to ensure the teaching note was comprehensive enough to cover all the theoretical background and analysis we would require."

Classic cases - classroom alchemy

Multiple factors contribute to a case becoming a 'classic'. Subject, length, flexibility of use for different management disciplines or levels of participant, all appear to play a role. Equally, a great case often works as a facilitator of animated discussion or will allow the exposure of underlying core management theory. Certain classic cases appear to fill gaps that still exist in available literature, or to work well across the diverse cultural spectrum of many a business school class. But common to all seems to be a case author, with the expert eye of a teacher, who really understands how the case classroom works. Classic cases transcend the paper they are written on to impart knowledge and insight, firstly inspiring the teachers who select them, who, in turn, add their own skill to create that alchemy with participants which is the essence of a successful case class: learning happens while everyone is having a great time. Next time you are looking for a case, why not consider a classic one?

The original version of this article was published in 2011 but the statistics and figures were updated in 2018.

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