The case for the field-researched case study

Alt textResearch is a qualitative and quantitative indicator of the excellence of an institution’s programmes and the development of its academic staff. The success of many leading business schools has developed, in part, from opportunities provided by field research. Their international reputations and high levels of sponsorship provided for professorial chairs, buildings, libraries and laboratories arise, in part, from the established and wellmaintained business links necessary to field-researched case studies.

Field-researched case studies can make a powerful contribution to institutions by:

  • enhancing their academic and professional reputation
  • developing contact between industry, commerce, public bodies and academia
  • creating opportunities for research, funding, consultancy, student recruitment, executive programmes
  • fostering co-operation between international institutions
  • advancing knowledge about organisations and their response to the uncertain dynamics of the global economy
  • providing a foundation for the formulation of new theories
  • providing opportunities for updating and enriching the skills of academic staff.

A field-researched case is one which is based largely on primary sources of information supplied freely by a cooperating organisation(s). Primary information is usually regarded as that which is not freely available outside the organisation and as confidential to those employees who have access to it. It can take many forms including strategic and operational plans, income and profit forecasts, costing and pricing data, research and design projects, sales projections, service levels, product/market share, and competitor analysis. The views of management about these aspects of the organisation, and any outline of the problems or issues it faces, are also categorised as primary information. The final outcome of any decision(s) by the organisation will take all these into account. The case writer should treat each source as confidential and as he/she is given access to all areas and employees in the organisation, the final version of a field-researched case study must be submitted to the highest level in the organisation for agreement and approval for general release. The case writer identifies the particular issue(s) or problem(s) that provide the focus for the case. The case study may be developed separately, or it can arise from data gathered as part of a research project. Case writers need to analyse and discuss information and its interpretation with employees at all levels of the organisation and must, therefore, ensure that their case writing priorities do not jeopardise the objectivity of any research project.

Secondary information is any information that does not fall into the above categories and is, usually, publicly available. It can be obtained from annual reports, industry and association reports, from the organisation’s website, via the Internet, from television and radio reports and commentators, from libraries and from books, magazines and trade publications. When planning a case, it is good practice to check on the copyright of such material before progressing too far into the writing process. The Case Centre has recently seen an increase in the number of case studies based entirely on general experience, desk or library research. Although up to 20% of case studies from major providers can fall into this category, information technology, personal computing and the Internet have made life much simpler for today’s case writers.

Freedom of information provides easy access to almost any organisation, its products and/or services, processes, procedures and performance. Companies now trumpet their mission statements on their websites and recognise the marketing value of having up-to-date information available for anyone, anywhere in the world. Public sector organisations publish their service performance, waiting times, and commitment to consumer satisfaction and publishing and word processing software provide today’s case writer with rapid options for almost any document format.

There will always be situations where a field-researched case study is not possible. Issues may be too sensitive, or problems too complex, or the organisation cannot afford the time to co-operate with researchers. Case writers must then decide whether to proceed using library or desk research, or whether to move to another opportunity. Wise case writers and institutions should obviously examine if a new case study based on ‘surfing the net’ to capture relevant data, merits the use of scarce academic resources.

Field-researched case studies inevitably contain some secondary information. It is therefore important that the case writer is well informed, optimises time in the organisation with intelligent questioning, ensures a speedy write-up of the finished document and presents a well balanced case study requiring minimal alteration by the organisation ahead of release.

Added value of field research

The decision to research and write a new case study should consider value added. This could be contributing to the institutional profile, a particular research project, developing the quality and skills of the staff involved, the importance of the topic and the need for new materials in the classroom. Some business schools concentrate on particular industries to differentiate themselves in the global marketplace. For example, the Theseus Institute, Sophia Antipolis, France, specialises in global telecommunications and information technology industries, while the Cass Business School, London, England, concentrates on its strong association with stock markets, banks and financial institutions.

Any institution building specialist knowledge and contacts needs a programme of management research that locks into the latest developments. The fieldresearched case study demonstrates that linkage and is a source of new insights that enrich the understanding of those industries. To fully benefit from the added value of the field-researched case study, such institutions need staff who are familiar with the case method and have expertise in researching and writing case studies. Field-researched case studies help overcome some of the misconceptions about research in this important field of academic study and provide a springboard for future projects. They underpin the quality of teaching and learning and often lead to emerging theories in management and other areas.

Business is global, dynamic, continuously changing and reacting to environmental pressures and a constant source of uncertainty. Management’s task is to design and implement new processes and procedures to combat the problems created by this dynamism; all conditions, which make it increasingly difficult to shape and test hypotheses. The writing of field-researched cases is a valuable source of enrichment and updating and exposes students to these major issues faced by managers and organisations. Such research is of vital importance in ensuring that new concepts, structures and ideas originating in business are quickly identified and incorporated into the learning process.

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