The Case Method - quo vadis?

JigsawIn May 1908, Charles William Eliot, the longest serving president of Harvard University, observed “a large proportion of our graduates who have gone into business have obtained high place”. He proposed to “train systematically” future graduates in the new “school of business administration”. This would be the birthplace of the case method.1 One hundred years after the foundation of Harvard Business School, what shape is the case method in today?

If the consistent growth in the use of cases across the world, at every level of business education, is anything to go by, the method continues to grow in popularity after one hundred years. From 1997 to 2007, for example, worldwide unit sales of cases by The Case Centre almost doubled from 392,059 to 744,280. The geographical spread of organisations ordering from us also continues to broaden, year on year. From 2006 to 2008 alone, 1,442 institutions, representing 75 countries, have grown to 1,518, representing 81 countries.

Many of the earliest cases were reputedly about almost anything the original Harvard Business School faculty could find to provide a basis for provocative classroom discussion. Businessmen would bring problems to the classroom. But by 1924, twenty recent MBA graduates were at work at the Bureau of Business Research, preparing cases for use in the classroom and pointing the way for the link between research and cases that endures today. By the 1930s, one of Harvard Business School’s professors articulated the power of the case method, in which business people must be able “to meet in action the problems arising out of new situations of an ever-changing environment. Education, accordingly… asks not how a man may be trained to know, but how a man be trained to act.”2

In spite of continuing endorsement from the marketplace, the case method is not without its critics in the 21st century. A recent book by Ken Starkey and Nick Tiratsoo3 traces the evolution of business schools and seeks to identify where their future might lie, especially in relation to societal values. Chapter four examines the use of cases in teaching, analyses some former award-winning cases and an MBA elective. While recognising that many cases “make arresting reading and demonstrate important points,” the authors perceive three main weaknesses: “a pervasive problem about research quality;” the fact that, by their compressed nature, cases “cannot deal adequately with absolutely everything that may be relevant;” and “that there is a widespread tendency to depict situations in terms of recent managerialist perspectives and ignore issues that do not fit.” As regards teaching, they suggest that “creativity is probably far less pervasive than might be imagined” and that ethics and diversity are often not sufficiently prominent in the class, which, in the example they examined for the book, “frequently lapsed into playing god.”

Professor Daniel Muzyka, award winning case author in his own right and Dean of the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, which uses cases in its teaching mix, offers a contrasting perspective. “Viewing cases as corporate ‘advertisements’ is really missing the point and, I believe, based on a misunderstanding of their use. They are stories - some are examples of good administrative practice and others are not.” His experience endorses the potential of cases to deal with ethical and ambiguous issues. “Discussions I have had in class around some cases have been truly eye-opening for both the participants and me. They have also led us to understand that everything is not black and white and some people soon discover how quickly they can end up in ethically challenged positions.”

Many students share the view that cases elicit not just one managerial perspective, but dramatically contrasting ones, though this can be as much down to skilful interventions by the teacher and today’s often very diverse class of participants. For Steven Fouskarinis, an Australian of Greek descent with a background in IT management, living and working in California and currently completing the Global Executive MBA at IESE, Barcelona, “the invaluable part is eliciting the emotion that goes hand in hand with a difficult decision, given a host of uncertainties and competing issues.” He feels it is then that “it really becomes fun, seeing how we handle that ‘no mans land’ where you get to see how different people approach a given situation.” Steven’s co-participant on the IESE Global Executive MBA, Xavier Cornella, a Spanish accountant, agrees. “Cases are an incredible way to gain experience and see different approaches to solve specific situations. It enriches oneself with real life situations.”

The need for case teachers to understand specific participant requirements is examined in a recent article4 by David A Garvin, C Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and a renowned authority on the case method.5 “For MBAs, cases provide a form of simulated experience… Executives, by contrast, have already been exposed to diverse management challenges and business and organizational settings… Cases provide a way of tapping into and abstracting from their business experiences… in executive classes teachers need to be far more attentive to the parallels between cases and the work experiences… of their students.” Garvin’s analysis highlights the inherent flexibility of the case method, in the right teaching hands, to be used in a variety of teaching situations.

The importance of fun for learning is undoubtedly another reason for the enduring popularity of cases, as contrasted with other more formal teaching methods. Pierre Chandon, Associate Professor of Marketing at INSEAD and multi-award winning case author, demonstrates understanding of the perspective of the classroom participant in his approach to writing cases and highlights the huge variety of approaches open to the case writer. His approach underlines the case as poser of a problem, rather than showcase for a company. “I only write short and decision-oriented cases. I don’t find it useful to drown students in data. I select cases that illustrate a clear generalisable marketing problem, rather than cases that just describe an industry or a company and it helps if the brands, products or ads are fun or unusual.”

In fact, the concerns around research quality raised by Starkey and Tiratsoo rest on the nature of much case field research. They suggest that the need to ‘get the company on side’ to complete and release a case can lead to the content being uncritical of that organisation and its managers. This would seem to be at odds with many institutions who place much emphasis on the connections between independent faculty research and cases: research frequently occurs before writing a case is even considered. Professor Arnoud De Meyer, Director of Judge Business School, Cambridge confirms, “The origin of many of our case studies is in the research of our faculty. We strongly believe in the synergy between research, teaching and practical experience.” Certainly, more cases are being written than ever before and at ever more institutions worldwide. In the ten years to 31 March 2008, the number of cases registered with The Case Centre alone more than doubled from 16,200 to 32,786. It would appear that apart from a few dissenting voices, authors, teachers, students and the statistics all currently point to a rosy future for the case method.

1 C Roland Christensen, “Teaching with Cases at the Harvard Business School”, Teaching and the Case Method, Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Division, 1981, 1987

2 Arthur Stone Dewing, “An Introduction to the Use of Cases”, The Case Method of Instruction, ed Cecil E Fraser, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1931

3 Ken Starkey and Nick Tiratsoo, The Business School and the Bottom Line, Cambridge University Press, 2007

4 David A Garvin, “Teaching Executives and Teaching MBAs: Reflections on the Case Method”, Academy of Management Learning and Education, 2007, Vol 6, No 3 364-374

5 Participant-Centered Learning and the Case Method (available to view free from Harvard Business Publishing)

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Books and articles

There are a wide range of resources to help you find out more about the case method, here are a selection:
Paper icon An Introduction to Cases
Benson P Shapiro
Harvard Business School
Paper icon Case Method
James G Clawson
Darden Business School
Paper icon Teaching and Writing Case Studies: A practical guide
John Heath
Published by The Case Centre
Paper icon Teaching with Cases, Learning with Cases and Writing Cases
James A Erskine, Michiel R Leenders and Louise A Mauffette-Leenders

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