Nurturing excellent cases

By Emma Simmons

/onlinecaseteachingConnect investigates what contributes to the development of successful cases. We talked to first-time award winners and to teachers of case writing to find out how case authors can be supported.

The Case Centre’s 2020 Awards and Competitions were notable in two new ways: there were more female winners than ever before, but also more first-time case authors. Over the 30-year history of the Case Awards, new authors have always been represented but usually working alongside experienced case authoring faculty. The 2020 Awards and Competitions included several winning teams of exclusively first-time case authors, and there were more schools than ever before that had never previously won. Writing a highly effective, or an award-winning, teaching case is traditionally seen as a skill that can take years to master. So, what lies behind these early successes, and what can we learn about the support that can nurture talented authors to produce an outstanding first case?

Case subject

Ana Roncha For many authors, critical to any future success is the support the ‘right’ case subject provides. Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas and Ana Roncha won the Ethics and Social Responsibility Category* of the 2020 Case Awards with their case TOMS Shoes: The Buy-one-give-one Social Enterprise Business Model, also achieving the first Awards success for the London College of Fashion. “We found the right topic at the right time,” observes Ana, “People have realised that the fashion business - the second most polluting industry in the world - has now to be taken seriously.”

Alexander Korchagin Having the support to be able to access to the necessary data is also crucial. Alexander Korchagin and Vera Cherepanova’s winning case Meat Puppets. Ethical Dilemma in a Restaurant Setting also deals with the currently popular classroom choice of an ethical dilemma and likewise delivered a first-time Awards success for Moscow State University - and indeed Russia, and Studio Etica. “We were very lucky to have the unequivocal support of our protagonist, and, therefore, access to all the information and data we needed for the case,” observes Alexander. “When we initially approached him, we had few expectations,” adds Vera, “but, he liked the idea of the case and understood that it could be positive for his company - he was actually brave to do it, and after a huge amount of preparation on our part, we had a great interview with him and received his ongoing back-up with answers and data that had real substance - not superficial ones.”

Teaching objectives

Urs MuellerBut being supported by a topical subject and given access to quality information do not suffice to create a successful case. Urs Mueller, himself a winner of the 2020 Outstanding Case Teacher Competition, has worked to support many aspiring case writers: “It is not uncommon for authors to fall in love with their topic,” he notes. “However, if you don’t know what you will do with your story, you will end up with a mediocre case.” He advises spending a significant amount of time on the educational context and what you want to do with the case: “More experienced instructors know what they want to achieve whereas beginners to case writing can often make this mistake,” he adds. Notably, Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas and Ana Roncha were informed by their respective teaching experience that their subject met their teaching objectives, as well as being currently relevant: “I wanted to use the case to introduce my students to problem solving,” said Natascha. “TOMS is a really interesting company that could allow us to show our students that there is not just one valid business model or a single answer to a problem.”

Zoe Kinias Other Award and Competition winners also had their teaching objectives in clear focus before starting work. First time case authors Zoe Kinias and Felicia A Henderson won the 2020 ‘Hot Topic - Diversity and Discrimination’ Competition for INSEAD with their cases Mirvac: Building Balance (A) & (B). “We started with a conceptual framework,” explains Zoe. “Our complementary research and pedagogical experience gave us a clear picture of where we wanted to go from the outset and we saw the potential to teach our learning points through our protagonist. We wanted to capture her phenomenal leadership in a way that would enable our participants to learn from her - to go beyond what they assume.” Felicia adds: “The case development was still a process of discovery - constantly peeling back layers to let the data tell the story; going back and forth between the big picture and the detail, but always with our eye on what would work in the classroom.”

Teaching note

Trevor Williamson For Zoe and Felicia, work on the case and teaching notes evolved in parallel, but for some first-time case authors the helpful advice is actually to begin with the teaching note. Trevor Williamson has supported many aspiring case authors in this way. “The problems case writers encounter can be pretty similar around the world,” he observes. “They frequently have a great idea and lots of data relevant to their geography and culture, but they can get submerged in all that and don’t know where to begin. Suggesting they start with the teaching note can help them establish the necessary clear focus right at the outset. I encourage them to decide at an early stage where all their data ought to go: does it belong in the case, the teaching note, or actually in a B case, for example?”

Nydia MacGregor For Vera Cherepanova, attendance at a case writing workshop had a significant effect on how she approached the case. “Initially I found the suggestion to address the teaching note as a first priority quite counter intuitive. In fact, the workshop turned my thinking on its head - but in a good way,” she reveals. “Understanding that the target audiences of our case would not just be students, but would also be other instructors was another revelation that helped us to change the way we would write all the elements of the case,” she adds.

Workshop support

Kate Cook Workshops do provide targeted help to many aspiring case authors. Various organisations including The Case Centre run open workshops and also offer in-house training opportunities to interested schools across the globe, and it is now also commencing an online case workshop programmeKate Cook has observed the difference workshop support can make, especially to participants from schools that do not, or are not able to, provide a nurturing environment for case development. “Attendees are asked to bring a case idea with them and the immersive workshop process includes some actual writing of the case - such as the first paragraph or an ‘elevator pitch’. The whole experience is backed up by expert tutor and peer-to-peer support and feedback,” she says. “There is a clear objective that attendees will leave the sessions with both a process and the tools that will work for their case idea and teaching situation, so that they will then be able get the case written to a high standard and, hopefully, published.”

Martin KuppExperienced workshop tutor and mentor Martin Kupp observes: “Many aspiring case authors just need some support to work out how to approach the process. While doing a PhD will have trained faculty in writing for academic publication, cases need to be written in a completely different way. Even if you have experienced cases as a student, or taught with them, you will probably never have examined how they are actually constructed, or realised how specific you need to be in identifying what you want to teach through the ‘story’ and to whom. Essentially, writing a case and teaching need to go hand-in-hand if a successful case is to emerge.” It was during a workshop that Ana Roncha grasped how completely different to academic writing constructing a case needed to be. “I realised we needed to start with the end goal of how to create a problem-solving task from our story - something that would be both specific and wide enough to trigger complex and varied responses. In the end simplicity was the key we found and it turns out that simple can be really effective,” she reveals.

Several of the writers and the tutors we spoke to observed how the attendance at a workshop itself provides a precious and unique opportunity to simply take time out and focus on nothing but the case for a day or two, which would be impossible in the busy daily life of teaching and researching academics. They also reported how the guidance provided and the input from tutors and peers helped them to feel able to actually get the case completed after the workshop, though a degree of self-imposed discipline was usually required to finish the job. Some workshops offer access to a mentor after completion and this support could be helpful. Meanwhile both tutors and case writers highlighted how diarying a date to actually teach - even a first draft of - the case provided an invaluable discipline for getting it to the next stage. Those instructors who had their emerging case formally planned in with colleagues for a forthcoming course or elective experienced the greatest incentive to complete the task.

Other support

However, by no means all successful first-time case authors have attended a workshop or other formal case training. For some, a supportive school environment can nurture the ambition to develop a case. Zoe Kinias found it helpful that published - including multi-award winning - case authors were around on the INSEAD campuses, and also that the school was encouraging to faculty who wished to write, publish and use cases. “I had engaged with the INSEAD case community for some time,” she reports, “and expressed my interest in developing materials with more female case protagonists. I knew from the start that I would always be able to reach out to experienced case colleagues. In the end, I didn’t call on them much at all, but it was invaluable to know that they were there and more than willing to provide practical support and encouragement if ever necessary.”

Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas Of course, many schools do not have the case method culture to offer such a nurturing environment. But, support can also take purely practical forms. “Before us, even though cases were used for teaching by some faculty, no one at The London College of Fashion had ever published a case,” recalls Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas “Nevertheless, we submitted an application for research funding to include developing the case which found support from a colleague. That support and financial backing enabled us to attend case writing workshops and was invaluable in helping us to complete both our research and the case. There have been many positive outcomes including for the school: our academic publication, and the - now award-winning - case which is used, and therefore influences and resonates, right around the world.”

Hazel Walker Scholarships to develop cases also exist, including from The Case Centre, which offers up to ten per year. “Our scholarship programme was created in 1998 to enable PhD research to be developed into a case,” says Hazel Walker. In 2014 we opened it up to applications from anyone, anywhere in the world, who was new to case writing, to help them to develop a case. The scholarship support includes a workshop place, or if attendance cannot be an option, a tutor is assigned to provide one-to-one guidance.”

Felicia Henderson Other support is out there and accessible to all. Facing the challenge of writing her first case, Felicia Henderson decided to seek out publicly available resources such as articles and technical notes on how to write cases. Those she found especially useful supported her approach to the case structure and content: “Studying the thoughts of others really helped me to think through what should ultimately go into our case – even before we spoke to people from the case subject; they gave me an idea of what questions we needed to ask, what will create the tensions in the case, who even should we be talking to in the first place to achieve the necessary breadth, depth and impact of the case. These saved me important thinking time and helped me to ‘reverse-engineer’ the case process itself.”

What is a successful case?

At the beginning of this exploration, we illustrated case excellence in terms of Awards success; that definition should of course be much broader and experts, such as Derek Abell, have published analyses of what constitutes a successful case. But for many teachers, success is closer to home. It will simply be achieved when they have been able to develop a case which enables them to reach and inspire their class with a specific theory or way of thinking, or by using local business examples relevant to them. For others it will be seeing their case and teaching note being adopted by colleagues in their own institution and further afield for use with many other students at other schools.

What is clear is that writing a first case will almost always benefit from support and the likelihood of it achieving classroom success may grow through the right kind of support. In the process of this article, we explored some forms that might take; whether from a protagonist, a colleague, a school, some time out, a workshop tutor or mentor, other experienced case authors, or the written wisdom of experts.  If you are reading this and have a great idea to develop a first case, seek out such support and get started. You never know, your first case could just turn out to be a winner.

* Winning category entries (which are judged anonymously) have received the highest number of new adoptions in the previous year for teaching use in classrooms around the world.

Felicia’s recommended articles on case writing

Case front page Ten Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing a Teaching Case
Tao Yue
RSM Case Development Centre
Ref 312-232-1
Case front page
How to Write a Good Teaching Case
Tao Yue
RSM Case Development Centre
Ref 312-233-1
Case front page
Writing Cases and Teaching Notes
E Raymond Corey
Harvard Business School
Ref 9-399-077
Case front page Harvard Business Publishingario
Ref 9-391-026

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