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The case method past, present & future

Lights, camera, action… teaching notes with a difference

As part of our 40th anniversary celebrations we asked leaders of business schools worldwide for their perspectives on the case method: where has it come from and what are the challenges it faces today and tomorrow?


The first management case was taught at Harvard Business School (HBS) in 1912 four years after the school’s foundation; by 1924 it was established as the primary method of instruction. According to Dean Nitin Nohria, just over a century after its first use, the school remains “committed to the case method as our principal pedagogy, since every day it puts students in the role of decision-makers in a wide array of organizations and situations and asks them what they would actually do, given the information they have before them in the case.”

At the Ivey School, Western University, founded in 1922, Dean Robert Kennedy believes that one reason the case method succeeded is because it embraces the human element in management, rather than trying to teach it as a ‘pure science’. “It is still incredibly relevant,” he says, “if anything, even more so today because of how integrative and fast moving the whole business process is: never before was the need for a manager to ‘puzzle out’ how to proceed greater; the best way to learn this is still through cases; the process makes students get comfortable with things that are not just formulas.”

Peter ZemskyWith the foundation of INSEAD in 1957, the case method was brought to the European context. Deputy Dean Peter Zemsky feels the case method “is central to how management education has developed and remains incredibly useful. However, it does face constant challenges as participants and their environment change, things to which both case developers and instructors need to respond.”

IESE Business School was founded in 1958 as the Graduate Business School of the University of Navarra, by offering the Advanced Management Program for entrepreneurs and CEOs. IESE, too, pioneered the case method in Europe, with support from Harvard Business School. According to Dean Jordi Canals, “The case methodology was important to our school from the start, especially as the intention of the school, then, as now, was to offer senior business leaders a holistic view of the firm, and integrative decision-making, with an emphasis on the ethical and human aspects of business activities, which have no easy, or ‘right or wrong,’ answers.”

At IMD, founded in 1990 by the merger of two independent management institutes dating back to the 1940s and 50s, President Dominique Turpin describes the enduring power of the case method with its rich practical heritage that actually originated even before HBS, in 1870, at Harvard Law School, as still “a wonderful pedagogical tool that brings into the classroom things that just can’t be found in books. It has a big impact.” After many years, he continues to find it fascinating to meet alumni worldwide who often still remember cases they were taught more than 20 years ago.

Pedro NuenoAsia is relatively new to the business school model, but here, too, the case study has established itself as an important teaching method. The China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), founded in 1994, decided at an early stage to place an emphasis on the case teaching approach. President Pedro Nueno analyses the collective power of a case session: “The exercise remains a unique learning experience: If a class arrives having studied a real business situation, with many implicit problems, opportunities and challenges, under the guidance of a skilled instructor, participants contribute different perspectives, experiences, innovative proposals, and others build upon their contributions with their own improvements, corrections, advancements and competitive edge.”

21st Century and classroom relevance

Arnoud de MeyerAt Singapore Management University (SMU), founded in 2000, the case method is practised as an integral part of teaching for both under- and postgraduate students. President Arnoud De Meyer reports: “We have set up the SMU Case Writing Initiative and seen some 70 cases written over the last two years alone. In addition, we have found that case writing helps create synergy among SMU faculty members from our three tracks of education, research and practice as they can all contribute to and benefit from it.”

The ICFAI Business School (IBS) Hyderabad focuses strongly on the case method of learning and has used it from its beginning in 2001. GV Muralidhara, Dean of the IBS Case Research Centre puts this down to “an increasing demand from industry for students with strong decision making skills.” While the method was unfamiliar at first, “we see it being employed in a wide variety of institutions across the nation, facilitated in particular by the increasing availability of ‘home-grown’ case studies based on local context and contemporary topics.”

Olaf PlotnerIndeed, business school leaders the world over reiterate the enduring strength of cases as being able to bring the ‘real world’ and relevance to the participant. While most case using schools have a focus on postgraduate programmes, in particular the MBA, Olaf Plötner, Dean of Executive Education at the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) founded in Berlin in 2002, feels that cases are particularly useful in executive education “because they are practice-oriented, customer friendly, and serve as a catalyst for discussion by experienced executives. Especially for in-house programmes, it is important that the manager can relate to the situation exemplified in the case study.” Relevance is key he believes: "At the moment, for example, I am focusing on the success and failures of Chinese companies entering the German market by buying out, or buying into, the German Mittelstand.”

Arnoud De Meyer (SMU) observes a geographical shift in the content of cases: “Management thought was very western in its origins and emphasis. With the emergence of ‘the Asian century’ there is a concurrent pivot in interest toward Asian business models and management issues. With 90% of the world’s growth expected to take place in emerging markets over the next decade, people have awoken to the need to study and develop Asian models that are applicable in these highly populated economies. Concepts like bottom of the pyramid and mass-customization are just the starting point and there are topics, such as the building of a brand in a very fast growing market, that can logically only be written in Asia today.”

Nitin NohriaHBS remains the leading and most prolific case hub worldwide with an output in excess of 200 new field-based cases each year, and with some 10 million being bought by universities, companies, and other organisations around the world; but there has been a discernible evolution: “Today 57% of the cases we write are international, many with the help of our seven research offices located worldwide in Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Mumbai, Paris, Shanghai, and Tokyo as well as Silicon Valley,” says HBS's Nitin Nohria. “The range remains extraordinarily eclectic and far-ranging. For example, recent cases written by our faculty have focused on a Chinese wind turbine company, a Michelin-rated restaurant in Milan that serves gourmet food at reasonable prices, and a South African mining company whose CEO dedicated herself to significantly reducing the number of fatalities in its operations.”

Technology and the challenges of today

But is the way cases are developed and taught under pressure? “The value of cases is not in doubt,“ says Soumitra Dutta, Dean of the Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University, “but, traditional cases can be static; they capture a certain moment in time and need to be constantly re-thought, to become much more dynamic and interactive in the way they are written, produced, and taught.” Dutta believes that the new challenges reflect general trends – not just of the classroom: “Demand is coming both from students and the world in general; people are living differently – people read differently today – documents have to be different and information captured in another way.”

Peter Zemsky (INSEAD) highlights the constant and enduring challenge of “how to motivate students to learn.” In Zemsky’s view, “one of the biggest manifestations is avoiding boredom in participants and learners, often brought about by shorter attention spans.” But, he believes, in this contemporary challenge, opportunities can be found: “Fundamentally people do want to discuss and learn as before, and today there are additional ways to keep them engaged. While tolerance levels for reading long texts may be lower, a whole new mix of ingredients can go into preparing and enriching innovative cases – video, multimedia, simulations, online resources and much more. Of course, some faculty rethinking is required as to what it really means to prepare for teaching management courses today, and some traditional cases will inevitably need to cede ground to other tools. But cases are remarkably adaptable, for example to a webinar format.”

Online cases allow for new kinds of flexibility, where presence on campus is not required for the whole programme, and can allow greater participation. “In class it can be a bit of a lottery whose hand goes up in the discussion and is selected to contribute,” says Zemsky. “Online, everyone has an equal chance of making a point and being heard; you may have a chat box open and, say, 200 students all come back to you with their thoughts. And, social media formats can extend case discussion - no longer just the 90 minutes of class, but into the next few days. These developments have reenergised many faculty colleagues,” he observes.

Dominique TurpinAt IMD, Dominique Turpin recalls that cases were already being enhanced by videos of businesses or interviews and other audiovisual elements back in the 1980s. Some ten to fifteen years ago, IMD itself pioneered a series of innovative and award winning cartoon based cases. Turpin feels that, overall, case enhancements have met with mixed success and that newer technologies, such as the iPad, have ironically given the paper case, albeit in its electronic form, a new lease of life. For him, “the need is for variety and versatility: the new generation of participants expect a modern take on a case study, a new mix; the internet is so big - cases need to take into account all new tools. And the new generation of faculty needs to be ever more versatile with the wide range of resources available to them.”

Robert Kennedy (Ivey) says, “People use the word ‘case’ to mean many things, many forms and lengths, and there is no doubt that changes in technology and attention spans put pressure on the classical format.” He highlights how the viability of the ‘aha’ moment at the end of many traditional cases is now challenged: “Today people just look online for the solution, even during class, so instructors are called upon to become more creative and flexible, and case materials need to evolve. Ultimately this represents an opportunity,” he believes, “cases can actually become better through the new technologies available.”

For Olaf Plötner (ESMT), the case method has less to do with old or new: “It is a classical teaching method that can be successfully complemented with new technology but not replaced by it.” For Pedro Nueno (CEIBS), while the case method remains the best – not the only - instrument to catalyze class discussion, “both case writing and case teaching need to follow or even be ahead of the aspects that influence our society: technology such as digitalization, and of course globalization.”

Supporting a variety of pedagogies

Kazem ChaharbaghiThe Royal Docks Business School, University of East London is typical of many locally focussed schools worldwide now embracing the case method among other pedagogical approaches. According to Kazem Chaharbaghi, Academic Director, key to why the case method is effective, is that it is based on the Socratic method: “It works because it enables students by challenging them; in that way they learn critical thinking and to analyse things for themselves.” But therein also lies the dilemma because there are less motivated students that don’t ‘like’ cases or fail to understand them. “They can ‘switch off’ because the method ‘delegates’ the learning to them,” he has observed. Chaharbaghi believes that for certain participant groups you have to find the right balance between ‘authoritarian’ teaching such as lectures and other approaches. “Cases have to complement other methods; the most important thing is to consciously know ‘why’ you are selecting a case for a specific purpose,” he says.

GV MuralidharaGV Muralidhara (IBS) comments that as a participant based learning method, the case approach expects a high level of involvement from students prior to class, during the discussion, and afterwards, in order to derive the maximum advantage. “Since students mostly come to IBS from courses that followed the lecture method, they require a strong orientation and support in the initial stages, to enable full participation and benefit from case learning. Similarly, a strong institutional mechanism is necessary to nurture and support the case method. IBS has invested substantial resources in training our faculty members in the case method and they have accepted it well.”

HBS has led the way in commitment to the considerable investment of time, effort, and funding required to undertake world-class field-based research, write a case (and a teaching note), and to teach it as effectively as possible. “We believe it is the best way to educate students who will fulfil our mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world,” says Dean Nitin Nohria. “That said, in 2011, we added a new required first-year MBA experiential course: Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD) that complements the case method. Module 2 sends teams of students to developing countries to work with a ‘global partner organization’ to develop a new product or service. In Module 3, they synthesize all that they have learned both in and out of class and launch a microbusiness. Second-year students can opt to take advantage of faculty-led immersion experiences (IXPs) in several countries, and an increasing number undertake independent research and field work with real clients. In this way, the case method and the field-based method work hand in hand to provide our students with an education and educational experience that enable them to hit the ground running when they graduate.”

Soumitra DuttaWhile some schools actively endorse and support the development and use of cases, others leave it more to individual faculty member choice. “The business school at Cornell has a traditional focus on academic research, and uses a mix of cases and lectures,” says Soumitra Dutta (Cornell). “Cases and research can, but do not always, go hand in hand,” he says. “Everything takes time, and faculty are under extreme time pressures with diverse commitments which can limit their scope for case development.”

A bright future

In spite of the challenges that face the case method, all those leaders The Case Centre spoke to feel that its relevance, in a modernised form, will continue. “The case method will only become more popular in the years to come,” observes GV Muralidhara (IBS). “We also see an increasing trend of companies employing the case method in corporate training programmes to train younger as well as more experienced managers.”

Arnoud De Meyer (SMU) observes the case method extending its reach into new disciplines. “The idea of case teaching was once the domain of the business and possibly law and medical schools. Today I am witnessing cases being used in sociology, behavioural economics, information sciences and even political science. Many parts of our university have caught on to the idea that decision making is a key element in the skill development of nearly every domain. Cases in, and of, themselves support this activity.”

Jordi CanalsAnd there is a continuing geographical spread of the case method to be observed worldwide. “At IESE, we have been committed to supporting the development of a number of business schools in emerging economies, especially in Latin America, Asia and Africa,” says Dean Jordi Canals. “IPADE, Mexico; IAE, Argentina; and Lagos Business School, Nigeria, to name but three, are all schools now using the case method as their principal pedagogy.” 

Robert KennedyFor Robert Kennedy (Ivey) the fundamental aspect of the case method, that it should work in the discussion process, must stay and is as relevant as ever. “However, as information is a lot easier to get today, those who write cases need to evolve their art. In the past, the same case might have been used for many years on the same course. That model won’t work anymore with the availability of online resources and students accessing and sharing information so easily. People who write good cases will be the experts at setting up uncertainty and allowing for the process of compelling argumentation and debate around the issues. That’s where the unique value of cases must remain.”

The last word goes to Dominique Turpin (IMD): “We have to face the fact that today most popular cases have solutions posted on the internet; however experiments with disguising cases have often proved less appealing. Students are getting smarter with more information at their fingertips and so faculty have to get cleverer too. As a leader, one has a duty of infectious optimism. We need to consider what we are actually ‘selling’ with education, which is an ‘experience’. Within the teaching mix, cases are dynamic and continue to score very highly on the audience impact scale; that’s why the method still has a beautiful future ahead.” 

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If you have recently registered a case with us and would like the chance to talk about your experience of writing and teaching it please contact Antoinette.
Antoinette Mills Antoinette Mills
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+44 (0)1234 756416