Writing cases - what's involved?

writing casesAre you considering developing a teaching case? In the first of a series of three features on Writing, Teaching and Learning with Cases, we look at the issues.

With more than 47,500 cases currently available to order in The Case Centre catalogue, why should anyone go to the trouble of writing a new case? In fact, in 2012, 3,000 authors at 500 schools in 50 countries registered a new case with us. It must have something going for it.

There are many reasons for writing a teaching case. Often, a suitable subject emerges as part of ongoing research; the topical business scenario may be too good a learning opportunity not to capitalise on. An instructor may feel that the specific needs of their course require a case tailored to the particular participant group. Many cases are based on large multinationals, which some teachers may feel are not relevant to their local environment or culture and they therefore choose to develop something more pertinent.

Urs Müller, Program Director at ESMT (European School of Management and Technology), Berlin is co-author of the 2013 Hot Topic Award-winning case. He agrees that it is often necessary to create a case in response to a specific curriculum need. But, he observes “teaching a case you have developed yourself can also give a unique boost to you as an instructor. It gives much more credibility in the classroom - you will always have more insights than you can ever put into even the best possible teaching note. It just feels right.” 

Types of case

The majority of cases are still published in the traditional ‘story-telling’ format, in which a business dilemma is presented for discussion. Usually, the real company is portrayed, though some cases may disguise its identity and others are even based on fictitious companies or individuals to shed light on a particular business or management dilemma. Cases often include exhibits such as financial data or examples of relevant corporate branding, and many have a teaching note offering pedagogical guidance from the author to the instructor. The majority of these cases are electronically downloadable from sources such as The Case Centre, and these days, participants will frequently work on the case ahead of the class without the need for a paper copy. Technology is playing an ever more powerful role in the content of cases too, offering greater interactivity between participants and the subject matter. Multimedia cases allow for options ranging from video footage of the case protagonists, to simulations around company data and its strategic possibilities. There has never been a time when more ‘reality’ is available to underpin the case classroom, and these new elements can facilitate an even more dynamic learning experience than ever before.

But most fundamental to the planning of a new case is whether it is based on field research, or created from published sources. Perhaps, in an ideal world, all cases would be based on original research; however, sometimes it is simply not possible or practical to gain the involvement of a company in the development of a case. Occasionally, there is a need for a case to be rapidly created, perhaps in a concise form, and working through relevant existing sources may prove to be the most expedient and effective approach. In reality, there is a place for diversity of case materials in the final learning context, as a glance at The Case Centre online search reveals. Take cases on Zara, for example: of the 12 listed which deal closely with the company, 50% are based on field research and 50% on published sources; best-selling and award-winning cases can be found in both groups and their lengths vary from eight to 37 pages, regardless of research type, with even a three page ‘journal case’ available.

Planning and writing

Once a subject has been identified, as a first step, many case authors acquaint themselves with all relevant previously published materials including cases. Felipe Caro of the UCLA Anderson School of Management won a 2013 Award with a new case on Zara: Staying Fast and Fresh, in which he helpfully included a survey of all pre-authored cases on the company in the teaching note.

The preparatory phase of a field researched case requires patience and, crucially, the building of a trusting relationship with the subject company. This can be challenging, not least because many decision-making executives are unfamiliar with the design and purpose of a teaching case, and may fear adverse comments for the organisation. As the case will eventually require formal ‘release’ from the subject company before publication, investment in this stage of the process is essential and can determine whether it will eventually see the light of day.

Professor Wee Beng Geok of Nanyang Business School, Singapore, an experienced case writer and Director of the Asian Business Case Centre, feels that how you build trust with the subject company depends on the particular organisation and getting to know its perspective on the case process ahead. “It is important to be open with the company from the very start about what is intended and the kind of product that will result,” she says. According to Professor Wee, this upfront investment also helps establish the boundaries of what you might eventually be able to get the company to sign off on. “If you do encounter a problem along the way, do not despair,” she advises, “be flexible and patient - there will always be another angle to try.”

An essential ingredient in the recipe for a really successful case is how well it reads. Rigorous attention to content and stylistic detail, and thorough editing are vital if a case is to withstand the test of the classroom and beyond. While a case author may often have access to a research assistant to help with data gathering, interviews or analysis as part of the research process, some also engage support to actually write the case, if their own literary skills do not extend in that direction. An additional factor to consider is that the majority of cases are published in English, with other language editions sometimes also made available.

Beyond these theoretical considerations, there is a view that a case should be ‘fun’ in class, and many advise letting your intuition guide you through the process rather than staying tied too closely to ‘rights and wrongs’. Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School is in no doubt that cases need that extra ingredient: “Students remember ‘great cases’, so they need to be vivid and the key lesson must take them by surprise. Keep this in mind and consider how you can make the case memorable.” (Find more top tips from experienced protagonists at the end of this article.)

writing cases

Testing and publication

All new cases will benefit from trialling in the classroom; indeed, thorough ‘testing’ is a condition of successful submission to The Case Centre for publication. Many authors testify to the importance of this test stage in ironing out issues relating to the pedagogy of the case and ensuring it works as planned. This is often the stage at which the teaching note is developed and perfected. A good teaching note is an invaluable support to any future instructor who may decide to use the case. It will summarise the case, its objectives and target audience and give guidance about teaching approaches and how to strategise the class discussion. The teaching note may include detailed analysis necessary for teaching the class and provide additional relevant exhibits, readings and research. Some teaching notes advise on aspects such as whether the case is suitable to use in examinations and many will conclude with ‘what really happened’ after the action of the case.

Even if, in the first instance, a case has been written for use in the instructor’s own classroom, there are many benefits of wider distribution to other colleagues, schools and countries. Publication at The Case Centre ensures worldwide visibility on its world leading case search engine and the possibility of royalty payments being made to the school at which the case was authored. There is no financial cost for submission to The Case Centre. It is a streamlined process and there is a team ready to advise and help.

Getting credit

One of the main issues prospective case authors face is making precious time available for an activity that is not equally recognised by schools worldwide. For the most part, national academic research assessment exercises do not incorporate the same recognition for case production as for journal-published, original research. Some institutional credit may be gained in so far as new cases contribute to recognition of original teaching excellence. Nevertheless, many schools do actively encourage and support the development of original case materials and understand the edge this can give to their programmes.

Jordi Canals, Dean of IESE Business School outlines the clear logic of creating an environment conducive to the development of new cases. He observes: "Relevance in management education is an indispensable attribute. Good business cases highlight the complexity of organizational challenges and the contradictory criteria to be used in decision-making. They help both students and senior executives develop their capabilities in a context where people learn from one another in reflecting upon a problem, thinking on different solutions and designing action plans. It should not be a surprise that some business schools invest in developing such a powerful learning tool".

Once cases have been made available to a wider audience they may become eligible for consideration for the various case award schemes offered by The Case Centre and other organisations. Awards success can boost the recognition and reputation of case authors both at their schools and much further afield. 

Support

Schools that encourage case writing often operate a mentoring system for new case authors. This support can be invaluable both in planning and drafting the case, and especially during the classroom testing phase. For those taking more of a pioneering role in case writing at their institution, various books and articles are available, written by eminent experts at some of the world’s leading case writing schools. These can help tremendously with the process and can also provide a refresher perspective for more experienced authors. The Case Centre also runs case writing workshops at various international locations. Some workshops result in the first draft of your own case. So what’s stopping you? The Case Centre looks forward to receiving your finished case for publication.

Read the other articles in this series on Teaching with Cases and Learning with Cases.

Top tips 

JRobert Carraway
A good case invariably requires the reader to make a decision, providing focus.
Robert Carraway, Associate Professor of Business Administration
Darden School of Business 
David B. Yoffie
Writing a great case is like a jigsaw puzzle - you have put in all of the pieces, but if you make it too obvious, it won't be a lot of fun.
David B. Yoffie, Max and Doris Starr Professor of International Business Administration
Harvard Business School
Debapratim Purkayastha
The cases that work best in class are the ones that tell engaging stories. It is not the length but the depth of a case that determines its effectiveness as a learning tool. It is just as important to decide what information to exclude from a case, as what to include.
Debapratim Purkayastha, Assistant Professor
IBS Hyderabad /ICMR India 
Pierre Chandon,
Getting access to ‘insider information’ by collaborating with the subject company was essential to the success of all my cases that have won an award from The Case Centre (Diesel, Renova and Unilever).
Pierre Chandon, Professor of Marketing and Director, INSEAD Social Sciences Research Centre
INSEAD
Tim Calkins
Spend time looking for an interesting issue. Remember that most great cases are built around conflict or surprise. Close off certain paths - if improving efficiency isn’t important to the discussion, for example, add a line that says “The company had already improved efficiency as much as possible.”
Tim Calkins, Clinical Professor of Marketing
Kellogg School of Management
Nirmalya Kumar
The best cases present a unique business model or dilemma (eg Aldi) with which participants can easily identify. The challenge is to ‘hook’ the reader on the first page so they would want to read the case even if it was not assigned.
Nirmalya Kumar, Professor of Marketing and Director of Aditya Birla India Centre
London Business School
Loizos Heracleous
Write a high quality teaching note (this will influence how many other educators adopt your case.) Update cases periodically to ensure they remain relevant. Ensure cases involve dilemmas with no easy answers for robust debate in the classroom. Include breadth for an interesting and versatile case, and depth to enable a good analysis.
Loizos Heracleous, Professor of Strategy & Pro Dean (Strategy)
Warwick Business School
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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
Media and Systems Development Manager
+44 (0)1234 756416
antoinette@thecasecentre.org