Is Case Method Instruction Due for an Overhaul?
Online forum now closed. The case method of teaching business management has come under criticism on a number of fronts as educators rethink how to incorporate new teaching tools and methods made available by technology. Responses to Professor Jim Heskett's recent column, however, suggest that the case method might even be gaining relevance over time.
Is the case method gaining relevance over time? Case method instruction may not be perfect, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill's view of democracy (and Sameer Kamat's response to the column), it's better than the alternatives. At least that's the impression created by responses to this month's column.
In Shane Busby words, "The case method ... requires the ability to synthesize many complex components of business problems ...." Sean McGee felt that (cases) "... often teach lessons about unintended or unanticipated consequences." Scott Lanphere commented that "Cases help to develop 'pattern recognition' skills that are very important in decision-making ...." Dave Schnedler added that cases help develop "critical thinking," teach that "digging hard pays off," stress the importance of "speaking persuasively and with conviction," and foster the realization "that life is filled with ambiguity." Tony Prehn pointed out that "The case study method ... is also an organic learning tool that updates itself as business environments and contexts change and evolve." Steve Dietrich said that "The beauty ... is that it is not about learning to solve today's problems, but rather about developing the skills and discipline(s) which are timeless."
Clinton Gerst suggested some limits of the method in commenting that "The case method is well suited to address complicated business situations ... (but is) not well suited to areas where there are singular correct answers." This fostered a debate about whether there are ever single right answers. Adrian Grigoriu posited that "... there can only be one best solution ... The case method should help discover the one answer." But as Shahid Sheikh put it, "in foresight ... there never are right (or perfect) answers ...." Seconding that notion in practice (vs. theory), Kim Allen suggested that "Case studies would be a great addition to science graduate school curricula."
Peter Druxerman was among those who commented that the method is dependant on the quality of instructors and students alike. He pointed out the importance of the "quality and quantity of students involved in the discussion" as well as "a professor who is capable of pushing each student to his or her limit to analyze the situation and arrive at intellectual gems ...." Paul Karres put it this way: "The problem is not whether the case method is valid. The problem is in the design of the specific case for a specific class, and the delivery skills in a highly interactive classroom setting."
Questions were nevertheless raised for our further consideration. For example, Joe Violette left us with the assertion that "The Case Method ... develops a structured management approach ... not ... leaders." Others, such as Jacoline Loewen, asked about how compatible the method is with new technologies such as the Internet. But the volume of positive responses leads to the question of whether case method instruction may even be gaining relevance over time. What do you think?
The case method has become synonymous with education for management. In fact, it was derived in the early 20th Century from training for the law at Harvard by several members of the Harvard Business School faculty. And in other forms, it serves the medical and other professions as well. A kindergarten teacher once told me that she used what she regards as the case method every time she holds up Mary's or Johnny's drawing in art class and asks her class to tell her what they see going on in the drawing.
What many assume to be the case method, involving the study of several problem-oriented cases per day for weeks at a time, has come under periodic scrutiny. Among the concerns raised about it are that it:
(1) is time consuming.
(2) requires of students a great deal of synthesis of many individual decision making situations to form generalizations.
(3) is an imperfect way of teaching quantitative techniques.
(4) is based on the notion that there are no right answers, only some that are better than others.
Most recently, the question has been raised about whether the case method encourages the development of skills in framing problems prior to decision making. Traditional cases have come under fire for being self-contained documents that describe a protagonist facing a decision with a set of packaged data available on which to base the decision. Research outside the case may be discouraged; there may not be time for it in a curriculum packed with cases designed to encourage students to acquire decision making habits.
Rethinking the case method
One recent response to this criticism is the encouragement of development and use of "decision briefs" at Columbia Business School by its Dean, R. Glenn Hubbard. The decision brief may consist of several articles describing a management challenge accompanied by a video of the decision maker. Students are encouraged to carry out whatever added research (perhaps using tools such as the Internet that didn't exist a few years ago) they feel necessary on which to base a recommendation. One objective is to provide added practice in framing problems as well as analyzing them prior to developing recommended actions.
Another response is a revival of the management simulation that became the rage before the emergence of the Internet and nearly unlimited computing and storage power. As a developer and user, I can testify that those early simulations were clunky—so much so that many instructors were discouraged from using them. But today, instructors can design their own simulations based on cases and administer them much more efficiently. As a result, they may provide quite realistic settings for decision-making and competitive interaction.
Of course, this all assumes that there is "a" case method. In fact, there are as many uses of cases as there are instructors. And, as our kindergarten teacher suggests, the uses vary by level of instruction and teaching objectives. But is too much emphasis being placed on cases as opposed to other forms of instruction in training decision makers? What application do they have in preparing leaders versus managers? Is case method instruction due for an overhaul? What do you think?
Geoff Gloeckler, "The Case Against Case Studies," BusinessWeek, February 4, 2008, pp. 66-67.