05 Sep 2008  What Do YOU Think?

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.

 

Summing Up

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?

Original Article

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?

Reference:

Geoff Gloeckler, "The Case Against Case Studies," BusinessWeek, February 4, 2008, pp. 66-67.

Comments

    • shane busby
    • Principal, Strategic Planning, B&A Management Consulting

    The case method of learning allows for the application of tools learned and requires the ability to synthesize many complex components of business problems (e.g., human, statistical, financial, organizational) in order to render workable and reasonable solutions. These are its strengths.

    However, in the "real world" of organizational challenge and change, the problems are neither clean, clear or discrete; the data available is seldom of the quality or quantity required; and stakeholder consultation and decision rights are the greatest hurdles to actually moving toward solution. While I am still enamored with the analytical tools learned in business school (i.e. SWOT, PEST, etc) and their application; it is in the shepherding of ideas and initiatives through the maze of ego, self-interest, and "silo-ism" within the management ranks where most often solutions reside.

     
     
     
    • Clinton Gerst
    • Managing Director, Citi

    The case method is well suited to address complicated business situations where there are many potential choices with uncertain outcomes. It is not well suited to areas where there are singular correct answers. Can you imagine a physics class being taught by the case method?!

    So I would argue that courses like accounting and statistics are best taught via traditional classroom instruction, but that business strategy, marketing, organizational behavior, and all the real world business challenges are best addressed via the case method.

     
     
     
    • CJ Cullinane

    Case studies are an effective way to educate a student concerning 'real world' problems. But, if too broad, the specific problem area may be missed and if too narrow it may stifle creative problem solving. I believe the system is effective if the right balance is found. I do think more outside research should be incorporated into the case study.

    I have experience with the case study method as a student (at HBS and various universities) and as an instructor and find them challenging and instructive. Long live the case study!

    Charlie

     
     
     
    • Abhijit Basu
    • Management Trainee, Genpact India

    One of the enduring questions in the field of management is whether it is an art or a science. We can describe art as skills that a human being should posses in order to perform a particular activity. In contrast to this, science may be described as a technique which gives the application of facts or principles.

    We can relate the same concept with the ongoing use of case studies verses other forms of instructions. Hence, it has to be a balance between factual and descriptive methods of teaching. Decision briefs or simulations would help managers use specific information and facts to direct behaviour. Whereas, case studies have no specific body of knowledge and may differ based on skills.

    To conclude, a balance of both are required in order to make the best managers as leaders.

     
     
     
    • Jack Slagle
    • Senior Program Manager, L-3 Communications

    Case methodology is an excellent tool for teaching management and should be retained. Learning from the past can prevent disasterous historical repeats, however with the advent of technology there are emerging techniques and processes that could be used in addition to case studies.

    The use of a "virtual situation or organization" to create a learning situation directly to current events could be an excellent addition to a business curriculum. Given that we use virtual situations to train people on our technology I see not reason why it could not be used to train management.

     
     
     
    • Mark Nesbitt
    • President, Vertex Consultants

    In my experience, nothing beats the case method. Yes, it's an inefficient way to impart "the right answer" when that is known, but done well it succeeds in fostering student / participant engagement, thinking and learning.

    I remember in our first year Control class 30+ years ago Richard Vancil allowing the section to come to the wrong conclusion to a case, which we then built into some wrong generalizations in subsequent cases. It took over a week for us to discover in another case why our home-grown principles failed. There was a huge amount of frustration that we had "wasted" a week, but it struck me how incredibly powerful a learning experience this had been for the group, engaging us in really thinking through the connections between the purposes and principles of management control. There would have been many more efficient ways of teaching the principles, but I never saw a more effective way of building understanding and an ability to think independently about the principles and their application.

    Maintaining and building the reputation of HBS requires differentiation, and an unusual commitment to the case method (and its refinement, evolution and application) continues to be a useful point of differentiation.

     
     
     
    • Susan Strayer
    • Director, Talent Acquisition, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company LLC

    As a MBA alumni of a top 30 day program, while I gained great insight from case methods in B-school, it is far from real-world experience. When working through the issue in real time, you are forced to make decisions along the way with data you have at that time that cases cannot capture.

    Cases often cover such a long period of time, and in a fast-moving economy, we don't have that much time to reflect before making a decision--meaning, cases may cover what happens in the course of several months or more, asking students to reflect and strategize at the end of that period of time rather then make decisions along the way.

    They also tend to be very senior level subjects in the cases which gives you a good perspective of leadership decisions, but they may be situations that you wouldn't personally be in for another ten years. Many MBAs graduate into associate roles rather than manager or director roles.

    Finally, cases aren't real-time, and that's a real issue. It's hard to go back and understand what was happening in the economy ten years ago and truly grasp its impact. You can read about it, but you aren't living it.

    To me the real problem is the professors teaching the cases. Many haven't ever worked full-time in a leadership role of a company or if they have it was years ago. I think schools would benefit if they had more real-world instructors in combination with revised teaching methodologies. The board of accreditation should take a hard look at thier policies around %age of full-time faculty required.

     
     
     
    • Mark Beaty
    • Lead Trainer Intelligence Analysis, LMMS

    The Case Method of instruction has an enduring and vital role in teaching the business student. Having recently completed my MBA I found the case studies the most interesting and mentally challenging portion of the course work. It allowed me to think beyond the limited application of a statistical method and draw from life experience. The research is daunting and you fell there is always something more to add, but this only adds to the realism of a real world experience.

    In the courses I teach case study is a key component in identifying possible solutions to complex and convoluted problems. Here there is no one right answer only those which present a better result or more accurate prediction.

    The case study method has the drawbacks identified in the article but those are real world constraints and in the end the MBA student is going to apply these lessons in the real world.

     
     
     
    • Stephen Sena
    • Economic Growth Advisor, TCG International

    I received my MBA from Brandeis International Business School in 2005. We relied extensively on HBS and other cases not only for management and marketing, but also specialized topics in international economics, alliance strategy, and project finance. I believe the value from the case approach is in connecting the decisions in the case to the theory, and the resulting discussions and debates which form in class. While the idea of "shepherding of ideas" through the "management maze" was not a direct goal (and arguably, it should be), I believe if the discussion is led correctly, over two years cases can help prepare for that process. And, this was not mentioned at all in the article - the instructor's role as a facilitator and motivator.

    There is also the students' roles, and it was amazing to witness their collective experience and perspective bearing down on a problem. One of my favorite roles was that of devil's advocate, holding fast to a position I didn't necessarily believe in to stir things up when there was too much group think. Brandeis IBS is fortunate to have many international students. Their cultural comfort level with open dissension and disagreement (even with the professor!) was also a factor in the discussion. I think it helped them to experience this process in the lecture hall via the case method. We also used simulations and for me they came off as too game-like. Perhaps a longer combined case/simulation over the duration of a course (or school year?) would be a means to apply more recent (Internet) research into formulating decisions.

     
     
     
    • Sethakgi Kgomo
    • Chief Execuive Officer, Nkhumishe Kgomo Management Services, Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa

    The premise from which one should discuss and analyse the case method, is that history is the best teacher, because it is the history that has defined the current society in terms of different facets including, but not limited to, management as an art and as a science. History is naturally a timeperiod that has bequethed us with good and bad lessons from which we could actually and factually learn. We are not living in abstract of the experiences of the past - the good and the bad. My strong belief and conviction is that history gives us a good oportunity of reflecting on what the previous generation has achieved and struggled to achieve.

    The question of whether studying through case method is time consuming, should be qualified by the value of that which you are referring to as a case. It would certainly be a time worth spending if a particular case you are zooming upon could give the required historical insights. It also gives the context within which a particular way of doing things succeeded or failed, and yielding a student with better learning hints, going forward. A good example of case method is what in law we call the "Stare Decisis", which is a souce of law that is derived from decided court cases by the upper courts of our world. It is these decided cases by the judges at courts that set a precedent, not only enriching the legal system, but providing the necessary direction on the cases courts have decided upon, for guidance in the adjudication of new and future cases of comparable nature. Therefore in law it is an ingrained legal tradition that legal practitioner should rely on stare dec isis to determine and apply the law to solve specific cases in court. Similarly "precedents' created in any dicispline of study should be regarded as enriching and directing the current study, rather than being merely viewed as time consuming.

    Moreover, the trick in getting the right quality of data (information) using a case method is chiefly dependant on the maturity or intuitiveness of a student, characteristically apt to sift through chuff to get corn, as it were.

    Synthesizing the historical with the current information is an art any student should strive to master. While some cases might well be irrelevant, they might still point to a certain direction in terms of uniform patterns that evolved from history into the present situation. The sifting of information thourhg case method therefore would require one to separate those learning areas (called "common patterns") from those areas that may not yield better insights into the current problems one is facing.

    To an extent I agree with Shane Busby that in "real world" some problems may be unclear. However that does not mean that case method is obsolete method of studying.

    The question of whether case method is an imperfect way of teaching quantitative method, needs to be addressed. Quantitative sciences such as engineering, physics and maths have also benefited immensely from the case method because these (hard as it is generally elieved) sciences have established conventions, laws and rules that guide these disciplines. Case history of success and failures in these fields represent a rich reserviour for establishing the foundations as we try to solve science problems of today. The laws, conventions and rules remain steely unchanging in these areas.

    In the final analysis, it is my view that case method remain one of the useful way of conducting teaching and learning. I cant therefore envision a situation where this method could be totally overhauled. On the contrary, our fast-changing world would require more of these past cases to learn the best way of transforming our changing world.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    Yes....It is too time consuming for its value. Many of the case studies I have been through, the professors were fishing for the answers to move the class along a predestined path. It may have more value it its allowed togo in whatever direction arises.

     
     
     
    • Scott Lanphere
    • Managing Partner, Aletheia Partners

    It can't be an 'all or nothing' proposition, but I would lean heavily towards the case method in any event. Cases help to develop "pattern recognition" skills that are very important in decision making and help to speed-up the filtering process. Cases also incorporate multi-disciplinary considerations like organisational behaviour issues as well as marketing or finance, etc.. Students are more well-rounded after the experience of many cases and it shows in the real world comparatively well.

     
     
     
    • Sean McGee
    • DIrector of Social Enterprise, Central Ohio Diabetes Association

    Case studies have their limitations, but I have found that they possess one large advantage over more theoretical teaching tools: They often allow us to see what decision(s) were made in the real-world case, and to see the consequences of those decisions. This can be more illuminating than all of the classroom discussion around preferred decisions, and will often teach lessons about unintended or unanticipated consequences.

     
     
     
    • Ravi Behara
    • Associate Professor, Florida Atlantic University

    I teach MBA courses in Operations Management and Project Management. I cannot think of either course without case studies. I subscribe to Russell Ackoff's view that (to paraphrase) "management is neither an art nor a science...its a practice!". So cases provide the invaluable service of exposing students to complex multidimensional decision contexts with incomplete information.

    The main drawback in the "traditional" case method is that we are unable to evaluate the decisions that students make - ie what would have happened if those decisions were actually implemented. I use two ways to address this: (1) use current company research to see what actually happened since the date of the case, and (2) when appropriate, use simulations (I am currently reviewing some of the HBS simulations at forio.com).

    As far my courses are concerned, I use other methods to address the quantitative material in the course. Both Operations and Project Management also require an exposure to relevant tools (remember - its a Practice!).

    Bottom line - use the case method but modify it - and use other methods to address quantitative issues.

     
     
     
    • David Whelpton

    I practiced the case method at business school and I think it's a great tool. But at the end of a case I want to have detailed knowledge of a model answer or a thorough understanding of the tradeoffs at work. Faculties tend to keep the official case notes under wraps for legitimate reasons but I still want to have that knowledge to see how my understanding of the case compares to the ideal.

     
     
     
    • Phil Clark
    • Consultant and Trainer, Clark and Associates

    Long, detailed studies of a single case does not challenge the individual to "make" a decision. What I have done for several years in leadership and crisis communications training is to use the simpler and quicker equivalent, the tabletop exercise. They are low tech but definitely move people into the decision mode. When participants have to make decisons is easier for them to gain the realizations of how people can put themselves into various decision positions. I have seen many people who "would never make a decision based on that" find themselves in exactly the same position during a tabletop exercise. A big wake up call for them. They are safe but eye-opening and energize learning and self-examination.

     
     
     
    • Dave Schnedler
    • President, Corporate Planning Forum

    After HBS I joined McKinsey and then worked for many years as an executive in technology companies and now also teach Strategy and Executive Decison Making in the MBA Program at St. Louis University. I use the case study method because it teaches so many skills that are vital to corporate success:

    1) Critical thinking -- looking at a famous company or stunning management team (aka Enron) and questioning whether what they are doing actually makes any sense;

    2) Digging hard pays off-- really digging into the data frequently reveals astonishing surprises in cases and real life;

    3) Speaking persuasively and with conviction -- since one spends long hours in meetings as an executive, the skill of capturing the attention of a roomful of people and then creating excitement around a new idea or original point of view is essential; 4) Realizing that life is filled with ambiguity -- that there may be more than one right answer, or one may never know for sure who was right, or that you may be wrong!

    I hear the complaint that the Case Study Method is too hard. But isn't that really just a complaint about the rigor of it? As with so many things, the more one puts into it, the more one gets out.

     
     
     
    • Dev Purkayastha
    • CEO, Indevia Accounting

    Let us start by accepting that getting an MBA does not make one a successful businessperson. So what is the purpose of an MBA education? I posit that is the problem that needs to be addressed first before we can decide what methodology to use in teaching the MBA program. To the extent that we are teaching specific skills, lectures, labs may be better ways to teach. If the idea is to prepare the students for making decisions with limited information, get used to the intra-mural give and take that shapes policy, the notion that there are always trade-offs, and decisions have to be made in real-time, case method is a good approach.

    Without the benefit of knowing the newer techniques like decision briefs, I cannot say that case method is the best approach. However, as I learned at HBS, the goodness of the answer lies in whether it serves the purpose and is it feasible. MBA studies are of necessity limited by time and resource. If we can sharpen our definition of why people should come to an MBA program, we can then deliver a better product. Perhaps HBS with its generalist focus is well served by its case approach.

     
     
     
    • Ellen Moyer

    Three of the 4 concerns listed are the best reasons to continue using cases in business school. It isn't a quantitative analysis tool, but business students need t learn how to synthesize, that there are often no right or wrong answers, and that sometimes this does take a lot of time. Watching the most recent crops of MBA grads come into the CPG environment wanting quick fixes and clarity between "right" and "wrong" makes me despair about the next generation of leaders.

     
     
     
    • Semil Shah
    • Principal, India Strategy Consulting

    While the case method does fall short on teaching technical skills (like foundational finance), there is no substitute to the case method for imparting adaptive skills. That is not to say that other tools shouldn't be used, such as special notes, synthesizing articles, or a video presentation. However, people like to remember stories, and the case method is a way to hide many little lessons inside a story so that a decision-maker can recall on his or her memory years down the road.

     
     
     
    • John Raddall
    • CEO, Quanta Consulting

    For all practical purposes history is as inaccessible as the future. A case study must never pretend to reveal "reality". It is simply a story, a capsule of illusion, that probably tells us as much about the author as it does about the case under review. However we can all learn from stories so it is how we learn from a case study that matters.

    We have developed two tricks that may interest your readers in this regard.

    First we choose a theme, say innovation, then provide students with several case studies such as Toyota, Virgin, SWA and GE. Then we ask students to develop a deeper understanding of the subject of innovation through the different cases - focusing on similarities and differences - clearly separating theory from practice.

    Secondly we bridge the concept/action gap by requiring students to now build and apply their own new leadership behaviours and actions that will enhance innovation in their own work environments.

     
     
     
    • margie
    • BK School of Busines management

    I have been using case studies as well as short scenarios in my class, but somehow the length and depth (richness and teachability, if you are an author) of the case study seemed to be often inversely related to the students' initial enthusiasm. What is the use of the best of cases if half the class did not read and re-read it, make notes and prepare their assignment answers.

    However, once the students were made to do it, there were several "Aha!" responses at the end of involved discussions and even private emails or acknowledgments that the efforts were worthwhile. Use of short cases (Take the case of Dashman, for example) did not always ensure early insight by the students. For teachers in less high-tech places - and that's a large number of those, globally - case study is still a very desirable tool of management education.

    In order to make it more influential, though: * Use of case studies should not be left to the discretion of teacher(s) * Individual/group contribution to the discussion should get serious portion of marks allotted to continuous evaluation, and continuous evaluation itself should be made significant in the total grade structure.

     
     
     
    • Sameer Kamat

    A huge majority of B-schools have adopted the case study method and its usage has not been restricted to its country of origin. Considering that most schools have the freedom to design and customize their MBA programs independently, this indicates that educators find value in the approach.

    The case method does come with its imperfections, many of which have been mentioned in the earlier comments and in Prof Heskett's note. But why single out case-studies alone?

    Consider the other conventional modes of teaching in B-schools - lectures, presentations, group assignments, simulations, role-plays, industry tours. None of these can really be considered as fool-proof alternatives either. In fact, the traditional lecture style of knowledge dissemination still has serious inherent flaws, in spite of being used, evaluated and polished over several centuries. The entire management education system works because a combination of these methods is used within and outside classrooms.

    Management education is a subjective area and this subjectivity reflects in the various tools and techniques we use to share and advance our knowledge in the field. Nothing is as effective as real hands-on business experience. However if that is not practical to achieve due to opportunity and time constraints, we have to make do with the tools that we currently have in our arsenal while being aware of their capabilities and limitations. What's important is to maintain the balance of various approaches and not be over-dependent on one tool.

     
     
     
    • Ozlem Tekay
    • HR Director, TAV Airports

    I find case method an effective tool for teaching. Having anaylzed a company, situation, an industry that students do not know, it naturally directs students to do more research. Cases simulate real life where there are imperfections, lack of data and need to make "the" decision. And in real life not only data and research, but also gut feeling, vision, anaylsis of dynamics, human factor matter. Bringing all these together with the facilitation of faculty, case methodology is an effective tool.

    To improve effectiveness, new tools may well be integrated in case methodology. One of the stages of case study is its preparation (and takes time), new tools and techniques (Internet, simulations, research, data etc) may well be incorporated in that phase. The main thing is to focus on a situation, analyze all you have and make decisions. Real life is decision making with very limited data. Students can find their own way in the light of data they gathered.

     
     
     
    • Paresh Jain
    • JNJ

    Case methodolgy is very informative mgmt tool & should be continued. But these case studies need to be updated & not 10-15 years old.

    In certain cases, case studies are the best methods to stimulate thought process of students. After hearing or knowing their views, professors can come to know the mental ability of students & can appropriately answer them with the correct answers. Professors can than mould the thought process of students, guide them & enlighten them on how to treat similar situations if they come across in their career.

    Case studies are good for understanding mktg startegy, org behaviour etc.. but for planning, motivation, directing class room theory/instructions add much value.

     
     
     
    • Jon Callaghan
    • Founder, True Ventures

    Hi Jim, A strong vote for the case method . . .

    I think the case method is HBS's single most powerful tool to simulate real world business decisions in all of their complexity and imperfection. The reality of life after HBS (in my industry, at least) is mirrored in each case example, where protagonists have short time frames, limited information and a unique set of factors that create a different context for each challenge.

    The school teaches us to use the appropriate tools for the problem at hand, and these tools vary depending upon the situation (again, just like the "real" world). Often times more research is required, other times the answer is at hand or can be gleaned from the context of the case.

    What is so valuable about the case method are the varied paths of class discussion around these problems. Discussions are unique, spontaneous and engaging. The emphasis on class participation means that there is a lot at stake in these discussions/decisions (kind of like the real world). With so much at stake, and with each analysis different and dynamic, I think students are more engaged than with other types of learning methods.

     
     
     
    • Peter Thuku
    • Accountant, BAT

    Case studies methodologyis a good and effective method of condensing the real world situations a classroom.

    However, focus of more research should be at the point of drafting the cases. The robustness of discussion is determined by the tone and depth set at drafting.

     
     
     
    • Shubhra Gaur
    • Associate Professor - OB & HR, MICA - Ahmedabad, India

    As a teaching method, case-discussion has not become obsolete. In my view, the effectiveness of any pedagogical tool depends on two factors-1)appropriateness of the tool for the discipline or topic under discussion 2) the skill of the instructor to handle the session with the aid of that tool. Hence, for certain disciplines/topics like basic Maths and Statistics, Oral Communication it may not be appropriate at all, while for others like Business Startegy , Business ethics, Organizational Dynamics,it would be quite the right tool. For the former, use of problems or one page caselets may be more effective. Further, against the backdrop of technologically advanced teaching environment, use of internet and simulation games should be a logical advancement to enrich the growth of learners.

    In conclusion, the issue of discussion should not be whether case or not, but how many more methods can be added to the tool kit of educators? The objective, in my view is to complement variety of methods to enable learners to acquire skills , knowledge and problem solving approach.

     
     
     
    • Anthony Yung
    • Director, SAM

    Business is like playing golf, one of the most difficult and inconsistent sports ever. One needs a certain training before hitting the course or else disaster is a certainty.

    Lectures is like taking lessons in swing mechanics, whereas case studies is like learning course management. There are many different ways to get the golf ball into the hole much like there are many paths to arriving at an "informed" business decision.

    I always believe certain courses like accounting and finance would benefit from a combination of lectures follow by cases after.

    As in golf, once one learn the swing mechanics then one can simply focus on course management, and uses ones innate "feel" to play the game, rather than struggling with the fundamentals with every shot.

     
     
     
    • Sarshar Ahmed
    • Logistics Manager, Alcatel Lucent Pakistan.

    There is a very popular saying about common sense; that this is only sense which is uncommon. Case studies develop our common sense. When we enter in practical life in business world, case studies help us making right decision through sub-conscious brain activity. It is like hiring an experienced employee, who may not encounter the same problems as he had handled in previous jobs, yet the common sense of an experienced person has developed to a level where he may handle the similar or more difficult problems more confidently.

    Framing of the problem or situation is like diagnosing a disease which is half the cure; Of course overhauling the method and making it more user friendly is required. The manager should be able to stack the cases in mind by various categories under diversified situations. Further he must understand the situational differences where emulating the old decisions may not work perfectly

     
     
     
    • Daniel Scinto
    • president and CEO, Orange County Associates
    1. Case methodology is an excellent tool for teaching decision making which can be used in any field where you have original problems, including, but not limited to management.

    2. I do not think outside research should be incorporated into the case study. The end result is not to acquire knowledge. It is to think. It is to bring all the issues together that may effect a problem. It is the process that is important. Not the outcome. The case method result is to develope better dicision making. One case may have four or six decisions to be made. The student learns from their poor decisions. This yield good judgement.

    3. It may be time consuming to teach students good judgement, but in the end, this is what makes you successful. You could learn regression analysis anywhere and at any time. Just pick up the book.

    4. It is an imperfect way of teaching quantitative techniques, but by case notes, the student will learn these quantitative techniques. It is hard, but only with a heavy weight does one become strong.

    5. It is true that it is based on the notion that there are no right answers, only some that are better than others. But in my forty years of management, this is accurate. In real life, the second best decision is often better if excuted to a higher standard then the best decision. Life is more complex then picking the "correct answer". Life is more complex then the solution of the Pythagorean theorem.

    Keep the case method. It works.

     
     
     
    • Tony Prehn
    • Chief Executive Officer, Lowe Thailand

    The case study method offers a dyanamic learning experience, based on real world truths. Being case-based, it is also an organic learning tool that updates itself as business environments and contexts change and evolve. As such, it is very much learning in the here and now rather than working with theories and examples that may not longer reflect the current realities of business.

     
     
     
    • Joan Eisenstodt
    • Eisenstodt Assocs. LLC

    How is the case method holding up for younger generations? Is it expected that, if used, the case method will be accepted as "tried and true" and thus the 'next gens' will adapt? Or has there been time to test it on newer managers? Observations have given me far more questions than answers.

     
     
     
    • Rodrigo Sampaio
    • Associate, McKinsey & Co.

    After having experienced the traditional lecture-based teaching method (throughout my education) and the case method (at HBS), I am totally convinced the latter is incredibly more powerful. In fact, I see no problem even with teaching Physics through the case method - I think it could be as effective, if not more (has it been tried?). I think there is virtually no reason to have students come to a traditional lecture. To achieve the same academic goals, just have them use a good text book at home, clear any remaining questions in a review session or so, and apply an exam at the end. The case method, on the other hand, enables one to practice what needs a classroom to be practiced: the expression of ideas and arguments, the real-time collection and processing of inputs and newly-crafted information, and the rehearsal of decisions.

    In addition, as new methodologies that try to approximate the school experience to the real world emerge (e.g. Columbia's "decision briefs"), we have to consider the inherent trade-offs therein: the more "real" the situation is, the less ground can be effectively covered in the overall program. Only the real world can simulate the real world perfectly. Hence, school should serve as a middle-ground between actually working (great learning but limited scope and ability to practice skills) and self-learning (knowledge one can acquire by oneself). And the case method as currently taught at HBS, although certainly asking for continuous improvement, strikes an excellent balance in that sense.

     
     
     
    • Denny Saunders
    • Retired

    This sounds quite similar to what I ran into way back in 1962, and the reason I did not apply to MIT or Carnegie-Mellon at that time. The tools and technologies have improved over the years, but people have not changed that much. I still continue to believe that the case method allows you to bring together and discuss all the facets and implications of the decision making process in a very conducive atmosphere. The tools selected, and the technicalities of using them which usually can be self taught, should not be a significant portion of the program at the Harvard Business School. I realize that this will come up from time to time, but I feel that the use of the case method, and of actual HBS case studies, by educators around the world, speaks for itself. I am all for improvement, but not change for change sake.

     
     
     
    • Ralph Deeds
    • Retired, HBS MBA 1960

    The case study method I experienced in the class of 1960 was the most effective method of instruction I experienced before or since. It was effective because the quality of the cases was good and because the classes actively engaged the students, much more than in the lecture method I experienced as a liberal arts undergraduate. Many of the most energetically discussed HBS cases remain vivid in my memory to this day. Of all the courses, I found the human relations cases most helpful in understanding and coping with the my immediate work (and personal) environment throughout my career. The business policy course helped me understand and deal with the wider business environment. C. Roland Christensen was the most effective instructor I had in graduate or undergraduate school.

     
     
     
    • Peter Druxerman
    • VP Marketing, DRUXY'S Inc.

    Inherent in the success of the case method is the quality and quantity of students involved in the discussion. The use of the case method to teach high school students would likely fail due to empty discussions. However, in an MBA class with 50+ students of various backgrounds and experience pulled together and orchestrated by an experienced professor, almost any subject could be taught with the case method.

    It is the synthesis of the knowledge and experiences of those involved in the discussion which is the magic of the case method. And add to this a professor who is capable of pushing each student to his or her limit to analyze the situation and arrive at intellectual gems is what makes the experience real and the learning permanent.

    What most methods of training lack is true involvement in the process. The case method is based on involvement and because of this what is learned is not easily forgotten. Through my experience at HBS I have memories of cases that have stood the test of time and continue to guide me in my decision making.

    While other methods of training might work I see none being as effective and as close to the real world situation as a well executed case discussion.

     
     
     
    • Kate Azure
    • MBA student, Wilfrid Laurier University

    I had long suspected that business case study originated from study of case law, and therein lies one of its major weaknesses. Case law can name the liabilities and the improprieties as well as the guilty parties. A business case can only hint at immoral or illegal activity at the most, and mostly ignores them. Either the legal/immoral impropriety is not really the focus of the business lesson, just part of the strategic obstacles, or the business case writer could be sued one way or another for suggesting that possibility.

    Business cases are intended to be pedagogical tools and not morality plays, so unethical practices are only hinted at and not even suggested. Business case scenarios are like common law cases--the lessons and liabilities abound.

    However, unlike case law, business case studies could be liable for the telling, and that makes the business case study incomplete. By avoiding discussion of possible immoral/illegal issues, might we have added to the conditions that created ENRON and WorldCom as lessons in immoral/illegal business activity?

     
     
     
    • Steve Dietrich
    • President, FRG

    The beauty of the case study method is that it is not about learning to solve today's problems, but rather about developing the skills and discipline which are timeless.

     
     
     
    • Malcolm Wicks
    • Director, SimplePlans

    To me a case is like a photogragh. It captures a situation frozen in time. That's great for lots of purposes and much better that just reading theory. The additional requirement is for the eqivalent of video to show movement either side of a set of circumstances and to tell a bigger story. If its not pushing the analogy too far what we really seek is the equivalent of interactive video games where we can change the goals and inject different levels of complexity and competition while responding to what happens.

     
     
     
    • Priyambada
    • MBA graduate, Simmons School of Management

    As a MBA graduate, I really admire the 'Case Methodology' for Management teaching. At times, it was overwhelming to analyze several cases for the week conceptually and quantitatively, although the rigorous course work prepares us to be ready for real work unpredictable business analysis and decision making. No decision is right or wrong, but on what basis of analysis and risk handling one takes the decision is the what matters; this is the mantra.

    Of course, the internet and technology has added a lot of learning situations through various simulations on virtual organizations. As a graduate I advocate for this methodology of teaching. In fact, the case analysis for courses like Accounting and Finance also give us a hand on experience to apply the concepts and practices on the same.

    After all, this whole methodology is preparing the students for the real world scenario. I am an advocate for it.

     
     
     
    • Shahid Sheikh
    • Dean, College of Management and Business

    Its not the case method of teaching business management that needs that is due for an overhaul, it's the methodologies that are used in teaching based on the case method.

    I am a very strong proponent of case method for a number of reasons (1) Business managers and leaders are faced with and are required to make decisions and solve problems based on incomplete and inadequate set of data. The cases that I have been exposed to as a student and expose my students to comprise of incomplete sets of data and information. It is therefore, I teach the three most critical skills to my students that would help them survive and perhaps succeed in the real world, including their personal lives (a) invest as much time as needed in framing the 'problem statement' or 'question' (b) conduct in-depth research based on the problem statement and or question, (c) summarize the research findings, and (d) arrive at the most viable decision based on the findings and communicate the outcomes / conclusions / decisions effectively.

    After all aren't (a), (b), (c), and (d) the skills used in business decision making and should be the underlying objectives of all teaching. Aren't these are the very skills used by business managers and the leaders to solve very complex business issues?

    We should, as business educators, encourage our students to research outside the case as business problems are often complex and involve more than a narrow approach. As to the questions posed:

    (1) is time consuming--so is life, a part of which is managing and leading a complex business; (2) requires of students a great deal of synthesis of many individual decision making situations to form generalizations- I refer to (a), (b), (c), and (d); (3) is an imperfect way of teaching quantitative techniques-- think there is too much emphasis on quantitative techniques. Today's complex issues require non-linear thinking and qualitative aspects in managing and leading businesses; (4) is based on the notion that there are no right answers, only some that are better than others-There never are right (or perfect) answers. In hindsight there are, but not in foresight.

    I employ the following methodology to cover most aspects (1) use one, at the most two cases to design the class activities, (2) require weekly discussions and or brain storming based on one specific of the case, (3) require students to submit an individual paper covering 2-3 key elements that were discussed/uncovered, and (3) require an integrative project paper that synthesizes the (a) research findings (b) outcomes from discussions and brainstorming sessions, and (d) weekly individual assignments. Of course, the evaluations of student's efforts are subjective; however, they are based on a methodology aptly termed as 'authentic assessment'. In this method, detailed and specific feedback is as important as students' work.

     
     
     
    • Peter Lesser
    • CEO, X-10 (USA) Inc.

    I'm certain the use of the case method must have evolved since my graduation from HBS in 1960. Looking back, the case method opened up the world of business as something exciting to me, rather than my simply tacking an MBA onto an engineering background. We used a few textbooks along the way, but they were dull by comparison. Secondly, cases taught me how to extract a few key facts from an overabundance of data. Today, with the Internet at one's disposal, the data available is virtually boundless. Yet, you still have to drill down to what really counts in making decisions.

    Any MBA program can help teach certain management skills, with or without the use of cases. I do not believe any MBA program can teach leadership; that is a more elusive "trait" rather than skill and some people never acquire it.

     
     
     
    • F. Paul Karres
    • owner & president, Nevada Leadership Institute

    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.

    I was the franchisee for 25 years in Las Vegas, Nevada for the Dale Carnegie organization, and over that period, which ended about 6 years ago, designed a number of cases for various industries and classes. The HBS experience (Class of 1966, Section E) was of extreme value in writing a case for a client. Over the course of two years, the Harvard MBA student probably has to read over 500 cases. However, there are two other pieces which HBS lacks, and actually may not be able to overcome. First, because of other career background, I have a great skill of getting into the trenches of a company, down in the middle of the operations with the people, and write an effective, relevant case. The second skill, thanks to over 25 year of classroom skills learned with the Dale Carnegie organization, I can bring an exremely high degree of relevancy to the classroom, and actually hold the classmember's feet to the fire to get results. This is a highly developed skill, and not everone can do it. Not even a lot of Dale Carnegie instructors. The closest thing I saw at HBS was Professor Charlie Williams class on Basic Business Finance. I did not know then where my career would take me, but once I got into interactive instruction, I pulled out memories of Professor Williams and applied them, along with a lot of other skills.

    An excellent example of how an HBS class should be conducted is found in Part Three of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull". It is an excellent book printed in 1970, and the third part is about coaching. You can pull the entire text off the internet. Only about 70 pages.

    Second, the interactive coaching and tactical leadership skills used in the classroom take years to learn and develop. And a lot of coaching by an outstanding instructor trainer(s). And then a lot of "combat experience". The best evidence of it's effectiveness is found with a current Las Vegas real estate client. Las Vegas is the worst residential real estate market in the United States today. Yet, the sales results I see in the classroom from both new agents and very experienced agents is at a level of three or four years ago. And my client is the only one in town achieving those results.

    So, the point is: The critical part is in the class structure and the instructor skill level, not the written material.

    Stick to the case method. It is highly effective. Do a better job of training your professors. And expect a 30% to 40 % loss, or turnover, of instructors if you decide to really move in that direction. A lot of people just can't do it regardless of how much you train them as instuctors.

     
     
     
    • Mark Matson
    • Director, Program Management, MannKind Corporation

    The most important learning that the case method reinforces is that a team of people, usually between 6-9 people, with varied backgrounds, points of view, and experiences can fully dimension an issue and create an effective solution. Each individual has the opportunity to consider the problem themselves and reveal through the group discussion how their prejudices and perspective effect their proposed solution, and how a better solution is crafted when others contribute. When the "case method" is brought to the workplace, this team approach not only enhances decision-making, but also helps when implementing the solution, since the team is usually responsible to make it happen.

    In a business world that is increasing focused on multifunctional teams, this is an important learning and approach to problem-solving.

     
     
     
    • Gabriel Dennison
    • NTR plc

    The case method may be a good way for MBA students who in many cases have only a few years of postgraduate experience under their belts to gain exposure to real life situations. Having experienced (endured?) the system as a participant on the GMP in 2007 I am not so sure it is as suitable to those with a few more years on the clock. Too much emphasis was placed on a rushed reading of the paper, often minimal discussion in the working group and then class operated as a prolonged teasing out of the options with a quick revelation at the end of "what actually happened". All very well as a technique to instill some thinking training but it was frequently very difficult to ascertain what exactly were the key "take aways" from individual cases other than the universal and perhaps anodyne one that there is no right or wrong way of dealing with many real life situations. All in all "grown up" executives need more than this...

     
     
     
    • Joe Violette
    • Project Manager, Bechtel Corp., Retired

    The Case Method is a management tool. I used it often over the years. It became a structured habit and was very helpful in defining the problem. I generally always involved my project team in coming up with the solution. In later years I also used the so-called "Fishbone" diagram to analyze the "cause" of major problems so that the solution also corrected the "cause."

    Under the pressure of schedule the Case Method approach can provide a decision on the "symptom" rather than solving the "cause."

    The Case Method does not develop leaders! It develops a structured management approach and develops managers. The course that helped me the most in developing leadership as a Project Manager was one at Yale when I was a grad student in Engineering. The course was "Human Relations in Industry." Leadership depends a great deal on interpersonal skills to challenge the team to excel, to innovate and to share and work together. Put the goal and mission of the project first.

     
     
     
    • Lawrence Cox
    • Professor, Strayer University

    As a professor, I agree with Mr. Gerst when he says, "courses like accounting and statistics are best taught via traditional classroom instruction, but that business strategy, marketing, organizational behavior, and all the real world business challenges are best addressed via the case method."

    In teaching finance courses to MBA candidates, I find the use of case analyses valuable for developing their ability to discern future expectations and consequences resulting from the implementation of decisions. Using the Internet as a source of current data enhances the cases and gives students a sense of actuality in their deliberations.

    So long as the case method evolves to reflect change, I see no reason to overhaul it.

     
     
     
    • Jeff Lutz
    • Principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP

    The most important feature of the case study method of teaching is that the student is forced to prepare in advance of class, which facilitates learning. In most other teaching methods, the student comes unprepared for class, listens to others and then crams for exams.

    In the typical HBS class (at least the ones I sat in almost 30 years ago), each of us had worked the night before for 90-120 minutes on the case, and in 15 minutes of class everything everybody had prepared was out on the table. That left over an hour for true learning. Everybody participates (even if they don't speak) because everybody had prepared to participate. This works even in analytic and accounting disciplines, not just in the "soft" subjects or those requiring multidisciplinary thinking.

    The downsides of a pure case study curriculum have been well documented. But most of these criticisms are of the tactics, not the approach. The Columbia example in Dr. Heskett's introduction is just one of many effective extensions of good case study methods.

    Having students prepare in advance of class, focusing the lesson of the day on a real business situation and open discussion among colleagues of methods for resolving that situation are all major strengths of effective case study learning, and one of the key strengths of the HBS education.

     
     
     
    • Matthew

    The four main criticisms of the case method listed above may also be descriptive of four strengths in the methodology.

    Criticism 1) The method is time consuming: Time is something that is valued when judging experience and yet it is something that is looked down upon when judging the effectiveness of a program. The timeliness of results is thus prized over the results themselves, which in this case is getting more real world experience. This lends itself to a form of backwardness that should be examined more carefully. The fundimental question becomes, "Does this methodology lend the results that it intends to render?" Measuring such success or failure relative to other methodologies should be possible and yeild more relevant criticisms or support that are based on something more substantial than arbitrary time.

    2) Requires a great deal of synthesis of experiences to make generalizations: Learning is by definition the formation of generalizations, so I can only assume that this criticism rests on the need to synthesize many different situations. However, don't our generalizations become more accurate as the breadth of our experiences is expanded. I thus have a difficult time seeing this as a criticism unless I have read the statement wrong.

    3) An imperfect way of teaching quantitative techniques. and 4) There are no right answers, only better decisions

    I will combine the critique of the last two because they relate in combination to the methodology at Columbia Business School. The challange of the case method rests in the limitation of irrelevant material. In real life, more information is irrelevant than is relevant. The process of leading begins as a simple observation, which catogorized some information as being more important than others. The challange with the case method is that information is somewhat limited and the discussion is somewhat framed. Both of these challanges can be addressed by increasing the amount of quantitative information in the case and obscuring the framework of the problem by delivering information and feedback in blocks of time (in appropriate progression) rather than all at once. This may be similar to what I understand to be "management simulation" although I am not certain. This has tremendous benefits over the Columbia method, which seems to be prone to myopia. Managment simulation allows for the sources of information to mirror those that are typically found in business practice. The columbia method seems to allow students to bring in outside information but the source of this information is highly questionable as relevant information in practice is many times internally generated. There are of course times when one can Google their way to a solution but most times this is not the case in business.

    In summary of 3 and 4; Increasing quantitative methodology by delivering information and feedback over time blocks may help more accurately simulate situations, which will allow student to make more accurate generalizations in the real word, where there are no right or wrong answers but rather facts and consequences.

     
     
     
    • Sunil Nair
    • Executive Staff Operations, Sprint-Nextel

    I do agree that a balanced approach involving both case based and simulation/scenario based methods are essential to imparting management education. However, I do feel that the case based approach could benefit from a few tweaks that could go a long way in improving its effectiveness.

    Firstly, the volume of cases discussed in currliculums needs a hair cut. Most often courses are riddled with too may cases which puts undue burden on students to complete them. The end result is that students gloss through them superficially (due to time constraints) without giving ample time for synthesis and critical thinking that is vital for the approach to be effective.

    Secondly, there is a tendency for faculty to leave the solution open ended - understandably so since there is no right or wrong answer. But it would certainly help if faculty is encouraged to take a stance one way or the other and justify their stance accordingly.

    Thirdly, cases have a time period associated with them meaning that the solutions discussed in class would be considered appropriate given the business climate that prevailed during the time the events took place. But as the dynamics of the business landscape change, traditional solutions to cases need to be questioned and tested for relevance in the current day and age.

    Lastly, it would make sense to have curriculums have an integrated approach to case discussion. The idea is to tie together multiple related cases (perhaps focusing on a single company's business problems) together and introduce them as the student's curriculum progresses. The context and setting of the case would remain the same but the management aspects being delved into would differ depending on the particular case. The stickiness (retention of lessons learned) associated with this approach is perhaps the highest.

     
     
     
    • John Adams

    Jim: Seems to me, that the four concerns that are raised are all very valid reasons to keep the case study method in place.

    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.

    These are all skills that are required for successful managers in the real world. In the real world you never have enough time, information or skills but you are required to make decisions and manage anyway, even if it is not the "best" decision.

     
     
     
    • Ulysses U. Pardey, MBA
    • Managing Director, Am-Tech, S.A., Panama, Rep. of Panama

    Is Case Method Instruction Due for an Overhaul?

    The Case Method as I knew it:

    Made by thoughtful and great people With the resources to gather lots of information related to the subject. The workplace is not "alive" in the case method as it lacks an essential reality of the workplace and that is the relationship among people at work with a lot at stake (let's say, the dynamic of the workplace); however, the case method is still an excellent tool for learning. Framing a situation in order to outline a decision can certainly be very profitable.

    The dynamic of the Workplace:

    Just a few things: Egos Built-in personal interests which could prevail over everything else Lack of resources such as time, information, support, i.e. you have no time to gather information, or become better. Competition for promotions with whatever is allowed to happen there. Helpful employees. Very selfish employees Abusive employees In other words, people with everything.

    The ability of dealing properly with the dynamic of the workplace might be a key success factor to frame successfully a situation in order to make a good decision. Because of the vital scope of this ability, the workplace could be a source of highly sensitive information across companies of an industry. Therefore the dynamic of the workplace could be the most latent-and-valuable complementary-study for those who learn through the case method and consequently this dynamic should be embraced in the case studies.

    How to incorporate the dynamic of the workplace in the case method?

    A workable answer could be to turn the classroom into a "real" workplace. Is it possible that whenever you are discussing the case in the classroom you become a sitting executive, like when you are watching a tv program or a movie with 3-D glasses? You could really be taken into "it" with the appropriate tools. Perhaps 360? screens in the classroom to immerse executives in real-life workplace situations according to the industry, real 3-D glasses and additional communication devices could become complementary key-success-learning-factors of the case method in order to really take you into "it" every time. The classroom could become a real-life workplace with the corresponding piece of technology.

    This could be a way to turn the case method in-just-a-classroom into a case method in a "live-workplace" and therefore incorporate the dynamic of the workplace in the case method. In some entertainment business, you "really" take off and then you "are" in real outer space. It all feels so real and tangible and far more useful than just talking about it. The question then could be: May you film real-life business situations in real workplaces? Is this a new industry in the business of teaching business?

    The Case Method "Live", the real thing for business schools in the 21rst century? Hopefully.

    What application do they have in preparing leaders versus managers?

    Let us say for an illustration that:

    Managers deal more with things Leaders deal more with people

    Are problems more related to things and needs more related to people? Are problem-solving and need-solving alike?
    Therefore, is it possible - and the right thing to do - to solve a problem and not meeting the related need, if any? Or, no more problem because the need has been met?

    The above approaches might help outline some workable answers.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    The value of the case study is that it forces the student to stand on their feet and discuss and suggest a possible solution/decision/course of action using persuasion and logic. It is a real advantage for students (particularly introverts) to come out of school and show up in the workplace being able to speak persuasively and logically.

     
     
     
    • Kim Allen
    • Environmental consultant, TFI Environment

    I was a little surprised by Mr. Gerst's comment that students of accounting, statistics, and physics cannot benefit from case studies because in those fields there are "singular, correct answers." While the mathematical methods applied to those fields do naturally have quantitative solutions, few practitioners experience their work as quite so straightforward!

    I have a Ph.D. in physics. While my early physics education focused on finding clear solutions to well-posed problems, as I gained sophistication, I learned that the far greater challenge lies in framing the question, determining the appropriate metrics and method of investigation, and interpreting the results. I learned very much from observing and participating in the process of research -- a very human and somewhat messy affair. Case studies would be a great addition to science graduate school curricula.

    Also, in my business school program focusing on Sustainable Business, we used case studies in accounting. Accounting is different from physics because it does not ultimately relate back to experiments on Nature; it is completely a human construct. That means it is subject to alteration as our needs change - and they are changing. How will we properly account for environmental costs, such as ecosystem services? GAAP rests on the notion of certain unlimited, free physical resources, an assumption that simply is no longer true. Even more challenging is folding in the intangibles and human dimensions, such as the value of a compassionate work schedule or open communication.

    I would encourage us not to close certain fields to the prospect of employing case studies, especially due to the assumption that they have a single, correct - and hence unquestionable - answer. All should be questioned in today's business world. (And if we aren't doing it, someone else will, and they will find a better way.)

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    In my humble opinion, case studies and method studies learning basis are the powerful system to pass knowledge and explore the individual capacities.

    When we learn something we aren't capable to apply it to a real situation, if that situation isn't based in universal and static variables. Even in science, medicine, when all the tests are made, basic information as retained, and combined results give trusted and proved diagnostics, we have to have the ability to correlate different individual reactions, and sometimes we have surprises, or just absolutely new ways to deal with and drive a peculiar situation.

    In business, we have the same problem, if we are dealing with accountability, probably measures, inputs and outputs, are always the same... But if we are dealing with negotiation, people managing, with lots of different interests, we haven't a static theory, we have to had the capacity to adapt our self to the environment, we have to had the capacity to learn from the things we don't see, we have to had the capacity to apply different learned methodologies regarding a desired end.

    Those skills we just develop with true experience, and case and method studies improve that experience, I believe. At the limit I true believe in simulators, or in a simulation of different realities, with the big difficult of this methodology that has the control of the result, doing in a way that real cause provoke a real end, it's a big, big challenge. At this point or the result as made based on the goals achieved and not achieved, based on real cases results, or simple professor evaluation and control of the situation.

    For example in the movie "The recruit" with Colin Farrell and Al Pacino, after they learn all the theories and complete all the trainmen, they start working in simulated environments, confronted with the most powerful experiences, always testing their capacities, always with the mystic phrase "everything it's a test".

    Best regards,

     
     
     
    • Manoj Mishra
    • Senior Faculty Member, ICFAI National College

    Case Method is very suitable for for areas where there are no simple solutions but alternatives of which more than one are correct and can lead to desired results. It is like the paths where several paths can lead to the same destination. We can make the cases open ended by incorporating current data and situations updated from the internet. In fact this is already under pactice and found very effective as it helps students to be aware of current scenario as well. OPEN ENDED CASES will also help students and faculties as they would be framing the cases too.

    Situational analysis with the help of working managers who can share incidents or situations which called for marshalling of resources from there past experience can lead to greater learning.

    We are also practicing LIVE PROJECTS which calls from students analysis through internet and other secondary sources and make situational analysis.

     
     
     
    • Padmalatha Suresh
    • Executive director, DMS financial services company Ltd

    As an alumnus of one of the top B-Schools in India, I was raised on a wholesome menu of case studies in almost all disciplines. We enjoyed the process thoroughly and decades later, still relate some concepts to the cases through which they were taught!

    Now, as a practitioner and a visiting professor of finance at top B Schools, I find the case study method the best way to make a lasting impression on students. Concepts will have to be explained through lectures, but when followed up with case studies, the students never forget the concepts. In fact many of my students working for leading companies tell me how they refer to case studies dealt with in class to clear concepts and help decision making on the job. Management education is all about practice, and the body of literature has evolved from practice itself. Hence, case studies are an inseparable part of management education. Innovations like using technology in case studies is always welcome, but that cant detract from the basic advantages that case based learning carries.

     
     
     
    • Richard McCracken
    • Director, ecch

    I'm interested in the extent to which the case method in its essence can be divorced from its physical manifestations - the classroom, the case study, and so on. If we can identify something that is essentially the case method (rather in the way in which intellectual property is the essence of what is manifested in books, films, broadcasts and so on), then it would be possible to use technology - particularly social networking technologies, I think - to develop other and perhaps even more powerful manifestations of the case method. This discussion thread has done much to define what it is that is the essence of the method.

     
     
     
    • Bal Ram Chapagain
    • Faculty Member (Management), WhiteHouse GSM, Nepal

    Despite some limitations of case method of instruction, strengths far outweigh. Therefore, the question is not whether or not it is relevant for decision makers or the overhaul is necessary, but when and how it should be used in different fields and at different levels. Furthermore, how much time and other resources should be committed to it to do justice to all concerned is another crucial question.

     
     
     
    • Simachal Mohanty
    • Dean, ICEMI

    Case method as a learning and teaching tool has been indeed very effective. As an instructor, I value a great deal the case method of teaching beecause of its complexity in nature which involves a great deal of actions, thoughts and innovations in the class.

    I personally prefer and favour the case method of teaching.

     
     
     
    • Kate Azure
    • MBA student, Wilfrid Laurier University

    From all of this discussion, there's a fifth reason why case study is not such a great teaching tool: one of its major weaknesses; unlike case law, business case studies could be liable for the telling or suggestion of unethical or illegal practices, and that's what makes the business case study incomplete. [Where does the competitors' sudden technological breakthrough come from in the old Sony Beta/VHS case study?] By avoiding discussion of possible immoral/illegal issues, might we have added to the conditions that created ENRON and WorldCom as lessons in immoral/illegal business activity? Unless the business case specifically deals with ethical/legal issues, the writing completely ignores that context in business dealings.

     
     
     
    • Ganesh Ram
    • GM - Career Planning & Development, Oracle Financial Services Software

    Case study as a method of educating managers can effectively occupy the sweet spot between concept lecture and real-world experience. Well-designed cases, discussed by students with expert facilitation, can bring out many relevant aspects that managers and leaders need to learn.

    I still remember some of the best case study exercises I encountered as an MBA student two decades ago at Welingkars (Bombay University). Some of them resulted in passionate arguments involving values and decisions that impact lives. Others flooded the students with tons of data (a lot of it irrelevant but identifying them as such was part of the intended learning) that had to be digested in order to recommend a course of action. Sure, there were times where a superficial discussion occurred or the outcomes seemed too straightforward, but that does not invalidate the efficacy of the method itself.

    As a mature tool in wide use at B-schools and corporate training rooms around the world, it probably could benefit with some standardization, both in case development and case facilitation.

    As emphasized in comment #42 (Shahid Sheikh) and #44 (F. Paul Karres) among others, the usefulness of a case method depends a lot on the instructor, time provided, scope for additional data gathering and encouraging multiple perspectives.

    Perhaps some of the criticism arises due to the fact that there are those who tout the case study method as a magic pill.

     
     
     
    • Joe Schmid
    • Managing Principal, Oak Leaf Consulting, LLC

    The problem is more in how case history is used. The teaching emphasis ought to be on the process. New grads are solution rich and problem definition poor because of their schooling. They find themselves continually searching in vain for the perfect "template" from their case history library that fits what they are up against. Case history ought to be used in the classroom to illustrate the process. The problems business leaders face don't neatly fit into the relatively narrow field of case law and medicine.

     
     
     
    • Christian G. Fournier
    • Director (Ret'd), IIM Ltd

    The case method is a very effective and time tested method of teaching. It has been in use at least since the 16th century, where it was in honor at Jesuit institutions of learning under the name of "casuistics". And I'm sure that with a little research, one can find its origins in classical Greece!

    During my MBA experience at HBS, I have not found the case method incompatible with the teaching of quantitative methods.

    There were some cases where number crunching was needed, and there was one in particular where I made a mathematical mistake which turned my solution completely awry. This kind of experience makes for a lifelong memory...

    As others have pointed out before me, the most dangerous problems in business are those where one has no inkling that there is a problem!

    I don't know whether 'sniffing a problem' for the existence of which one has no clue - the famed "unknown unknown" - can be teached. But if it can, I do not see why it couldn't be done by the case method.

    If I were in the teaching dept of HBS, I would think more of 'opening' the cases that of 'suppressing' or lessening their use.

    It is true that some of the cases I have studied at HBS (it was back in the early seventies) had more of the look of a mathematical problem than that of a business matter. Here was a question, more or less neatly delineated, and there -hidden somewhere- was a solution, without doubt.

    But, here again, I do not see why 'open cases' could not be made; "Open cases" i.e. open with the triple meaning that: (1) some have solutions that are not in the case and that one has to fish from the internet or from libraries, or from interwiewing old-timers;
    (2) some have no satisfactory solution at all, but can lead the teacher (in class) to review the panel of palliatives that have been used in real-life cases such as this - and perhaps one day a maverick student shall find a truly innovative solution; and (3) for some - the odd case - not only there is no solution but there is no problem! Reviewing such a case would give the teacher the opportunity to show students that they must not only take care of incoming problems but also periodically review the efficient and tested parts of the business - looking for improvements and for contingency plans, should a problem arise one day...

    In my HBS experience, the truly warped education method has been the WAC. After one year of practice of twice-a-month WACs, the student came out dead sure that he could solve any kind of problem with a couple of sleepless nights. I have carried the habit all my professional life, and it did me little good.

    So, as a conclusion: long live the open case!

     
     
     
    • Meenalochani
    • Consultant, MindTree Consulting Ltd

    The case study method is an "essential, fundamental baby step" to understanding management. As a management student, most often, one comes with minimum exposure to the corporate world. It is impossible to be able to relate to reality without perhaps being in a hypothetical situation. A case study that shadows reality can be a potential platform for building some management competencies listed below:

    1. Ability to think contexually and analyse leading to building skills in decision making;
    2. Ability to develop multiple solutions to a key issue;
    3. Ability to dialogue and reason;
    4. Research skills.

    Though the list is not exhaustive by any standard, the case study approach certainly was, is and will be a great way to comprehend management.

     
     
     
    • Lipi Das
    • Faculty --Life Skills, IILM-Graduate School of Management, Greater Noida, India

    There is a general perception that subjects like accounts and quantitative techniques require traditional classroom lecture centric pedagogy whilst for subjects like marketing, organizational behavior, business strategy, life skills, the case study approach is more appropriate. Even for subjects like quantitative techniques, after the students are exposed to tools and techniques, the case study method allows the student to apply the learning and this makes the teaching learner-centric.

    If our aim is to focus on creating future leaders/managers, the case study method is the right approach as it fosters creativity, out of the box thinking and looking at the big picture approach which are the key skills the recruiters are looking while hiring. No doubt the approach is against the backdrop of a simulated environment. But the onus of driving the case study methodology is primarily on the faculty in the business schools who have worked in the Industry, exposed to the real life managerial situations or continuous consultancy basis. This creates an environment wherein the students are updated on the latest business strategies, concepts, and management tools.

     
     
     
    • Lambros Karavis
    • Director, Karavis & Associates

    The case method is not only a method of teaching/instruction but a method of learning and discussion. It provides a means for exploring various approaches to problem solving, it enables open discussion which facilitates the learning process as well as enabling future managers to deal with messy and complex problems. It is hard to think of another learning methodology which allows this to happen.

    Yes, the case method is time consuming, both in terms of faculty preparation as well as student preparation prior to class as well as during the class session. It requires syndicates of learners to explore the situation and decisions prior to class and then face the difficult situation of listening to other approaches and views ... just as one does in real-life managerial situations. Real life decisions also take time to explore and make, often requiring additional information... and the case method has developed ways of dealing with that using case series.

    If there's one thing that management requires it is the ability to synthesize different perspectives and viewpoints, to explore different facets of a decision before committing to a plan of action. That's the strength of the case method rather than a weakness.

    Cases are about making decisions. Quite correctly people understand they are not designed to be used to simply teach quantitative skills but teach future managers how to frame the models for quantitative decision-making, how to address questions of imperfect or unreliable information, how to think about the limits of the quantitative analysis, how to add qualitative assessments to quantitative modelling and calculations. It's important to understand the quantitative models but just as important to understand their uses and limits in decision-making.

    Cases that have a "right answer" assume there is only one decision-making criterion that can be applied. The reality of organisational life is that managerial preferences, shareholder needs and political requirements cannot be easily identified let alone expressed in a simple, objective criterion. Managers make judgement calls on what is the right way to move forward because the process of trying to develop an objective, single criteria can take longer than allowing that criteria to emerge during the decision-making process.

    The problem I have seen in many years of both teaching and consulting is that many case teachers have been inadequately (if at all) prepared for the arduous task of leading and facilitating a case learning discussion. It is time consuming and most business schools do not reward teaching to anywhere near the same extent as they reward publications and research. Perhaps one needs to ask whether the funding agencies for business schools need to look more closely at the balance of rewards for teaching versus research.

    The case method has evolved considerably over the years. There are case series for decision-making over time, cases using simulation models and other quantitative modelling, cases which progressively unfold available information, cases with videos of interviews of decision-makers and cases allowing data mining at the discretion of the case learner. Let's understand the richness of the methodology.

    This is not to say that other methods of learning do not exist. Applied learning through projects and consulting is extraordinarily important and valuable when actually facilitated by experienced faculty, lectures are a very efficient way of communicating theory to students, laboratories are another way of showing how human and physical behaviour can vary in controlled conditions ... but the case method of learning has clear advantages in giving future managers practical experience in making decisions.

    The case method has evolved considerably in the past sixty years. Have we simply set up a straw man for the argument (chuckle).

     
     
     
    • Kathy Korman Frey
    • Founder, The Hot Mommas Project

    Case value in my experience comes from three main areas:

    Retention - Placing a learning objective within a context - a case - enhances retention. Who hasn't had the experience of remembering multiple facts from a story someone told, but remembering only one or two things - if that - from a textbook. In a pilot study of Hot Mommas Project cases (personal/professional cases on women), retention of key concepts increased 33%. While Hot Mommas Project cases include a significant amount of personal background on the protagonist which may further assist learning, there is no doubt that the standard business case would lead to higher retention of learning objectives vs. a textbook.

    Interaction - Adult learners have different requirements than child learners. They want to self-direct and interject their own experience. See this link for more.

    Voyeurism - As a self-professed business junkie, I often wished I were a fly on the wall in certain business situations or discussions. Cases allow for this business voyeurism. It is really gratifying, to be honest. I went to Harvard Business School and remember back to Crimson Greetings, the real-time, real-life (sort of) exercise with real people. I also read hundreds of cases, maybe thousands. I find myself drawing on a broad mental rolodex of information from the cases. My experiences in management, and even in exercises like Crimson Greetings, are a compliment - but could never serve as a replacement - to the tremendous breath of knowledge from cases.

    If you have a case to tell, we at the Hot Mommas Project encourage you to write your case for our case study competition: www.HotMommas.org. Cool Daddies welcome as well. We seek individuals who are personally and professionally driven.

     
     
     
    • Ulysses U. Pardey, MBA
    • Managing Director, Am-Tech, S.A.,Panama, Rep. of Panama

    Allow me to make further comments on this subject.

    The Case-Method Live.

    A would-be workable application: Through this piece of technology a case study could be run connecting live the sitting students-in-a-classroom with sitting executives-in-a-workplace( marketing, sales, board meetings, thinking in the workplace, mergers & acquisitions, else) according to the industry of the case. Everyone, students in-the-classroom and executives in-the-workplace, would have the same case-study with the same information (hopefully) so that the case-study "summit" would involve students and executives live with their insights, simultaneously seeing and communicating with each other, interacting for, let us say, framing situations in order to mutually help each other shape matter-of-fact solutions for mutual learning and benefit. This might enhance substantially the quality of learning in less time in a way neither envisioned nor experienced so far, as students do not have to wait to go back to a workplace to check how better they are getting and executives do not have to wait until they go to a business school to start improving themselves as people and professionals. It is probable that not only the classroom and the workplace (a portable piece of technology which could be taken from workplace to workplace might work) might have to be scientifically and technologically conditioned but an appropriate pc package could also be used via the internet for a better communication among all participants of the case-study summit. This could be done fairly often regardless of the size and location of the workplace or simultaneous workplaces.

    Some case-study summits could be suitable for a summit achievement-agenda for follow-up purposes and the genuine learning possibilities related to execution-and-accomplishment. Summit participants could identify how decision-making and the dynamic of the workplace do affect each other, something which so far could be missing in a regular case-study. This might favor business and society. It reads as a win-win situation.

    With the Case-Method Live for case-study "summits", the classroom and the workplace will know no borders and this could make a world of difference.

    Who knows? We might be able to witness the Case-Method Live World-Premier case-study "summit" performance pretty soon and free-of-charge in the internet and/or on TV. Best wishes.

    Thank you for the opportunity.

     
     
     
    • Hardik Vachhrajani
    • Doctoral Researcher, NMIMS University, Mumbai, India

    I have an experiment to share with all of you. I have been using the case method of teaching for more than four years (since I have been teaching). For last couple of years, I have used 'Oral' method of teaching for the subject like entrepreneurship.

    Entrepreneurship is a subject where 'Oral', (or let me put it in conventional vocabulary 'Story Telling') has worked well with my students. In subject like entrepreneurship where student has to relate the topic to a larger than life character/incident/process, it is always great to use 'Oral' as a method. I bring entrepreneurs in front of the students and tell entrepreneurs to make sure that they describe their entrepreneurship journey in a story format and not in a didactic format. This has really helped students understand the crux of the process.

     
     
     
    • Rowland Freeman
    • retired sort of, SCORE Counselor's to America's Small Business

    Why, when we have something which has survived criticism over the last at least 50 years as a great teaching tool, do the same 4 concerns arise again? At HBS there were plenty of quantitative programs such as Control, Finance etc. Cases brought you into the very real world of business and forced analysis which is difficult to learn in this "make it easy" world. In every job I have held, I have used cases for over 50 years as a way of educating managers, making business decisions myself and use them in SCORE with clients. There is no one completely right way in most business decisions, but usually 2 or 3 which are almost right. Case analyses teach valuable tools long after so-called quantitative measures have proven their fallibility. All we have to do is look at the joyful quantitative measures formally used by financial institutions such as Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch to see the need for in depth case studies. When I was Commandant of the Defense Systems Management College, with the help of HBS, I introduced cases to "budding" program managers, and these provided much-needed program management reality. Unfortunately discontinued to "save time". Yes, case studies are hard, take time and normally come to no one right course of action. But that is life in the real world of business.

     
     
     
    • Walter P. Blass
    • Visiting Professor, Grenoble Graduate School of Business

    The previous 60+ comments illustrate beautifully the value of case method teaching, as well as its problems. I would add only an echo of what has been emphasized already: (1) The role of the discussion leader. C. Roland Christensen made that the core of his book at HBS. I do agree with the suggestion that actual business/government/NGO experience enhances the instructor's ability to convey reality to the discussion. Bob Ackerman made that clear when he spent a year at Bendix watching Bill Agee. (2) Student commitment to reading the case thoroughly. I've been made aware repeatedly that students try to 'game' this stage, assuming that others in the group or class will save them. It's up to the instructor to devise means to catch the miscreants! (3) The requirement for integration of the various disciplines (HR, SP, Finance, Globalization, Government, etc) is a major requirement in real life, but tends to take a back seat to the individual discipline in a given case. I always try to re-focus the discussion on "what about X" if people get too caught up in one or another aspect. (4) Leadership. After teaching a two dimensional "Business Compass" with 9 of the major disciplines around the periphery, I ended up inserting a central spindle called Leadership in the visual and demanding qualitative answers to how the management satisfied that criterion. As that remark of Samuel Johnson has it about hanging, it certainly focuses class discussion. (5) Student learning. I want to praise those entries that speak of demanding additional student work beyond merely class discussion. Our school requires a 20,000 word dissertation on a topic of the student's choice, but with "advice and consent" of an instructor. I find that working with students over many months to 're-fine' and 're-construct' the thesis serves to embody many of the lessons hopefully learned in class. Like swimming, talking about the theory doesn't compare with actually doing it in a pool against the clock. (6) Defining the Issues. To me, the tendency for professors to pose questions in advance defeats the essential element of real life situations as well as case studies: what should management be focusing on; what are the principal issues to be resolved; who is responsible in the final analysis? Too often, both MBA students and real managers get caught too low in a decision tree level, and do not ask (often for politically sensitive reasons) the principal question. If you don't ask the right question, you surely won't get the right answer!

     
     
     
    • Juan Aguirre, Ph.D
    • Chief Economist, CAMSA Consulting

    For many years, it has been quite useful, but the emphasis in How and What, in my opinion, has made people forget the Why. I find that today the need is in Why and that is a question for which case studies are not very useful.

     
     
     
    • Sudhir Krishna

    I would look at the effectiveness of the case method in teaching two areas: strategy and execution. Strategy cases are excellent for developing skills at looking at incomplete or fuzzy information and coming up with the most logical decisions. Execution cases, on the other hand, fall short if they focus only on the analytical dimension and overlook the human. At virtually every level of management, execution depends on overt and hidden agendas, resistance, conflicting priorities, limited resources, individual abilities, attempts at subversion, and so on. In using the case method to teach execution, I suggest that human elements be integrated with the analytical ones. In setting up a factory, for instance, don't just ask what the sales forecasts are or what project management tools to use. Include discussions about other claims on resources, conflicting priorities, agendas of various stakeholders, resistance areas, competencies of individuals/groups, etc.

     
     
     
    • Terry Bloomsburgh MBA 72
    • Accounting, Trans, Berkeley UnifSchDistr

    I think there has been an overemphasis on the case method, particularly when it comes to quantitative methodologies. Although some professors are more agile at working around this than others.

    I think the case method should be the core methodology for most classes, but there should be room for other approaches--particularly for teaching students about researching for data about a situation beyond what is made available in the case materials, such as industry or broader economic, social, or environmental data. I would say that the largest gap in my MBA experience was not getting enough experience in learning how to and where to do research to further my knowledge base on which to make management decisions.

     
     
     
    • Henry Maigurira
    • Project Management., MTK Corporate Solutions

    The case method has been useful in all aspects of learning and development. If it would matter, exploring instructional, informative, summative and baseline way of learning, then it would become apparent that subjects can be conveyed through the case method for effectiveness. In the realm of Finance, derivatives are quantitative by nature, to find, for instance, the cumulative effect of short term loans over long-term fianance in repaying mortgage bonds in a low inflationary environment and flactuating housing prices requires dilution of past experiences and momentum of experience.

    An interesting supposition is put forward to somewhat give a directive to the status qou of the case method and that it is not an exhaustive method of teaching but a part and some other effective tools in the education market present apparent matches. Meaningfuly compatible with the quantum of reality in the economy, social sciences and other pradigms of learning disciplines.

    The question of technology and globalisation has not not been tackled to beam the possible advantages that might stream from the case method especially when it comes to dilluting quantitative methods problem solving solutions.

    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.

     
     
     
    • Alexander "Sandy" Weissent
    • Owner, General Mgmt & Turnaround Consulting

    As a Harvard undergrad, I audited a couple of HBS courses, but went to U of Chicago GSB. These two schools may be at the extreme ends of the "case vs. academic instruction" spectrum. After 30 years in business, my conclusion is that the school's approach doesn't really make a significant difference in the eventual success of the business leader. By the time we get to you, we're like a young member of a professional baseball team, wanting to learn and to get in the line-up quickly so we can prove ourselves and succeed, but subject to random impacts of random knowledge, from occasionally blessed teachers who know how to transmit knowledge. By the time we get to you, you are simply "tweaking" our well-formulated IQ, EQ, and mix of pre-existing knowledge and experience. Our performance can be affected as much or more, by our teammates and the enviroment you create. Almost all of my teachers and coaches simply exposed me to knowledge and opportunities to learn, to which I applied myself or didn't. I learned as much from my fellow students and teammates as I did from the vastly outnumbered coaches. And, the "culture" and school / work environment, was either encouraging or not. Net net: fill your B school classes with individuals who are bright, capable, driven, well-rounded team players, who are willing to share their knowledge and who will work together well; and create a culture of wise risk-taking, positive reinforcement, and meaningful instruction, i.e., show by example how to create a work environment of, and for, success. Like the successful sports team that wins, you've got to "have the horses" but you also need to create a winning enviroment, no matter whether it's all case, all academic instruction, or a nice, rational balance of the two.

     
     
     
    • Michael Clegg
    • VP&GM

    The case study method is useful in that it allows one to gain experience vicariously - I have a personal slogan, "Learn from others' mistakes, you don't have time to make them all yourself". However as stated to be effective and make their point, case studies have to be reduced and canned to some extent, and the real world is never that clean. Some of the case study examples I experienced at HBS had a somewhat artificial feel to them - they were too tailored to fit the lesson. Still simulation and practice which a case study provides, has proven to be effective at training people in how to approach a problem.

    The potential pitfall of case studies is that it creates review mirror execution. If it is the sole teaching tool, the temptation for someone is to find the case study that most closely matches their current problem and then literally apply the case study. I see this too all too often amongst management and strategy consultants (having been one myself).

     
     
     
    • Lynnette Marie Doran
    • Owner, Consignment Stores Plus, L.L.C.

    Throughout the MBA program with University of Phoenix Online case studies were worked within assigned groups and I can tell you that the work that went into preparing and presenting resolutions formed the backbone of the business practice and the confidence and experience I gained during my progression. While facilitating graduate students the iinstructors were working in the field.

    While case studies were simulated (as they were in this particular program of study), they supported the academic learning that was being covered and built upon successively. One great need was for a real "human" experience in this education...some facilitators presented such, of course, anonymity being given to individuals, companies, etc.

    I would agree with concerns (1) through (4) above. Case studies, hopefully should not be synonymous with education in business; it's too self-limiting. All told.

    I appreciate this forum and have gained realization of how others feel about the "case study."

     
     
     
    • Luiz Novaes
    • CIO, CET - Cia. Engenharia de Trafego

    As long as management is an art, only experience / many exposures to real life situations can teach how to navigate in troubled management waters.

    The case method is the real best way to teach the finesses of managing people, assets, shareholder value.

     
     
     
    • Sanjeeva Bhushan
    • Student PGPEX-VLM, IIM Calcutta

    In over 10 years of manufacturing experience, I feel that most of the decisions taken are either based on logic or on intuition which one has developed over years of experience. However, the decisions are more or less guided by the opportunities he/she has been exposed to till date. The conclusions give the flavour of the individual. There's no specific right answer to any management issue, it's the popularity of the proposed model.

    One can't learn driving either by reading books or by taking classroom lectures; there's a need of simulation to make him comfortable to real life driving skills. In my view, Case study method enjoys the following advantages over conventional methodology:

    1. Makes one's thought process vocal & exposes him to reason his observations,
    2. Makes one aware of the improvement areas( during the case studies), which at the hindsight gives an opportunity to build the foundations by self-learning,
    3. Gives an opportunity for developing a habit of analysing the data,
    4. Broadens one's view of visualising the real life situations.

    As a management student, I strongly feel that case study methodology improves ones capability to synthesise & analyse an issue making him more confident to face real life situations.

     
     
     
    • Sujeet Prabhu
    • Manager, Larsen & Toubro Limited

    I feel the Case Method is very useful in developing in students the ability to analyze a broad set of data and is highly effective in teaching decision-making skills. In recent years, however, successful companies have increasingly shorter lives, thereby reducing the life of the cases that are based on these companies.

    I feel that the Case Method should increasingly be used not just to teach the decision making process that succeeded (or failed) but to explain the concepts on how decision making in a particular situation or time may not be effective in another situation. This is important to drive home the key concept for managers that there are no fixed solutions to business problems.

     
     
     
    • Harry M. Gage
    • Retired Owner, Gage & Company

    In looking back over 57 years that have flown by since my HBS MBA experience, I continue to be a strong supporter of the case method. I have always believed that the quality of leadership can be cultivated and enhanced through training, but is principally the result of deeply embedded innate personal qualities and values, most if not all of which can and should be recognized in the MBA student selection process. If the purpose of the MBA experience were to be limited to the training of adminstrators and managers, I believe that a strong case can be made for traditional textbook driven training. However, since the purpose of the MBA experience at HBS and other top tier business schools is the development of business leaders, the case method is in my opinion much superior by a wide margin.

     
     
     
    • Craig Dumont
    • Lecturer, CPUT, South Africa

    Case Studies will always be a tool that can be utilised to teach students. It allows for opportunities to assimilate situations, stimulate problem solving ability, and the nurturing of personal wisdom. It is, however, limited and should therefore be used together with exposure to the real world through community service, work experience, and personal research initiatives.

     
     
     
    • Aditya Mohan
    • Brand Developer, Unilever

    There is absolutely no doubt that the case method is indispensible. The only discussion is where all is it suitable and secondly, are there things that can be improved about it?

     
     
     
    • Melvin Stanford
    • Former Dean and Professor of Management, Minnesota State University - Mankato, Retired

    There is no need to overhaul the case method where it is understood and employed properly. If anything needs overhaul it is the misuse of cases.

    In their landmark publication, "A Profile of Pedagogy in the Teaching of Business Administration," (Academy of Management Review, April 1977), Arch Dooley and Wickham Skinner of the Harvard Business School Faculty set forth clearly eight educational objectives. Cases are rated excellent in four of the eight, good in one, fair in one, and poor in one. Decision cases (not just stories or problems) are best utilized to: Acquire skill in analysis of business problems; Acquire skill in synthesis of action plans; Develop useful attitudes; Develop mature judgment/wisdom. Cases are poor for simply acquiring knowledge, concepts and techniques.

    As a lifelong educator following graduation from HBS, I have used cases extensively at four universities, with excellent results, as measured by the careers of my students. I used other methods to teach things that are not best suited for cases. I fully believe that cases can teach the business skills as defined by Dooley and Skinner better than any other teaching method, if done by someone who understands cases and how to use them.

     
     
     
    • Karen Caswelch

    I vote case study - 20 years later. As an engineer who went to business school, I was much more comfortable with "right" answers.... After 20 years in manufacturing leadership positions, I know that it is very difficult to come to one right answer, and even more difficult to sell your staff, peers and boss on that answer. The case study process gives us a chance to understand develop that critically important side of management.

    From a memory perspective, I still remember how much the discussion changed in my HBS section when during our first "decision tree" case, one of my fellow students raised the ethical implications of the decisions. I remember thinking, "but the math says do 'X.' What do you mean ethical implications?" We had a very special first year because we learned to think through not just the math, but the overall implications to our decisions.

     
     
     
    • Adrian Grigoriu
    • EA consultant

    A traditional teaching style exposes beforehand, the theory, the rules, the process, the steps or the algorithm... of solving a problem, "synthesised" by experts in years of work on many Cases. Afterwards, exercises illustrate the use of theory in practical cases. For an exercise, i.e. a Case Study, the student is already armed with a method to solve it. A Case method looks sometimes like an exercise without prior instruction on the solving method. Students trying in class to solve a Case without prior "know how" attempt to "synthesise" during class all the arduous work of their predecessors, with more often than not, ambiguous and inconclusive results.

    I would rather disagree as well with the premise (point 4) of the Case method: "there are more answers to a problem". In practice, only one answer can be adopted. In Law practice, there is only one verdict to the Case: guilty or not guilty. Even, from a theoretical point of view, there can only be one best solution amongst all "better" answers. The more answers approach serves, perhaps, only the purpose of defusing the potential antagonism of the students' debate in class. The Case method should help discover the one answer.

    The Case method may reflect though the immature stage of the discipline it is applied to where there may be few agreed methods. Business management is still an art. In my field, consultancies do have many Cases in their knowledge base but similarly, few "synthesise" a method.

    As a result, the Case method teaching may become rich in "thinking" polemics but diluted in knowledge transfer. The Case method excites the sophistic philosophy of management attracting often too much speculation.

     
     
     
    • Ciprian Patrulescu

    Reading about management theories amounts to little more than remembering ideas and terms.

    The HBS case studies have pushed my thinking to another level. My pattern of thinking has evolved from analysis (making inferences and finding evidence to support generalizations) to synthesis (compiling information together in a different way or proposing alternative solutions) and evaluation.

     
     
     
    • Ananda Chakravarty
    • Senior Manager

    My compliments to Adrian Grigoriu who is the first full naysayer on a brand defining aspect of HBS's curriculum (some others did respond with partial criticisms - but none until now who thoroughly seemed to disavow the methodology). Case method is not real life. My case method training (literally hundreds of hours and hundreds of cases) have not directly prepared me for any of the real world problems I'd be forced to tackle afterwards in real time, real world environs as a manager, leader, colleague, and business person.

    I will admit, I thoroughly enjoyed each and every case I worked on - in most cases pulling ideas, concepts, data, research from a myriad sources. However, it did not set up the framework for challenges I would be facing in the real world environments. I could never go back to my case studies and consult the work I had done to make a decision. As a matter of fact, the decisions that came my way were so different, I basically was at square one - relying more on intuition and gut feel than critical thinking.

    When you start an MBA program, it is expected you already have a certain level of skills - in thinking, in building eq, in establishing analytical thought, systemic reasoning, and pattern recognition/organization. You already have that intuition built in by the time you enter the programs. The case study did not necessarily enhance these abilities - except in one respect - repetitive usage of these skills to address a problem/issue or set of problems/issues. Isn't that essentially the same as rote memorization, or in some circles - 'practice' ?

    The case method certainly did not help me with leadership skill building, human sensitivity, work relationships, persuasion, creativity, or understanding how to deal with complex, difficult people scenarios - except perhaps dealing with members of my study group from so long ago. Tell me - was it really the case method or interacting with my fellow students that taught me how to deal with controversial situations and arguments that arose from how to approach a problem? I learned more from selecting who and how we would approach a case before we had even read it than from the case itself. Therein we had true conflict, people who wanted to do the finance part or the strategy section - and then communicating our thoughts to each other and synthesizing a final solution that would placate our group (and our professor)

    Most important of all, it has not helped in making me a better decision maker. I was able to execute the same analytical thoughts as an engineer, come to logical decisions, based on factual data, or partial data manipulated to represent factual data to guess, speculate (as Adrian so aptly put it), and estimate the right course of action. Decisions I make today are based on far different criteria than logical thinking. Mostly dictated by the conditions and surrounding uncertainties - my CEO's whims, the unforeseen market crashes, the key customer who ran off with our competitor's box seat tickets, or the accounting error that translated into a full scale audit. Did my cases really prepare me to handle stress? Did they engage on a level where I was able to work through the front line, broader scope, or strategic issues on an ongoing basis in real time - with my boss or finance dept screaming for the real numbers or the customer threatening to call their legal dept to enfor ce a lawsuit?

    On second thought, maybe these case studies did help me through all these situations - and I just didn't know it. The case method is not real life. The closer we make it to real life, the better it would be.

     
     
     
    • Jacoline Loewen
    • Partner, Loewen & Partners

    As an MBA who used the case methodology BI (before internet) I agree that the case method needs upgrading. Rotman, University of Toronto, built a three month program where teams had to apply their management tools learnt to a case and present to Boards of external managers. It was quite effective at getting each student to have to stand up and defend their ideas and show how much they understood the tools they were using to back up decision making. Also - many students built a network and got jobs from the contact with external business people. I have spent 25 years running strategy projects and I do find that the analytical, quiet types often add the most to a project's depth and when I did the MBA, those types would not be heard - just the louder ones.

    So are the case based schools encouraging a louder personality when perhaps a humbler approach is also very much needed? Could this be why many MBAs are viewed as brash, with an attitude of "what's in it for me"? Finally, with the Internet, Generation Y and younger will be bored out of their skulls unless you bring this into the classroom.

     
     
     
    • Fabio De Vincenzi
    • Marketing Manager

    During my business studies I practiced both case method and (very basic) marketing simulations. I found both a preferable way to learn than lectures and academic studies in general. They have their weak points, as many pointed out in these pages. In my opinion, bigger one is being both time consuming and thus less efficient than academic methods for transfer basic knowdlege.

    Anyway, I believe case studies teach a lot more than they apparently do, including how to confront a world that do not have a single, optimal solution, that is not simple to understand, where informations are not always available when needed, and where hard work could not suffice to achieve. Moreover, teach interpersonal skills that are invaluable. I strongly believe it is better have a througtly knowdlege of few, reusable, principles than a huge amount of specialized -maybe unconnected- knowledge (someone could say a bunch of "recipes"), and seems to me that case studies are a way to find some of that principles -- when used properly and with a touch of luck.

    I agree with Melvin Stanford, cases are not well suited to transfer efficiently knowledge or concepts: if a improvement will arise, I expect will be the adoption of pattern design method in management studies, too. As many computer science students, I was introduced to pattern design during my engineering studies, when it was enthusiastically adopted by many software engineering teachers in mid 90s, and eventually in some organizational courses.

    When Chistopher Alexander introduced this method to teaching architectural design, thirty years ago, he argued that using a carefully defined set of design rules ("design patterns") even the subtle, elusive quality of a well-designed building -so hard to put into words- can be made remarkably simple and easy to understand by laymen. I found his idea extremely powerful, especially for introducing a layman into a new field, and really capable to teach -in a very effective and efficient way- concepts that require a lot of experience to being mastered, concepts that one could grasp from a repetition of similar cases, but using a lot more time and effort. Moreover, learning the fundamentals from cases seems to me harder to be controlled by teacher, i.e. less repeatable, maybe forcing further selection at enrollment.

    IMHO management -- and more than that leadership -- is a combination of science and art. You can feel the art behind some of best decisions when you encounter them. Although science, as quantitative methods, can be simply learned by usual academic methods -just follow a good book and take some drills- art must be experienced, hands on. I believe it could be introduced using design patterns to quickly create the substrate of knowdlege on which practice can grow experience. However, case studies are a good tool to make a learning experience.

    Of course, the pace depend by learner, but the path not only by teacher and by his clever case picking, and the whole process seems to me very sensible not only to initial conditions (learner's skills and background) but to imponderable. It works, often. But how often?.

    For these reasons, I believe that a carefully designed mix of management design patterns (when they will become available), case studies and perhaps simulations and "serious games" will emerge as the most effective and efficient way to teach management skills.

    Eventually simulations and serious games will first complete and maybe finally substitute case studies. But until now, I personally haven't saw anything advanced enough to do the same job.

    If we want to speak of future alternatives, starting from "Holy Graal" of education, a computer program capable to adapt to learner background and to drive him to learning objectives, customizing its reactions to learner's pace as only the best teachers in one-to-one (or one-to-very few) lessons can do, my opinion is that could be the target of a (little scale?) Manhattan project, if ever.

    Until then, based on my personal experience as learner, I believe that with today available technology, the bulk of a management course (after introductory concepts are internalized), should continue to be based on cases.

     
     
     
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC (India) Private Limited

    History is a methodical record and study of past events. It is a guide to understand what - failings or otherwise - led to events. An in-depth examination of the events gone by leads to understand and get clarity and it is an opportunity to be guided by 'lessons learnt.'

    The case method is parallel to the foregoing. Things have happened and decisions arrived at. For example, a Judge takes cognizance of earlier decisions in similar (or related) cases and even quotes the same to support his own verdict. In many other work areas such as those falling in the orbit of HR, general management, administration and even finance (e.g., taxation) the past is focused upon.

    Case Method instruction is a convincing mode to learn from the experience of others, an experience which has stood the test of time. Nevertheless, further innovations and improvements should also be welcome.

    The method is useful and retaining it as a helpful tool is called for. No need for overhaul seems necessary at present.

     
     
     
    • partber
    • adrian cruz, barrett cruz baron

    After my MBA at HBS I worked in four large pharmaceutical laboratories and retired as President with revenues of US $2Billion and 15,000 employees. I also picked up a PhD along the way from another institution that did not utilize the case method. I can assure you that the HBS case method taught me more and was more relevant even after 30 years.

    Adrian Cruz, PHD, MBA 75

     
     
     
    • Sophie Giles
    • Managing Consultant, YSC

    We know that people have wildly different: preferences for learning, aptitudes for connecting with an issue at its depth - logical or emotional, levels of experiential context to reflect upon, levels of social confidence, needs for grounding theories / frameworks etc etc. If the HBS learning process is founded more or less solely on case studies then that can only be a serious fault in the make up of the programme. It will, by virtue of design, only appeal to and genuinely educate a select group of participants - something reflected in the wide variety of responses here.

     
     
     
    • Sai Nagarajan

    Apropos the timing of this piece, given that we live in an age when entire industries like Investment Banking can get re-shaped and re-made in less than a week! Cases can tend to become antiquated relics of a 'different age and time' even before they are packaged.

    The case method has its merits in that it enables the introduction and reinforcement of first principles, whilst being grounded in a real world scenario. The alternative, could be worse, in that students 'learn from the book' but not 'how to apply it'. Hence the case method retains its merits, for a 'particular audience' to provide an introduction and foundation for integrative problem-solving and managerial decision-making. It is a 'LEARNING aid'.

    However, it tends to outlive its utility when you try to 'scale' it to meet higher-order interests. It is not necessarily a 'DOING aid'. For instance, if you were to role play a key decision maker that needs to work with a combination of incomplete, inconsistent or irrelevant data points in the 'real world'; the case method tends to be too restrictive.

    Does the case method make better 'leaders'? Thats probably a difficult one to frame and resolve with any degree of confidence, given the diversity in views around 'what or who is a leader'. Suffice to suggest that any foundational work done through the case-method to 'LEARN' can only better equip one for 'DOING' what needs to be done ...

    If the measure of success is 'LEARNING', then the case method is a useful aid; possibly strengthened through the integration of collaborative technologies to make it more interactive.

    If the measure of success is 'DOING', then the case method remains just one other ingredient in the larger recipe for success; and it would be premature to take it off the kitchen counter... without a larger examination of other ingredients, infrastructure, and of course the chef himself/herself ....

     
     
     
    • John L Wilson
    • Manager, Campus Community, U of Arizona

    The biggest problem with the case method is what it has always been: You can rationally conclude that the solution requires you fire old Joe but no one ever has to actually call Joe in and tell him he is fired. Joe is a real person and is not a category. He may be 18 months from retirement. His wife may have cancer or he may just have got married. If it were obvious that Joe needed to go, it would not have made a good case study in the first place. So every case study involves circumstances where someone has to do something and it isn't going to be fun. The case study rarely considers this and never makes anyone go out and do it for real.

     
     
     
    • Angelo Gallina
    • Principal, CPA, Contabila - Albenga, Italy

    I've got two master degrees from two of Europe's top business schools, HEC-Paris and Said-Oxford, and case studies were the most unuseful and ineffective learning tool.

    It is not irrelevant the fact that at a business school you pay to be taught, not to study: indeed nobody needs to pay just for studying. Students learn in a classroom where "the professor" actually teaches them, not where they must carry the professor's job.

    If the lecture's ultimate goal is to teach, a lot of examples, well selectioned and well explained by the professor will do. Case studies, as we know them, are totally unuseful.

     
     
     
    • juliana valentina moretti
    • student, IMAPES

    The case method is the best tool of learning since we have different points of view on the same case, and all these points are right so we get a macro vision.

     
     
     
    • Barbara Lyon
    • Professor, Tarleton State Univ--Central Texas

    We are far past time to rethink the case analysis process. My concern is more associated with creating strategic learning outcomes than anything. It appears that, all too often, academics can become so bogged down in process that we forget our purpose. It is only when we move beyond systematic/process teaching we can truly embrace strategic learning.

     
     
     
    • Carlos Osorio, PhD
    • Professor of Management and Engineering, Adolfo Ibanez School of Management

    The case method is a powerful way to enhance learning in management and, pushing the boundaries a little, engineering as well. In my teaching experience in both undergrad and graduate courses in both management and engineering, it has had great impact.

    I have combined the my own learning as participant of HBS CPCL with my grad student experience at Harvard, with my experience as grad student at MIT and found that case method combined with real project development based learning gets the most out of the learning process.

    Sure it is more time consuming than regular lecturing, but it also is more time efficient and more effective. Students are capable of not only getting the most out of every case, but learn how to think better.

    In many schools -mostly European- case study is often mistaken by "teaching the case", which focuses mostly on letting people know what happened. I think this is a wrong approach. The case method is not about what happen, but mostly about the thinking processes that can be triggered in and outside the classroom.

    This, combined with real project development, has tremendous impact.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    Reminds me of the story about the B-school graduate starting on the first day of his first job. At last he is a success; he can now prove himself in the big world after all the sacrifice, hard work and dedication.

    He has the big corner office, the MBA hanging on the wall, the bespoke suite. His personal assistant eagerly awaits his instructions.

    He presses the intercom and calls to her: "I'm ready for my first case study".

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    Many useful views answering the questions raised, but also a few fashionable statements that are missing the point.

    The discussion topic is: Case study is a teaching method in management courses. Has it become outdated, less relevant? If so, why and how? Does it need change? In what ways, for what reasons? Should it now be discarded? If so, what should replace it?

    When the question is whether X is achieving its objective Y, saying X can never be substituted for Z (Z could be real-life situations in business, or Action or Learning by trial and error) is irrelevant.

    Saying Y (learning, preparing for real business life) should not be an objective is like saying management education is completely useless, methods notwithstanding.

    One could argue that the method itself or the style of its use, is causing many undesirable consequences, such as false sense of clarity, narrow perspective, ignoring human values or ethical considerations, quick-fix approach and simplistic/deterministic views. That would be germane to the discussion topic.

    While some have suggested improvements in the way case studies are facilitated, the majority of criticisms on the method itself seem to be saying they (cases and discussions on them) are theoretical, impractical. Ok-ayyy. So, replace it with plain classroom lectures? Which other teaching methods are we looking at? Sophisticated computer simulation exercises? Unstructured debates in class? Which of these will give a better, more practical management education?

    In conclusion, it would help to categorize and rate cases with standard facilitation guides to go along with them. This might help improve the effectiveness of this method. Something along the lines of the following:

    Complexity: Simple, Medium, Complex (based on size of input information and indicative duration of preparation and discussion)

    Key Subject Area: Could be one or more, could be overlapping (such as Organizational Transformation, New Market Strategy, Financial Management, Rapid Globalization, Personality Clash at Top Management)

    Reading Material Pages: NN

    Library/Net Research Allowed: Yes/No

    Duration of Study/Research/ Internal Discussion: NN minutes/hours

    Duration of Facilitated Class Discussion: NN minutes/hours

    Obvious points to highlight: (ordered list of points, could include contemporary industry/company details)

    Subtle possibilities to bring out: (ordered list of points, could include conceptual essence of problem and solution space, real examples of other organizations in similar situations)

    Other exploratory questions to consider: (suggestive list of points, could be culture-specific, need-based)

    With standardized criteria, one could conceive of institutionalizing a Certified Case Study Facilitator examination!

     
     
     
    • Antony Poole
    • Director, BBDO University

    As Prof. Heskett states, "there as many uses of cases as there are instructors". Herein lies the case method's greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

    In the hands of an instructor who wishes to instruct, i.e. tell people how they should do something, it is an inefficient tool. Better to lay down some operating principles and then assess the practical application of these.

    In the hands of a teacher who wants to develop decision-making ability through discovery, it is a powerful tool. A well-written and well-taught case allows for complexity and ambiguity - just like the real world. Cases also allow for sufficient distance from the subject matter so that students can discover and assess their own thinking processes. In my experience, this is learning that remains for life. (I have been fortunate to have been led through cases by Prof. Heskett and benefit from this type of learning.)

    Clearly, other skills and abilities benefit from combining case method teaching with different methodologies.

    Finally, I would agree with people who question the reliance on case method teaching in MBAs. As far as I know, both the case method and the MBA were originally designed for experienced managers. In other words, they were intended for people who had acquired the "how to do" and needed to develop better decision-making abilities in ambiguous and complex situations. It may not be the optimal method if the immediate destination of students is not management.

     
     
     
    • Dennis Muchiri Wambui
    • Analyst, PricewaterhouseCoopers

    In my view, business management is in other two words - decision making. At a personal level, don't we make decisions based on past experiences and future prospects? They may be our own or others. So is in business. As much as I subscribe to innovation, I believe in learning from those who have come before us, no wheel reinvention. Akin to this is the case method as a tool for teaching business management.

    I am convinced it is the best approach since it is a way to inculcate in someone timeless skills for making present and future decisions. Isn't prudence a decision making quality grounded on a past? For instance, Enron & Arthur Anderson downfalls are all-time lessons to draw from for professional accounting firms' managers. Of course the selection and delivery of the cases is equally important. The cases should represent myriad facets of decision making, uncertainties being a key component.

    Case method should live long! However, appropriate technology such as Business Intelligence (BI) systems and Virtual Realities (e.g. gaming) should be embraced. With advances in Information and Communication Technologies, there is no telling what the future holds.

    It is in this spirit that I'm applying to HBS for an experience of the case method of learning. I'm a HBS Aspirant.

     
     
     
    • Robert Pratt
    • Professor of Acquisition Management, Defense Acquisition University

    There is a lot of scholarly and practitioner research on case based learning in multiple domains including education, management, nursing, etc.

    Carmel McNaughta,*, W. M. Laua, Paul Lama, Mark Y. Y. Huia and Peter C. T. Aub posit that Shulman (1992) research provided a long list of potential benefits for case-based teaching and learning. For example, cases may: aid in teaching principles or concepts of a theoretical nature by showing the occasions when the theories are applicable; illustrate the precedents for practice, in abstract and context-dependent issues such as morals or ethics; train students in analytic strategies and skills; and increase students' motivation for learning. In addition, Harrington et al. (1996) remarked that teachers would also benefit from taking a case-based approach to their teaching as they have a chance to reflect upon the learning process when they write and introduce the cases in their classes.

    Other research demonstrates there are many successful stories of implementing a case-based approach to teaching and learning. Kinzie et al. (1998) reported on bridging the gap between theory and professional practice. Shulman (1996) and Richardson (2000) both remarked that content framed in cases is more easily remembered as the cases provide mental anchors for the facts, concepts and principles being studied. Hazard (1999) reported an improvement in collaborative skills (such as the ability to engage in academic conversations and to pay mutual respect to each other) among her students after going through a case-based learning experience.

    In contrast, Dedre Gentner, Jeffrey Loewenstein, and Leigh Thompson (2003) state "case-based training varies widely in its effectiveness. Their research does posit case based learning where prior cases were referenced by students can be highly useful when people bring them to bear on new problems. Unfortunately, people often fail to recall relevant examples that they have been exposed to (e.g., Gick & Holyoak, 1980; Keane, 1988). This is particularly true when the two cases differ in surface features (i.e., salient objects and aspects of the context; Holyoak & Koh, 1987; Simon & Hayes, 1976; Weisberg, DiCamillo, & Phillips, 1978). In short, our ability to take advantage of our prior experiences is highly limited.

    One explanation for the low degree of appropriate recall is that people often encode cases in a situation-specific manner, focusing mainly on their surface features (Gentner, 1989; Medin & Ross, 1989). This is particularly true of novices, who may have no basis for understanding a situation other than the objects and contextual features. For example, Chi, Feltovitch, and Glaser (1981) asked physics students to sort physics problems into categories. They found that novices in physics grouped the problems on the basis of common concrete features and objects (e.g., those about inclined planes, those about springs, etc.), whereas expert physicists grouped problems on the basis of common underlying principles (e.g., those about conservation of energy).

    If learners form highly concrete, context-specific representations of the situations they encounter, then it is not surprising that their later remindings to the initial examples occur only when the new example is highly similar in surface details to the earlier one.

    The pattern of memory recall just described results in the inert knowledge problem--a failure to access prior examples that would be highly useful if retrieved (Lancaster & Kolodner, 1987; Mayer, 1992; Novick & Holyoak, 1991; Perfetto, Bransford, & Franks, 1983; Reed, Ernst, & Banerji, 1974). For example, in one study, people studied mathematical problems that were fully explained; later they were asked to solve new problems and in the process note any earlier problems they were reminded of (Ross, 1984).

    Over 80% of people's remindings were based on surface similarities to the initial problems. That is, when solving a problem about writing a shopping list, people were very likely to recall a prior problem that was also about a shopping list. Notably, these remindings occurred regardless of whether the two problems exemplified the same probability principle (i.e., their structure was the same). Gentner, Rattermann, and Forbus (1993) found similar results in an investigation of how people remember prose passages (brief stories about, for example, a hunter shooting a hawk). They asked participants to read stories in an initial session and then, a week later, to read new stories and write down any initial stories that they were reminded of while reading the new stories. As in Ross's (1984) study, remindings that bore surface similarities (i.e., another story about a hunter) far outnumbered remindings that were structurally similar (i.e., another story about attacking). Gentner and colleagues took the research a step further and asked the participants to judge the quality of the match (i.e., whether one could profitably be used to draw inferences about the other) between pairs of the same stories.

    Structurally similar pairs were judged to be of higher quality than the surface-similar pairs, thus showing a very different pattern from their actual remindings. If people are directly comparing two examples, they probably can appreciate structural similarities, but if they are presented with just one example, they are far more likely to recall a prior example on the basis of surface similarities than structural similarities.

    The limitations on recall just described are particularly severe for novices. Experts are better than novices at encoding structure in examples and recalling examples on the basis of structural commonalities (Dunbar, 2001). For example, Novick (1988) found that students completing a second set of mathematics problems all recalled some earlier problems with similar surface features to the present problems, but students with high Mathematics SAT scores recalled more structurally similar problems and were also better at rejecting the surface remindings than were students with low scores. A characteristic of expertise may be the ability to transfer concepts learned in one domain to solve problems in a different context. However, most studies suggest that attaining expertise requires substantial experience: By some estimates it takes 50,000 examples (Chase & Simon, 1973), thousands of hours of practice(Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Roemer, 1993), or 10 years of dedicated study (Hayes, 1989; Simonton, 1996) to become an expert. Obviously, accelerating example-based learning would be highly desirable.

    In their article, Dedre Gentner, Jeffrey Loewenstein, and Leigh Thompson (2003) investigate a technique they called analogical encoding--in which learners compare two examples and by doing so come to understand the underlying structure common to both (Ferguson, 1994; Ferguson & Forbus, 1998; Loewenstein, Thompson,& Gentner, 1999). Surprisingly, they showed, comparing two cases can be extremely informative to learners, even when neither is well understood. The analogical encoding method that we describe differs from the standard use of analogy in learning, in which a learner acquires knowledge about a new target situation by invoking an analogy with a situation he or she already understands (e.g., a student may use her knowledge of water flow to understand an electric circuit; Gentner & Gentner, 1983; Vosniadou, 1989).

    Although this technique can be highly effective for educational purposes (Bransford, Franks, Vye, & Sherwood, 1989; A. L. Brown & Kane, 1988; Bulgren, Deshler, Schumaker, & Lenz, 2000), its applicability is limited to those cases for which the learner understands an appropriate base example or domain. In contrast, in analogical encoding, comparison is not being used to facilitate transfer of a well-learned piece of prior knowledge but rather to highlight and clarify a new concept. Working through the comparison of two cases that share a common underlying principle can be illuminating even if the common principle is only partially understood in either case.

    Analogical encoding fosters learning by taking advantage of a basic property of analogical reasoning: Analogies promote attention to commonalities, including common principles or schemas (Gick & Holyoak, 1983). According to Gentner's (1983, 1989) structure-mapping theory, drawing an analogy between two examples leads to a structural alignment--a set of correspondences between the elements of the two analogs in which their shared relational structure is highlighted. For example, comparing an office to a jail highlights their common constraining and regimented and institutional aspects, and minimizes focus on surface details that are not comparable, such as the color of the rug in the office. Thus, drawing a comparison can lead learners to focus on structural commonalities rather than on idiosyncratic surface features (assuming that the learners are provided cases with common underlying structure).

    Further, although in typical analogical learning, knowledge is being mapped from the well-understood example to the new example, in analogical encoding, the mapping can occur in both directions--whatever is understood about one example can serve to shed light on the other. Dedre Gentner, Jeffrey Loewenstein, and Leigh Thompson (2003) claim are that analogical encoding both captures the value of using concrete cases and focuses learners on precisely those aspects that generalize across cases.

    They suggest that learners who compare cases will develop a more general problem-solving schema that primarily captures the common structure of the cases rather than the surface elements. Consequently, in contrast to cases studied individually, cases that are compared should be more easily retrieved when the learner encounters a new case with the same structure. This is because the abstracted schema will have fewer idiosyncratic details and therefore will conflict less with the surface features of the current case. Thus, when solving problems in new contexts, people should be able to recall and apply schemas derived through analogical encoding better than prior individual examples (Catrambone & Holyoak, 1989; Reeves & Weisberg, 1994; Ross & Kennedy, 1990). In short, analogical encoding promotes the abstraction of schemas, which in turn promotes recall and transfer. A further advantage of analogical encoding is that it does not require a prior well-learned situation; it can potentially be beneficial even for people who lack deep knowledge of the domain (Gentner & Medina, 1998; Kurtz, Miao, & Gentner, 2001). Thus, analogical encoding may allow learners to develop knowledge using a bootstrapping process in which cases lead to the abstraction of principles, which are subsequently used to understand new cases and so on.

    Bottomline, case based learning has stuctural and process issues to be considered when instructors design curricula. I think one should look at an array of learning approaches to enable students and faculty to enhance and hone critical and creative thinking problem solving skills. I believe that the cased should be schaffoled to reflect complexity using Blooms to adjust students learning and skills ranging from novices to experts and problems ranging from well-structured (tame) to ill-structured (wicked).

    References: Gentner D,; Loewenstein, J. and Thompson, L. (2003). "Learning and Transfer: A General Role for Analogical Encoding". Journal of Educational Psychology Copyright 2003 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. Vol. 95, No. 2, 393-408 McNaughta, C.; Laua, W.; Lama,P. ;Mark Y.; Huia, Y and Aub, P. (2005). "The dilemma of case-based teaching and learning in science in Hong Kong: Students need it, want it, but may not value it" International Journal of Science Education Vol 27, No. 9, 15 July 2005, pp. 1017.

     
     
     
    • Steve Mostyn
    • Head of Executive Development, RBS

    My experience of the case method is that it is a useful tool to engage the experienced adult learner. However, the case method is only as good as the faculty who 'teach' the case. The best taught cases are focussed on helping students observe and challenge their own assumptions for a particular analysis or their decision making processes. Helping students be aware of their assumptions is the foundation stone to enable personal change.

     
     
     
    • Tom Woods HBS '52
    • Retired, Tom Woods, Inc.

    With an undergraduate education in Physical Science (Physics & Chemistry, Star-gazing & Rock-scratching), I applied to the B-School with the notion that I might be able to perform a valuable function translating between the dissimilar cultures of Science and Commerce. The Case Method was a true revelation to me, and after the Air Force, I returned to HBS to write cases for the Production Course. That taught me to re-consider the Case Method from the point of view of the case-writer: "What are we really trying to convey here, How accurate were the perceptions of the executives involved in the situation, How much information should I include, How much of it should be relevant and how much not," etc.

    After a career in Manufacturing, doing everything from running a machine on third shift to running a plant, followed by 30 years of Management Consulting, I still consider my case-method education to be an unqualified success, as well as a critical component of any successful career in business. My concept of becoming a translator had worked out well.

    However, the Case Method is not infallible: as a case in point, I recently designed a vacation home for our family get-togethers on Golden Pond, and came up with the "perfect" floor plan, able to accommodate all our children and grandchildren at the same time!

    Unfortunately, I failed to recognize that any grandchild over 10 going on vacation has to bring a friend along, and that after they get to be 16 or so, the friends are of the opposite sex -- so there are never enough sleeping locations, and we now have to stack them on air mattresses on the screen porch. My brilliant design was a failure; apparently I needed one more case study to cover that concept!

    Fortunately, after reading the 108 comments above, I am confident that no one else will ever get this far to learn of my inadequacies!

     
     
     
    • Surendranath. A
    • Director & A Certified Management Trainer, Sumeru Human Asset Consultants, Bangalore

    Even though there are several instructional methods are available today with the advancement of technology, we cannot do away with case method since is an important and effective tool for training. The length of the case depends on the desired outcome whether to make the participants evolve their own thinking suggesting creative solutions or to direct their thinking at a preconceived solution. If a program duration is more than a day and various management concepts have to emerge simultaneously, then cases of larger length may be used where the participants may read after the training hours and discuss in a group for a shorter duration in the training. In all other cases, if the cases are designed to read for ten minutes and discuss for fifteen minutes and present in five minutes would be ideal. Case study method has to be used where the desired effect is required and it cannot be employed for all purposes and particularly quantitative techniques. It is more effective in developing soft skills like lateral thinking, decision making, arriving at consensus in a group and use of logic in a given circumstances.

     
     
     
    • Prof PriyavratThareja
    • Head, Met Engg Dept, Punjab Engineering College, DU, Chandigarh

    Teaching with a case study would be perhaps tying a dog to the rope. Can sniff around for innovative ideas but not allowed to extrapolate beyond the lever the pole (teacher) allows. On the other hand when a case is mainly used to integrate the knowledge or idea imparted, and with a view to focus one's divergence (due to common variation in understanding) a worthy tool must be applied, then it is of benefit to resort to case study. Could it be that a case study is a waste of time if the idea were simple and understood? It is a worthy tool when the problem (case) is complex. So the imperative need to exemplify the subject (with a case study). On the other hand a 'case study' method is an effective way to assess the learnability, correctness of assimilation, and a possible originality in thought.