Under the Magnifying Glass: The Benefits of Being a Case Study

What is it like for a company to go under the business school magnifying glass? According to executives from four Latin American enterprises that have been the subject of case studies at HBS and elsewhere, the process is both nerve-wracking and intensely enlightening. While case studies may be a great way to educate students in an MBA classroom, they said, their companies discovered unforeseen advantages for themselves, as well.
by Martha Lagace

What is it really like to be the subject of a case study?

According to top executives of four Latin American enterprises that have been held under the magnifying glass, the case study process can hasten a valuable journey of reflection and revitalized communication on the part of management.

It is also extremely flattering to be studied. "To have a case written about us by Harvard," noted one executive at the conference, "is an added value to our brand."

The process, of course, can also precipitate doubts, fears and anxieties as well. After all, senior management may ask themselves, is it good business wisdom to reveal our company's weaknesses, in a case study that anyone may read—including our competitors? Would that not be arming our enemies with quite a lot of powerful ammunition?

For several conference panelists whose companies have been the subject of a case studies—at HBS and elsewhere—the process involved all of the above experiences, and more.

Yet, all panelists agreed, the benefits of being studied far outweighed any fleeting moments of trepidation. The self-reflection that such research engendered for their own management was, they said, positive, necessary and important. The cases even serve as valuable educational tools for training within the companies.

As one panelist, Pablo Bosch of the Chilean energy concern B. Bosch, pointed out, "We thought [at first] that it was just an ego issue to be a case study. But we also felt that if the case were being written by a recognized school of business, we would learn something from the exercise.

"We couldn't let the opportunity go by."

The Birth Of A Case

From a researcher's point of view, according to Professor James Austin, who moderated the discussion, case-writing is a two-way process. In a typical scenario, there is, of course, the systematic collection of data in order to learn about a company in detail.

Then a dialogue needed to be established with the managers. The resulting conversations and interviews feed into the case study's first draft, which is sent to company management to review.

"Behind all this," Austin explained, "are teaching goals. What does this case stimulate? How does it allow students to learn, and how does it lead students into discussion of certain areas?"

Meanwhile, Austin said, company management reviews the draft and ensures that the information within it is correct. If the draft contains certain observations or data they prefer not to have mentioned, they let the researcher know. Then the company authorizes the case. A case is never published without written authority from the company, said Austin.

Fears Rise And Subside

Panelist Horacio Forjaz, of Brazilian aircraft manucturer Embraer (see related article), concurred with Austin's description of standard case methodology, but added a few comments on what the experience had been like from the company side.

photo of Horacio Forjaz
Horacio Forjaz

"We received a draft that was pretty well accepted," said Forjaz. "Then we had an intense exchange of e-mails, and we reached the final document by consensus."

When the researchers left, Forjaz told the conference audience, serious dialogue among colleagues within Embraer really began.

"It was very enriching," he continued. "The moments of reflection we shared by internally discussing our roots, our evolution, the place where we are and our future, all had fundamental value as well."

The case protagonists were then invited into the classrooms to hear the case taught and discussed. "There we heard questions from a perspective that we haven't heard before," Forjaz marveled. "That's another highly beneficial aspect."

photo of Antonio Ruiz Garcia
Antonio Ruiz Garcia

Antonio Ruiz Garcia, of Fundacion Mexicana para el Desarrollo Rural (Mexican Foundation for Rural Development), said that enduring the study period as an HBS case was a highly revelatory process.

"They have to do a cross section and a vertical section to see hidden corners of the organization," Garcia explained. "The resulting document is a wonderful picture. It shows things we know are there but which had not been scientifically recorded."

Other organizations can learn about his foundation, Garcia added, and a relationship of trust develops with colleagues in the outside world.

photo of Pablo Bosch
Pablo Bosch

"Our fears gradually disappeared," admitted Bosch of B. Bosch. "The conclusion was that our strength was not a secret, so therefore we do not have any fears about a case study. We know that our strength is in our philosophy and in our values."

In any event, he pointed out, the Internet allows information to reach everybody nowadays anyway, "so the advantage of secrecy no longer exists."

"What better way is there to approach questions?" observed Jonathan Coles, whose company, Mavesa, a Venezuela-based food manufacturer, has been the subject of seven different cases. "It also limits the arrogance within an organization to show our doubts and weaknesses."

Back To Basics

According to Coles, his company's training program is highly attuned to the case study method. Just the process of explaining and justifying company actions, Coles said, flies in the face of the educational culture prevalent in his region, which relies on straight regurgitation of memorized information.

photo of Jonathan Coles
Jonathan Coles

In business, he said, people navigate dilemmas and learn how to do their work by direct participation. "Most of all," Coles said, "it's important to transmit different values about this learning process to the company."

Bosch agreed. "Within the company," he said, "management by value was strengthened. The fact of having real value is very important."

The case, he added, also compelled his organization to reconsider its role within the local communities where it operates. His company now participates much more in trade associations in Chile, leading to a much closer relationship with communities and other organizations.

"We want to educate [the next generation] to be leaders with values. The company must have leaders who work based on values. That's what we learned from the case study."

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.