Is the case study method of instruction due for an overhaul?

<span class=”drop_cap”>O</span>n the occasion of its one hundredth birthday, Harvard Business School is taking a look in the mirror.

Working Knowledge, an online forum from HBS, gave Professor Emeritus Jim Heskett a platform to raise the issue of the relevance of case study instruction. One hundred eleven people left comments! I’ll summarize their observations and offer a few critical comments of my own.

Heskett’s original article noted that “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…. 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.”

Columbia is using “decision briefs” made of articles describing a management challenge and a video of the decision-maker; student research can be open-ended.

<span>M</span>ost of the commenters came out in favor of case study or against it, failing to address how the case study process could be improved. “I vote for the case study,” said one. My vote goes for bringing the case study into the 21st century.

Those in favor, a wide majority of the commenters, like cases because they teach critical thinking and decision-making skills, require synthesis of business complexities, nurture pattern recognition, and teach that there are no “right answers.”

Naysayers complained that case study is too time-consuming, is poor for teaching subjects where there is one correct answer, come in at too lofty a level, and are not real life. Cases aren’t very useful as reference material; it’s tough to spotlight the takeaways.

My experience
<span>D</span>uring my two years at HBS, I devoured in the neighborhood of a thousand cases. Except for a funky computer simulation, a screening of Twelve Angry Men, and a handful of role-play exercises, everything was taught with cases. HBS was slavishly devoted to the case method of instruction and tried to force-fit case study into every instructional situation. Give a kid a hammer….

Cases are a crappy way to learn a something like the basics of accounting. You can discuss accounting until the cows come home and never intuit your way to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. My class had semi-official workarounds for such situations. Everyone received a programmed-instructional workbook on accounting. (We didn’t talk about it in class for it wasn’t treated as part of the program.) Occasionally we received a “Note,” a pamphlet explaining a concept independent of a case. Some of us also bought text books and swapped crib sheets on topics like finance and marketing management.

Most of my learning came from working on cases with my study group. Half a dozen of us met in the evening to suss out the salient points of the next day’s three cases. This exploratory give-and-take was highly participatory, more so that the classroom discussion fielded by a member of the faculty the following day.

One of the commenters tells the joke of the MBA who settles down in his plush office on his first day of work and tells his assistant, “Bring me my first case.” No, cases are not the real world. Case facts are pre-selected. Time is compressed. Politics are largely absent. You are tipped off whether to look for the answer because it’s a finance case or an organizational development case or whatever.

Successful case discussion requires adept faculty, but case study is inevitably more engaging than preaching at people. A case study better mirrors real life that a lecture, a workshop, or a text book. Cases inject ambiguity missing from most instruction. The “answer” is not clear.

The case study method of instruction is held back by limitations that no longer apply. It’s like the two extra members of artillery teams just prior to World War II. They were there to hold the horses long after trucks had replaced the horses on the field of combat.

Paper cases were limited in the amount of information they could provide. (Sixty pages is a long, long case, but a very abbreviated description of a complex business situation.) This is nonsense. Why shouldn’t a case contain the mountains of financial history and project reports one encounters in a real business? Cases should include extensive on-line exhibits and support information.

Multimedia was once expensive to prepare and difficult to show. Today a portable video camera half the size of a pack of cigarettes costs under a hundred fifty dollars, and it’s a snap to post video to the net. Cases should include interviews will all sorts of people impacting the situation at hand. Interviews with people who don’t see eye to eye will enrich the case.

School students of English composition are taught to begin by preparing an outline. Then they write the essay. And then they throw away the outline. Why? My friend Bob Horn, inventor of information mapping, points out that the outline is an integral part of the work. The outline should go forward with the paper. Think of the hours you’d save if business documents included the outline! The outline enables a reader to x-ray the meaning of the paper. Some case study should include the outline of prior reader’s investigations.

Instead of a case that starts as a pamphlet, imagine a case that is housed on a wiki. Student speculation and analysis would be recorded for the next wave of students. As in my study group, people would be able to peer into the heads of others to learn how they think about things. Cases on wikis would expand in utility as students built on one another’s observations.

Case discussion is a mix of team and individual learning. The student reads the case and performs a preliminary analysis on her own. The study group trades viewpoints and builds upon one another’s observations. The discussion the professor typically singles out one student at a time to interpret what’s going on. Then the analysis is over.

Might it be worthwhile to revisit a case several weeks after the class discussion? Or for students to conduct prep sessions with several different study groups? Or to review best-of-breed solutions from prior years? Or to do comparative analyses of several related cases? Or to analyze a case from the viewpoint of several disciplines?

Case studies can serve as a touchstone for discussions of real-world situations in organizations. I may write a few to include in the informal learning environment I’m constructing. I already know the last few sentences. “The project manager, George, is a recent graduate of a well-known Eastern business school. He has just been given responsibility for the project. What should George do?”