The Case of the Case Study Method

The Case of the Case Study Method  main image

The case study method is a style of learning used on many MBA courses which focuses on the student as decision maker. Instead of faculty-led lectures, the case study method encourages interaction and class discussion in order to develop solutions to a set case study, which are written by faculty experts at top business schools, often working with businesses to ensure that they reflect the problems that occur in business.

The Case Study Method at Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School is perhaps the most well-known school to use the case study method; students read over 500 cases during the two-year MBA program. These cases are given to the students in advance of the seminar and it is up to the individuals to work out and clearly propose their solution. In the seminar they are required to explain their thinking to their peers in a healthy debating environment overseen by a Harvard Business School faculty member. The cases are designed to present typical yet specific problems that are likely to arise in the world of business, developing as well as testing each student’s ability to utilize their analytical and communication skills, two qualities crucial in business leadership, in order to produce viable solutions.

The school claims that HBS faculty produces 350 new cases annually, making up over 80% of cases sold around the world.

The Perks of Using Business Case Studies.

Real life business leadership skills.

The value of the case study method is that it simulates a real environment and helps to prepare the student for real-life business situations in their future careers; the ability to make quick decisions that are sound and good for the company is what employers are looking for.

This confidence is vital within business as colleagues and business partners do not always have the same beliefs and it will be necessary to defend your thinking – this is developed through the debating process in which students defend their solutions to each case and try and persuade each other to back their ideas.

Better than lectures.

One on the most underrated things about the case study method is that it’s fun. To be able to track your development of thought during a case and reach a final solution is ultimately an exhilarating feeling. The majority of business case studies presented have a narrative arc which students can relate to and appreciate as a real thing – to solve a real human problem brings a feeling of achievement and therefore the method motivates students to involve themselves on an emotional level as well as an intellectual level in each case.

An all-encompassing business outlook.

Out of the 500 Harvard Business School case studies given over the two-year MBA, 33% of them are international, meaning candidates gain a global perspective which opens a greater number of career paths after graduation. Each case is designed to build on the knowledge of previous cases leading to students who are capable of applying their learning in any situation.

The Problems of Using Business Case Studies.

Students run the entire operation.

Preparation is crucial for business case studies to work; if an individual has not prepared fully then the benefits of the method are lost. This requirement for prior research forces each student to take responsibility for their own learning, but simultaneously it begs the question; what exactly are they paying for? According to Harvard Business School faculty, students on their MBA course do approximately 85% of the talking. This is great news for those who can talk the talk and who love to compete for airtime, but for those who are slightly less gregarious – yes, business schools enroll types like this too – the method is flawed. Not all those in business leadership are brilliant public speakers – it helps, but it is not as essential as, say, empathy or rationality. And this may lead to a skewed hierarchy of classmates who believe that the most loquacious will go the furthest.

Too many cases not enough time.

To do 500 cases in the two year course, which is about 60 weeks’ worth of classes, equates to approximately eight case studies a week. This evidently does not give much time for an in-depth analysis and so relies on the seminar leader to make sure the important aspects of each case are reached promptly. And although this is efficient, it prohibits students from working out these aspects for themselves as they will have to become accustomed to in the real business world.

Cases are also a rather inefficient way of teaching basic business skills which are quantifiable and have a certifiable answer. To teach technical subjects in a case would be a waste of valuable time.

Business newbies: not so welcome?

In order to be able to contribute valuably to case study hearings, students must have considerable pre-MBA work experience. This can be challenging for those from non-traditional backgrounds, who need to learn these skills from scratch. The emphasis on development of what is already known rather than creation of new knowledge gives MBA programs a sense of exclusivity which is hard to shift.

Times change, cases must follow suit.

Another challenge is staying up-to-date. Unless the cases are constantly updated, they become irrelevant in the current business climate. Emergence of new technologies and ways of doing business means that business case studies must constantly be evolving and updated. And because of the fluidity of the business world, by the time the graduates begin their careers, things will have changed yet again. The more important thing then is that MBAs learn the foundations.

An alternative to traditional case methods

Although most business schools offer the case study method, some are more wary of allowing the case method to take over. Columbia Business School is one such institution. Vice Dean Amir Ziv asserts in an interview with Forbes that sometimes cases are not the best way to present a simple problem because they are time consuming and often artificial. “Another issue,” Ziv states, “is that most cases are, in a sense, too complete. You get a 30-page analysis – everything you need to know is there and is already presented in a structured way.”

Because of this, Columbia offers their case studies in varied formats:

  • Traditional cases which include detailed write-ups of the problem.
  • Analytical cases which are often shorter and based upon real life decisions. The case gives a summary of the issue with some primary background information. The aim is to force students to make decisions which have not already been pre-digested and predetermined.
  • Research briefs that give up-to-date research on the business problem presented to help students to create relevant and practical solutions in a contemporary business environment.

A case in point…

This mixture of learning methods helps students gain a rounded understanding of how problems come about and are solved in business – while the traditional case method dangles all the right information and waits for the student to take the bait, real business leadership solutions often must be made without all of the information required. Case studies are often designed with this in mind, but obviously, the extent to which they can mirror reality is limited.

In today’s top business schools the case study method takes up approximately a third of all learning, meaning that traditional lectures still take precedence. The effectiveness of the method is common knowledge within business education but it is also realized that the method has its flaws if not done correctly. Harvard Business School can be seen as an obvious leader in the field, in that the cases presented are written and presented by top academics and business leaders and so allow for a more rounded learning experience. However, with the exception of real-life projects, the case study is where business education is most down to what an individual makes of it.

Written by Laura Tucker
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