The Case Method as Used by Top Business Schools |

The Case Method as Used by Top Business Schools

By Karen Turtle

Updated May 15, 2017 Updated May 15, 2017

The case method is a popular, and near century-old teaching approach used in business education that involves the study and discussion of historic (but not necessarily old) case studies.   

Common law students and lawyers routinely study legal cases which have established a judicial precedent, or rule of law, to help them decide the outcome of similar cases. In the 1920s, Harvard Business School (HBS) saw the application of this style of learning, and began authoring and teaching its own adapted, real-world business cases. Today, the school claims that around 80% of the case studies it sells internationally come from Harvard Business Publishing (HBP). However, HBS is far from being one of the world's only top business schools to contribute faculty writers of case studies. Millions of case studies are sold and used in MBA classrooms each year, with a diversity of authorship that annual awards run by the Case Centre can attest to. So, what is it that makes this method of learning so popular?

Case studies - unpacking the problem

While the average amount of time dedicated to the use of the case method at most top business schools hovers at around 30%, HBS makes this approach its main modus operandi, focusing as much as 80% of class time on the evaluation of business cases. Unlike legal cases, business cases, while most often based on real events, can also bring in fictional elements and imagined circumstances. This can make for a more interesting analysis and provides faculty authors with a chance to better attune business problems to students' learning needs.

Students usually cover a set number of case studies in advance of their seminar. At Harvard Business School, MBA students study 500 cases over the full two-year period of their MBA. With each case averaging 15-20 pages, this comes to a staggering amount of critical reading.

As a general rule, case studies are designed to look at a particular company dilemma or problem. In class, individual participants present and discuss their views of the issues. The group, often under time pressure, is then asked to devise a solution - a means by which the company in question might move forward. According to the case method, there are no right or wrong answers but students might find that a professor will, as in legal proceedings, offer a summing up. In instances where it applies, they might also cite an historical solution, a baseline upon which students can then compare their own answers.     

Why HBS and other top business schools use business cases

The best-selling business cases are, more often than not, neatly packaged and expertly devised lesson plans. This entails less preparation for professors, without sacrificing on quality.

For students, the case study's value lies in its potential to take shape as a real-life business simulation. Professors from top business schools essentially play the role of a conductor – while it might sometimes seem as if they are standing at the side-lines of the debate, their involvement is directed, methodical and careful.

MBA class participants at top business schools also tend to come from an array of different countries and professional backgrounds. This leads to a more eclectic range of ideas, attitudes and beliefs, resulting in contributions that make for a more interesting case study class experience. However, diversity in opinion and backgrounds can also add to the challenge of reaching an agreement - very much a representation of genuine international business dealings and exchanges. The case studies themselves are often international too. At Harvard Business School, 33% of published business cases deal with non-US business situations.

Debating, persuading, analyzing, and being able to voice decisions that follow clear lines of thought quickly and tactfully are key skills that are developed through the immersive nature of the case method. Alumni often describe the experience not only as confidence building, but also enjoyable. After all, it’s an engaging means of learning and, as students progress towards a final solution, there is often a real sense of exhilaration. Participants are effectively actors playing parts in a true-to-life narrative, dealing with real human issues and pushed to make business choices that will one day be part of their everyday actuality.  

This article was originally published in May 2017 .

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Written by

A content writer with a background in higher education, Karen holds an MA in modern languages from the University of St Andrews. Her interests include languages and literature, current affairs and film. ​


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