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The Debate: Case Study Method or a More Academic Approach?

case study or academic approach

What is the best way to teach business? One of the most prevalent methods used in an MBA, in essence a vocational degree let us not forget, is to employ examples of scenarios that have occurred in real life (or at least bear a close resemblance to them), around which a discussion can take place. The aim is to see how participants react, individually and collectively, to the unexpected, nuanced challenges of business reality, to see the roles into which they fall, and to allow exposure to the ideas of those with a different way of thinking.

The case study method, however, is not without its critics. Some question the competitive atmosphere of students competing to be heard (Type A personalities, let’s remember, predominate MBA cohorts), others the role of the overseeing professor, and still others the wider application of these discussions outside the classroom without a theoretical framework to back them. 

The last of these is what inspired the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) to create an alternative program which takes a more theoretical approach to business education. The goal is to equip students with a sound knowledge base from which they can move forward strategically as well as engendering the ability to navigate the unpredictable waters of global business. Below, Professor Saul Estrin explains the thinking behind this course. Following this, Carlos García Pont, of IESE – which has close links with Harvard Business School, the birthplace of the case method – makes his case for the case study method.

We invite you to join in on the debate in the comments section below or on one our social media channels (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn).

Saul Estrin, LSE

The case for a more academically rigorous, intellectual approach to business education

Saul Estrin, LSEChange is a key challenge for organizations across the world today. Advances in technology, and shifts in the global economy, have altered the playing field unrecognizably for many businesses over the past few years. This trend will continue to happen at a rapid pace in the future; ‘change’ is the new normal for most organizations across all industries and sectors.

The right kind of business education is fundamental to equip managers and leaders with the skills they need in this environment – not only to prepare them to be reactive and adaptable to future change, but also to stay ahead of the competition with innovations to deliberately drive change.

Business education needs to prepare students to think critically and abstractly about their own organization, and how it fits with the external environment. A deep intellectual understanding of the socioeconomic and geopolitical realities of today’s world, and the complex, interconnected impact of future changes, enables leaders in practice to make better choices in adapting their business strategy and ensuring success over time. Without that deeper understanding of their environment, many leaders will be at risk of making poor decisions which cause their business to fail.

Pouring resources into innovation, to disrupt competitors or drive change in markets, is a high-risk but crucial activity. Again, deep intellectual skills are essential for leaders to critically analyze risk and predict where successes will lie, and to develop innovation strategies which capitalize on the changes which will occur in the outside world.

An academically-rigorous business education is fundamental for managers and leaders to thrive over time in the global environment, as it will provide them with a long-lasting deep intellectual understanding of organizations and the changing complexities of the external world. The ‘experiential’ learning style typically used in traditional MBA programs, where learning focuses on the students’ existing work experience applied to current frameworks, does not provide this same preparation for a lifetime career of tackling change.

For this reason, in 2012 LSE launched a new degree programs designed as an alternative to an MBA, covering the same core pillars of management and leadership which would be found in an MBA curriculum (including general management, accounting, finance, marketing and organizational behavior), but taking an academically rigorous approach to the learning of those topics. The Executive Global Master’s in Management program has seen growing traction with prospective students in the business education market, as working professionals are increasingly looking for new ways to develop their skills in order to drive innovation and navigate the rapidly-changing external environment. We believe this is the future of business education.

Saul Estrin is deputy head of department and professor of management in the LSE Department of Management. He is an expert on global foreign direct investment, and program director and founder of the Executive Global Master’s in Management, LSE’s innovative alternative to a full-time MBA. He is also founder and vice dean of the TRIUM Global executive MBA program.

Carlos García Pont, IESE Business School

The case for the case study: “It is their class not yours”

Carlos García Pont, IESE“It is their class, not yours.” Many years ago, a veteran IESE professor gave me this pearl of wisdom, and it proved immensely helpful when struggling with all the doubts and challenges of trying to be a good educator for business executives.

When starting out, many professors may be concerned with what they can give to a class. The answer appears to be a lot: they have a PhD, have dedicated some of their brightest years to research and achieved recognition from scholars who welcome them as a peer. So they come to class prepared to show students how much they know, how good they are. They know these business professionals have their own backgrounds and experiences in management, and given that, they assume that they are going to be eager to assimilate their knowledge and that of the field they represent.

Then comes the first surprise, they do not care. You have put all that effort into developing research to improve day-to-day management practices and it is not important to the very people who you think should be most eager for this information. But the truth is neither management professionals nor management academics can be fully up-to-date with all the latest thinking. If you go to Amazon and search for business books, close to four million titles appear (and that´s just in English). I do not mean to say that all these books are irrelevant. However, each of us is constrained by our surroundings and although we strive to build bridges to people with other perspectives, our time and resources are limited. Mangers have to deal with the real life challenges of their everyday jobs. Academics try to get close to reality, managers live it. That makes a difference.

Case method teaching, when it is done well, is about the students and not the educator. It is about helping people develop their own framework for approaching and working through challenges, rather than simply transferring to them knowledge that academics have developed.

The real question though is whether the case teaching is good enough. There are some clues to help assess if a class has been a success or not. The first is if students are tired when they finish. Students should be concentrating on whether the action proposal they prepared for class can be maintained throughout the discussion. If the student is exhausted, it´s a sign that their mind has been continuously challenged by the interaction of the discussion and opposing viewpoints.

The second is if they have changed their perspective. That does not mean that one has to come out of class with a different action proposal than the one they came in with, but that the support for that idea is more robust. If you have devote two or three hours to deciding on a course of action for a case, and then find 50 people have completely different approaches to the same situation, your foundations are shaken. It is not the concepts themselves, but the reasoning behind these concepts that should evolve.

The third clue is in their answers to two questions: “Have you learned anything?” and “What is it that you have learned?” If it has gone well, the answer to the first is invariably a yes. But with the second, their face usually changes; they are convinced that they have learned something, but struggle to highlight a single concept, formula or relationship that has been key. It is at this time that I am convinced the course was good.

Why is this important? Case method teaching is not about theory but about a reference model. Each student comes to class with their own mental reference model for reality, one they apply when dealing with issues in their professional and personal life. With the case study method, you have more than fifty students each with their own unique perspective on reality. When you put all of them in the same space, faced with the same problem, there are conflicts. Ideas, convictions and prejudices crash against each other. Stablished and accepted principles in one environment are attacked by the opposite principles in other environments. Each one of the participants comes away with a modified reference model. This is the richness of the case method.

Of course, case method teachers do not ignore management ideas or theories during class. We may explain a particular theory we find interesting before class, we also choose what to concentrate on in a case to facilitate discussion, deciding which topics to push and which ones to let fade. We choose to build on one participant’s comments and not on the other because we believe it is the best for their learning.

From my point of view, this is what makes the case method great. The participants learn but I do not teach. Teaching is more about me, the professor, while learning is about them, the participants. The case method puts the participants first.

Yet I am not going to claim that every other teaching method is inferior, all of them are complementary and you can prefer some for different situations. For example, I would have difficulty learning structural calculus or differential equations only through case method. But what the case method has taught me is that the class is about the students and the development of their reference model of reality, and not about me, the professor, and the theories that I might find more or less important.

Carlos García Pont is professor in the marketing department at IESE. His work places special emphasis on the importance of alliances in understanding competitive strategy, the organizational needs of market-oriented organizations in industrial markets and subsidiary strategy in global corporations.  García Pont has had extensive experience with both local and multinational organizations in his consulting activities.

Written by Mansoor Iqbal

Mansoor is a contributor to and former editor of TopMBA.com. He is a higher and business education specialist, who has been published in media outlets around the world. He studied English literature at BA and MA level and has a background in consumer journalism.

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