Did you ever have to solve a case study?
Did you ever ask yourself if the time it took to read a case study was a good investment?
Did you ever wonder if business schools really can teach their students to be good managers with their case study approaches?
Can you really learn strategic thinking from case studies?
Case studies are a popular learning technique at business schools. In connection with the last financial crisis, business schools have been critiqued for producing greedy managers without morale. Their heavy reliance on case studies as a learning method was mentioned as part of the problem more than once.
Are case studies still the tool of choice?
This is a very personal look at the benefits from and the problems of case studies. Here is what I think.
My experience with case studies
At business school
Case studies are integral parts of MBA courses around the world. Accordingly, I had to work through several of them during my MBA at Henley.
To be honest, I did not like case study exercises very much there. I found them time consuming and of limited value in terms of learnings. Looking back, I guess that there was a simple reason for this meagre result: The way they had us work with the case studies did not fit my learning style.
They asked us to read the case study in preparation for the lecture. However, they did not tell us the actual question or the problem to be discussed in advance. Hence, I had to read through about ten pages of case description with just a best guess of what the problem might be.
I found it extremely difficult to evaluate the information provided and to distinguish between relevant and not so relevant information. Thus, it was also difficult to make up my mind about possible solutions in advance. Group discussions tended to be long-winded, since most of us had a hard time remembering the really relevant information.
Moreover, I often had the impression that not all group members were equally well prepared. MBA schedules can be tight. It can be tempting to skip that case study reading and to focus on that assignment that is due soon. Half of the group actively participated in the discussion, whereas others only contributed the occasional sentence.
At least this was my perception.
Besides that, I always found group discussions about case studies beneficial. People applied their wide-ranging experiences to one and the same problem, thus presenting a variety of possible solutions.
This strengthened my opinion that it is always good to have an industry outsider look at a strategic problem. He will almost inevitably look at the issue from a completely new angle. Chances are good that he comes up with an unexpected solution.
Cast studies that I find beneficial today
I like short case studies in specialist articles that illustrate a particular issue or approach. These are longer practical examples or testimonies how somebody solved a situation.
This sort of case studies connects more theoretical statements with real world situations. They foster understanding and provide deeper insights.
Most of all, I really like the regular case studies in Harvard Business Review:
- They present really interesting problems that could happen to most of us in a similar fashion.
- Most important from me: The title and the teaser give me a clear understanding about the nature of the problem. In addition, I can flip to the end where I can read the question to be discussed.
- There are detailed answers from two experts with different backgrounds as well as brief opinions from the hbr.org community
The benefits case studies bring about for me
I do not see much benefit in thinking about a case study all by myself. They will unfold their true value only in a discussion with others – be it in a personal conversation or by written statements like in HBR. The more different backgrounds are involved in that discussion, the better.
Such a discussion teaches me
- How to look at one and the same problem from different angels
- How to transfer experience from one situation to another
- To be sensitive for all aspects of a situation, not just the ones that are obvious to me
- To critically assess others’ approaches
- What works and what doesn’t
Besides that, the best approaches and solutions developed for case studies contribute to my personal “toolbox” of possible solutions. I can refer back to them when faced with a real-world problem.
Conclusion: Can case studies teach strategy?
Yes, but …
Case studies are tools. As with all tools, their value depends on their application.
Business schools are responsible for their choice of case studies and for how they steer the discussion. They have to make sure that
- relevant questions are covered
- moral and ethical aspects are considered for every option discussed
- students are guided to get out the most from this exercise
I am convinced that case studies can help to connect the theory of strategic management with real-world problems when handled properly. However, they cannot substitute real-world experience.