The Classic Case Method
The classic case method is most commonly identified with the Harvard Business School, Ivey Business School, Darden Business School and the Institute for Management Development (IMD). Of course many other business schools use this method as well.
“What is a case?”
A case is a description of a problem situation in an enterprise that requires a solution. While cases are often undisguised it is common to disguise the cases to some degree. Typically the reader of the case is expected to identify the problem posed in the case, propose alternative solutions, evaluate the alternatives, make a decision and take action of some kind. Cases may vary in length but are typically 5 to 10 written pages in length plus various appendices. The case typically contains sufficient facts to reach a conclusion but these facts are often less than one might find in the real world and sometimes the facts provided are extraneous to the case.
Cases are used as an integral tool of the case method (a pedagogical approach to learning) which is further described in this section and are accompanied by teaching notes for the instructor. It is useful to distinguish between a case written for a teaching purpose and cases used as part of “case research”. In case research academics typically write very detailed and lengthy cases in a few (such as 5) organizations and use the results to reach a tentative conclusion about some phenomenon.
“The Ideal Classic Case”
Proponents of the case method often contend that the case must be “real” in the sense that it must approximate an actual situation faced by persons. The case should be field based which means that the case writer must visit and gather data from the actual enterprise and interview the key protagonists. To further capture reality the case may contain irrelevant information, too much or too little information, views and prejudices of the actors, ambiguity and no obvious answer. Writing a field based case has its limitations because, to the extent that it must be “released” by the subject enterprise, it can lead to a bias in the contents of the case.
“How the case method works”
In a classic case method course the students are assigned readings that are relevant to the forthcoming class as well as a case which must be read and analyzed. The analysis typically consists of identifying the issue, considering and evaluating various alternatives, reaching a decision, and proposing an action plan to implement the chosen solution. When performing this analysis students are expected to utilize skills (such as model building) and conceptual frameworks they have learned throughout the course. After doing their own individual analysis the students meet with a group of their colleagues (usually in specially assigned learning teams) and discuss the case among them. In this way they derive insights from each other. As will be discussed later, the extent of the insights derived depends on the quality of the students enrolled in the course and their depth of experience. Then all students attend a class facilitated by an instructor. In the classroom, each student does not represent the learning team. Rather each student is expected to contribute as an individual to a discussion led by the instructor.
“Goals of the case method”
In contrast with the lecture method the case method sees the world as a very complex place in which narrow theories seldom perfectly apply. Thus a decision is often taken under conditions of major uncertainty and the conclusion from a case discussion is not preordained. As a result the goal of the case method is more focused on providing skills and processes which help the students to be successful managers in the “real world”. The skills learned include such things as making sense of the environment, becoming more decisive in an uncertain world which provides limited information, thinking and speaking in a logical and persuasive fashion, negotiating, listening to the arguments of others, working in teams, thinking and acting across both functional and disciplinary boundaries, understanding and implementing their value systems, and so on. According to one author, “Since phenomena are intrinsically complex, simple theoretical relationships cannot explain them and little of value can be communicated from the teacher to the student. Under these circumstances, the learning process must emphasize the development of understanding, judgment and even intuition.” [Ardalan, 2008 pg. 269]
In effect the case discussion is intended to be a simulation of a real world experience which takes place within a safe classroom environment although proponents of the method realize that cases are at best an abstraction of reality. In this environment students typically get immediate feedback and an opportunity for self-reflection which presumably better prepares them for conditions they are likely to face on the job.
“When most useful”
The case method is likely to be most useful in conveying tacit knowledge. According to one author, “Business people must be able to solve problems arising in new situations in real life. Accordingly, education would consist of acquiring skills to act in a changing environment. It is not that a student may be trained to know, but how a student is to be trained to act. The case method is most effective wherever decisions are to be made and problems are to be solved.” [Ardalan, 2008 pg. 269]
According to another author, “It is interesting to observe that the case method is not only concerned with the best decision but also must be concerned with the impact of the decision on the decision maker, those who must carry out the decision and those affected by the decision. The case method is most useful in acquiring skill in the use of a technique (as opposed to learning the technique), identifying issues or problems, making a decision incorporating many conflicting objectives, implementing decisions, applying value judgments, and developing an understanding of the realities of how business operates. When true to real life, a case is always “bigger” than any particular theory or principle and needs to be treated as a “total situation” [Glover & Hower, 1960, p. 23].