The case method of analysis involves studying actual business situations—written as an in-depth presentation of a company, its market, and its strategic decisions—in order to improve a manager's or a student's problem-solving ability. Cases typically investigate a contemporary issue in a real-life context. There are multiple issues to consider and many "correct" or viable alternatives to solve the case issues are presented. Case studies provide students with a "note of reality" that makes learning more relevant and enjoyable.
Cases are written and published in textbooks by students, faculty, or consultants. Cases may be based on actual company experiences, like a consulting project, or may be developed from articles and events in business periodicals and newspapers. Cases include actual information of a company's decisions and may include interviews, observations, or data from firm and industry records, as well as database records and published historical facts on the company and the industry. Barbazette identified five types of cases studies:
The case method was invented by the Harvard Business School over 80 years ago, where it still remains the foundation for teaching and research. By studying and examining actual cases, professors believed students could develop better insight as to how organizations reach conclusions. This method of study and analysis is seen as an effective way to train young business leaders to consider facts and present them more efficiently.
Today, cases remain a popular method of study in business schools—especially at Harvard and the University of Virginia, where they are used heavily in the Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs. While technology, computer simulations, and other learning methods continue to grow, cases fill a much-needed function in the educational process of students, future managers, and leaders. Cases are used in a wide variety of disciplines and areas of study. They are also popular for executive training and are used in weekend-format continuing education and professional development programs.
In their study of the skills of technologists, Birchall and Smith found that technologists are often seen as not having sufficient input into the strategic decision-making process of organizations. Thus, many turn to MBA programs to develop their knowledge, understanding, and personal competencies. The case method has traditionally been used to aid in this educational process. They also stress the use of multimedia tools and groupware to create enhanced learning opportunities based on a dynamic case analysis.
Many groups and organizations also publish cases for educational use. Sources for cases for business schools include:
The American Association for Business Communication, for example, included the best cases for teaching communications in a special issue of Business Communication Quarterly. Rogers and Rymer report that their reviewer panel of experienced instructors agreed that the best cases include the following attributes:
Cases rely almost exclusively upon discussion to elicit diverse ideas, experiences, and views about case material. Cases allow students to explore actual decisions made by companies. The case presents an account of what happened to a business or industry over a period of time, for example. It includes the events with which managers had to deal and charts various responses to these decisions. According to Hill and Jones, cases provide students with the experience of organizational problems they have not yet had the opportunity to experience first-hand. In a relatively short period of time, students have the chance to appreciate and analyze problems faced by many different companies and to understand how managers attempted to resolve them. Cases also illustrate underlying business theories.
To prepare a case analysis, students typically read the case several times before a classroom discussion. They first read for a general idea about the problem, the players in the case, the level of the decision, and the type of company or industry presented. On second and subsequent readings, students look for deeper problems and issues and try to differentiate symptoms from real case problems.
Some schools encourage students to research the company by locating articles on the company at the time the case situation occurred. Another research technique is to have students conduct a financial analysis of the company that might include ratio analysis or industry/competitor research. Many schools encourage students to discuss assigned cases in small groups or study teams before class. These teams may develop potential alternatives to solve the problems and ensure each member has considered the relevant facts in the case.
Class discussion occurs in either one large group or several smaller groups. In these groups, participants decide on the solution(s) and the proper course of implementation. They must also consider the time frame for implementation as well as evaluation and success measures. Class members or participants critique the various viable alternatives that are presented. The class is then presented with what the company under study actually did to solve the problem. Some cases are used as quizzes or exams.
Teaching with cases has changed relatively little over the years. However, a new approach, developed by Theroux, is called "real time case method.," In this method, a semester-long case is delivered in weekly installments and focuses on one company and the current events it faces. This method differs from the traditional case study method by its extended coverage and real-timeinteractivity.
Although case method teaching has been used extensively in virtually all business schools for years, little research has been conducted to investigate the effectiveness and usefulness of the method. Among the few studies available is Weil's, which measures students's perceptions. Weil's study confirmed the usefulness of the case method.
Many students favor the case method because there are no "right" or "wrong" answers to the cases. Unlike solving a math or finance problem, there may be multiple ways to reach a successful solution for the case. Diversity of opinion and diversity of group make-up often bring unique solutions to cases. Students learn to respond quickly, formulate answers, speak up, and participate in class discussion. They learn to separate background information from the real problem. They learn to succinctly state problems, to recommend potential alternative solutions, and to explore the pros and cons of each solution. They learn to find hidden information in charts, graphs, tables, and financial data often included in cases.
Some students are discouraged by cases because they do not yield only one, clear answer. Students are forced to develop skills of critical thinking and these skills, while important to today's managers, take time to perfect. Students may also fear presenting their ideas to a large group. They may fear public speaking or presentation in general or they may fear their particular thoughts will be ridiculed by others. Some with limited work or life experience may not feel capable of critiquing a top-level manager's past decisions. However, these unique and fresh ideas often present interesting alternatives.
Marilyn M. Helms
Revised by Judith M. Nixon
Barbazette, Jean. Instant Case Studies: How to Design, Adapt, and Use Case Studies in Training. San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2004.
Barnes, Louis B., C.R. Christensen, and Abby J. Hansen. Teaching and the Case Method. 3rd ed. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1994.
Birchall, David, and Matty Smith. "Developing the Skills of Technologists in Strategic Decision Making—A Multi-Media Case Approach." International Journal of Technology Management 15, no. 8 (1998): 854–868.
Christensen, C.R. Teaching by the Case Method. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1983.
Copeland, M. "The Genesis of the Case Method in Business Administration." In The Case Method at the Harvard Business School. ed. Malcolm P. McNair. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1954.
Hill, Charles W.L., and Gareth R. Jones. Strategic Management: An Integrated Approach. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton/Mifflin Publishing Co., 2001.
Hunger, J.D., and Thomas L Wheelen. Essential of Strategic Management. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.
Klein, Hans E., ed. The Art of Interactive Teaching with Cases, Simulations, Games, and other Interactive Methods. Boston: The World Association for Case Method Research and Application, 1995.
Oyelere, Peter, Joanna Yeoh, Colin Firer, and Sidney Weil. "A Study of Students's Perceptions of the Usefulness of Case Studies for Development of Finance and Accounting-Related Skills and Knowledge." Accounting Education 10, no. 2 (2001): 123–146.
Rogers, Priscilla S., and Jone Rymer. "Business and Management Communication Cases: Challenges and Opportunities." Business Communication Quarterly 61, no. 1 (1998): 7–25.
Theroux, J., and C. Kilbane. "The Real-Time Case Method: A New Approach to an Old Tradition." Journal of Education for Business 79, no. 3 (2004): 163–167.