A new book on the Case Method explores its potential as an impactful facilitator of success for individuals and institutions. ecch looks at issues it raises with views from case practitioners across the world.
T Grandon Gill's “Informing with the Case Method” (Santa Rosa, California: Informing Science Press 550pp, November 2011) sets itself a broad remit targeted at a wide audience ranging from academic peers and experienced case practitioners seeking rigorous analysis and new ideas, to teachers and institutional leaders interested in developing a case programme, even from scratch. “Many faculty members - and students - just don’t understand what the case method is; the book aims to introduce people to it all,” says Gill.
A huge amount of ground is covered: from a fundamental analysis of what the case method is and does, to a practical programme, handbook style, for implementing the full spectrum of case related activities, supported by an appendix of useful materials to use within the institution and with students.
Gill originally joined the 1982 MBA class at Harvard Business School after five years in the tough environment of a US naval submarine. The intellectual freedom and fun of a case class made a huge and enduring impression on him. Many years later, after spells running his own business and as an agribusiness consultant, Professor Gill teaches and researches in the wholly different world again of the Information Systems & Decision Sciences Department, College of Business at the University of South Florida. At the large US State institution, Gill frequently uses cases with sizable undergraduate classes, highly diverse in culture and ability. In fact, he believes that, skillfully channelled, a highly diverse classroom can really help the case method. ecch spoke to case practitioners across the globe, teaching participants at various contrasting levels, to gain their perspectives on some of the issues raised by Gill.
At IESE Business School, Barcelona, which has a strong pedagogical commitment to the case method, Josep Valor, Professor of Information Systems and Information Technology, and Associate Dean for Executive Education reflects: “We, at IESE, are a 100% case-based school and have a student base characterised by extreme cultural differences: I have in class people for whom talking in public generally comes naturally, such as from the US or ‘Latin’ countries, but also others who struggle to pluck up the courage to put forward an opinion, such as from some Far Eastern countries. Managing a class where participation is an essential part of the educational process with such differences is challenging, as we have to avoid falling into a situation in which all conversations are monopolized by a subgroup.”
At IMD in Lausanne, Anand Narasimhan, Professor of Organizational Behaviour feels that to work best the case method actually requires a “culture of preparation and dialogue in the student body - and along with it the openness to learn from diverse perspectives. It is unlikely to work in a pedagogical culture that relies on didactic, ‘let me tell you how’ style of lecturing.” Narasimhan sees this “reliance on participant maturity” as a potential limitation of the method in certain learning environments.
In Informing with the Case Method, Gill explores how the case method can be a most effective teaching approach to use in many more diverse learning situations and subjects than just business school, and how it is especially “well suited to presenting and practicing situations where judgement is required and the discipline involves the transfer of ideas to a community of practitioner experts.”
At ANZSOG (Australia and New Zealand School of Government), John Alford, Professor of Public Sector Management, has observed the particular strengths of using the case method in teaching public policy and administration: “Cases often involve students in grappling with conflict, complex value choices, ethical issues etc - the bread and butter of public sector management and government. Cases invest concepts with greater meaning allowing for a more practical application. These issues always mean more if a student experiences them in a case discussion, rather than more passively in a PowerPoint presentation, for example.”
An integrated approach
In an ideal world, Informing with the Case Method proposes a holistic approach, that all three main aspects of the case method: facilitation, writing and research, are in essence inseparable and should be developed and practiced together; the involvement of case subject protagonists in the process and the class in particular can be the source of multiple benefits to the teacher, students, institution - and subject business.
At the National University of Singapore Business School, Kulwant Singh, Professor of Strategy and Policy, is realistic about the challenge of this approach: “It is possible to excel at one of these dimensions, and very difficult to do so at all three. But, I believe, that an integrated approach is beneficial. Research must inform our teaching and writing, and the former - particularly when it involves senior practitioners - generates ideas for investigation and tests the relevance of our research. Cases that draw on sound theoretical foundations, but which are developed to address specific teaching themes, are often most effective in class and most reliable in conveying appropriate lessons to students.”
Putting a comprehensive case programme in place can, in Gill’s view, drive teaching results and institutional success. But measurable data is needed to convince the many academic sceptics of the case method: “Much lip service is paid to the case method, but it hardly contributes to promotions and tenure (P&T), indeed producing cases can be considered as evidence the ‘real’ research is not being done because of the time being spent working on the cases ‘hobby’.” Most precisely, Gill argues: “Perhaps the greatest obstacle ........ is the perception - widely held at research universities - that discussion cases are not research, even when they are published.”
At IMD, Anand Narasimhan also believes that the case method can influence the standing of a school: “Institutions that invest in developing and teaching original cases will develop a good reputation, because if faculty do plenty of field or secondary data research, they are likely to come directly in touch with pressing business issues of the day.”
Gill feels that business schools might become more effective by taking a broader view of what constitutes research, and by beginning to understand how ideas influence and diffuse, building a bridge between innovators and practical application. His own recently completed research has measured the relative effectiveness of using a case strategy in specific facets of learning with his students. The findings were “able to identify concrete outcomes“, and are scheduled for publication. Gill hopes this research will support the endeavours of case faculty in diverse institutions: “The demonstration of learning outcomes is becoming a matter of considerable urgency at many institutions. Both state governments and accrediting agencies are increasingly demanding that programs set forth both their learning goals and how they measure their effectiveness in achieving these outcomes,” he writes in the forthcoming article.
In the UK, Adrian Pryce, Senior Lecturer, Business and International Management, Northampton Business School, at the University of Northampton, cites a recent survey of the school’s faculty investigating attitudes to, and usage of, the case method, which turn out to be positive and widespread, with 94% saying they liked working with cases and 88% responding that their students appreciated them. Respondents identified strengths they saw in cases, in particular pedagogical outcomes, but they also highlighted perceived weaknesses which focussed on issues of the time faculty require to prepare to teach with cases, challenges around sourcing the right materials, and variations in students’ abilities to handle cases.
“We are starting to develop our own cases on local business eg Silverstone race track, with a view to offering students integrated case analysis as an alternative option to their third year undergraduate dissertation, and we are even considering engaging students in the case writing process as part of their assessment”, reports Pryce. His colleagues also expressed a desire for learning more about case teaching, writing, and aligning case methodology with research1, reflecting Gill’s view that institutional support and the accessibility of affordable materials2 are crucial if cases are to be used extensively and at a high level. Pryce concurs: “there is a heavy upfront preparation time in a case study, and a need to change some students’ attitudes about pre-read material before a class; all this requires back-up from a school.”
A community of individuals
Gill envisages the creation of a global on-line community of people involved with cases, reporting and feeding back on issues and impact, and in the process “reinventing the measurability of business education effectiveness”, while providing a support network. While there is a sense from the people ecch spoke to for this article that interest in using cases is indeed growing around the world, in the end, the process will be driven by individuals and there is no substitute for quality teaching, whatever the method used. As Kulwant Singh puts it: “in my experience, case writing and the case method are usually driven by interested faculty, who see the value of writing and teaching with cases, independent of formal incentives. The rewards from developing and successfully using a case in your own class are great, and are often the greatest motivator.”
Ultimately, Grandon Gill, too, puts the focus on mentoring and motivating teachers to trust their individual instincts about what might work for their particular students: “If it feels right to you - don’t worry too much, just experiment and do what fits your personality.” In the introduction to Informing with the Case Method, he reflects on how achieving all these objectives in institutions like his alma mater, where ‘masters of the case art’ abound, is so much easier to accomplish. His book, he hopes, will try to provide this visionary and mentoring support for future masters still pioneering their craft at diverse schools worldwide.
1 An ecch workshop, Aligning your Teaching and Research - the Potential of Case Studies, will be led by Mark Jenkins at ESMT European School of Management and Technology, Germany on 23 October 2012
2 ecch has a range of free case materials available at www.ecch.com/freecases
Accessing Informing with the Case Method
Informing with the Case Method is provided to download for free at:
It can also be purchased as a paperback at www.amazon.com.