Informing Business: Research and Education on a Rugged Landscape

Informing Science
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Informing Science
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Dec 31, 2010
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 There are a number of marvelous books that address the topic
of the case method. If you are interested in facilitating cases, you can look
to the classic book Teaching and the Case
Method by Louis Barnes, C. Roland Christensen and Abby Hansen (1994). The collection of
essays on the subject, Education for
Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership by C. Roland Christensen,
David Garvin and Ann Sweet (1991) is a wonderful and
inspiring read as well. If your interest is case-based research, it would be
nearly impossible to find a more authoritative source than Robert Yin’s (2009, 4th
Edition) Case Study Research: Design and
Methods, which (at last count) has been cited nearly 29,000 times,
according to Google Scholar. There is even a new entry to
the field, William Ellet’s (2007) The
Case Study Handbook: How to Read, Discuss, and Write Persuasively about Cases
that is specifically aimed at the student. At first glance, then, the topic of
case studies in education and research seems to be pretty well covered. Do we
really need another book on the subject?

I write this book believing the answer is yes. While I have
great affection for the classics, there are a number of issues facing most business faculty—not to mention
faculty members from disciplines outside of business—that these books simply do
not address. In writing this book, my intention is to offer some thoughts on
some of these. Paradoxically, these omissions arise from the very fact that the
authors of the classics are undisputed masters of their craft. Why this is a
problem should become clear as I identify the three areas of focus for this

The first issue that I feel must be considered is using the
case method with a novice audience. Consider the following. When I was enrolled
in the MBA program at Harvard Business School (HBS) in the early 1980s, the
curriculum consisted of nearly 900 case discussion (15 per week) and—perhaps—as
many as 20 class periods given over to lecture-style presentations. When I
teach a case-method graduate course at my own institution, on the other hand, I
am constrained to 11 case discussions (a 12 week semester). As it happens, I am
also the only course in the entire program that employs pedagogy reasonably
faithful to the case method, as it is normally defined. The math is very
simple. By the last day of my semester, my students have as much experience
discussing cases as I did on Thursday afternoon of the first week of my two
year MBA program at HBS. With the exception of faculty teaching at those rare
institutions that have chosen to widely adopt the case method, the situation I
face is commonplace.

The second concern that existing books raise for me is their
tendency to focus on isolated topics. Specifically, case facilitation, case
writing and case research are treated as separable activities. I would argue
that these three aspects of the case method—which I define quite broadly—are
inseparable. For institutions that wish to achieve the full set of benefits
provided by the case method, all three activities must be pursued in parallel.
Perhaps this is why so few institutions have achieved success through the case
method. In this book, I will argue that achieving such integration is precisely
why those rare institutions have been so

Once you start believing that the case method can be a key
to institutional success, how you get there becomes a real challenge. At
leading institutions featuring the case method, such as HBS, the philosophy is largely
learned through a period of apprenticeship. For example, I did not encounter
any of the references mentioned in the first paragraph—excepting Yin—at any time during my 5 year
doctorate at HBS. Instead, I went out and wrote cases, facilitated discussions
and did research under the guidance of faculty members who were masters of the
craft. How can someone without the benefit of such an experience acquire such
mastery? While I cannot offer any promises in this regard, I will at least
provide some examples and easy-to-follow checklists that may be of service to
individuals getting started.

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