The Case for Cases

Case studies might present challenges, but their benefits are too powerful to ignore. 
YOUR TURN: The Case for Cases

THE DOMINANT FORM of pedagogy in business schools has come under attack—and this criticism is both misguided and shortsighted.

We’re talking about the case study method.

Both of us are well-informed observers of the method, but let us disclose upfront that we are not impartial. Our institution, Harvard Business School (HBS), pioneered the use of cases in business schools back in the 1920s. Our faculty write roughly 240 new field-based cases each year. Sales of these cases help fund our educational and research mission, and our faculty receive modest royalties on those sales.

We also know that case studies from HBS and other institutions play a leading role in business curricula. Business students around the world read 15 million to 20 million case studies each year. At the ten leading business schools, we estimate that the average MBA course features ten to 12 cases.

Why are cases used so widely? In short, they offer a compelling form of pedagogy. Much as patient rounds in teaching hospitals expose medical students to actual diseases, diagnoses, and cures, case discussions expose business students to real business dilemmas, choices, and decisions. Cases teach students to size up business problems and focus on vital issues, while keeping in mind the larger organizational, industry, and societal contexts. Furthermore, students recall concepts better when those concepts are set in a case, much as people remember new words better when they are used in a sentence.

When students prepare before class to debate a case, they cultivate their critical and analytical reasoning. When they discuss it with each other, they learn to listen to others’ perspectives while sharing their own views. Cases allow students to practice what they will do throughout their careers: exercise judgment and make decisions in complex situations with incomplete information.

And, of course, case studies shape research among business professors, influencing the questions they ask and the hypotheses they test. Comparative case-based research has yielded some of the most influential ideas in business scholarship. Writing cases brings scholars closer to management practice, which increasingly has become a priority among business schools.

CASES AND CONFLICTS

But lately, the case study method has been the target of criticism. In a spring 2017 article, for example, The Economist complained that cases are compromised by the process that creates them. Some argue that, because subject organizations must approve cases before they are published, cases are little more than “puff pieces” for executives and advertisements for companies.

Moreover, case authors sometimes have economic relationships with case companies—faculty authors might serve on the company board, consult with the company, teach at the company for pay, or ask executives to donate to the school. These possibilities, critics argue, could create conflicts of interest and tempt authors to tell a story favorable to the company and executives.

We agree that, without proper safeguards, cases could become flawed teaching vehicles. But many critics of the case method fail to recognize why cases must be written with company cooperation or what guardrails we can put into place to prevent conflicts from becoming an issue. Even more telling, these critics often fail to suggest alternatives that could offer the same benefits for students, scholarship, or society.

Business students and faculty are not studying fruit flies, geologic formations, or the laws of physics. They’re studying complex human systems that can be understood only by having direct access to them. For that reason, the careful study of business requires intimate access to the internal workings of companies—access that case studies readily provide.

SAFEGUARDS FOR INTEGRITY

At HBS, field cases are written with company cooperation, starting with interviews of company executives and the gathering of internal data. Such access inherently requires the consent of the companies that open their doors to us.

Critics of the case method implicitly assume an alternative world where scholars have unfettered access to companies’ information without companies having any influence on what information is disclosed. That’s an attractive world that, unfortunately, doesn’t exist. The fact that a company that allows us access to its information will have some influence on the case can be problematic. But we can limit that influence by putting four important safeguards in place:

Faculty integrity. At HBS, each faculty member who submits a case for publication must attest that the case meets the same high standards as other academic work. This step requires the author of every case to pause and reflect on the material’s quality. The research integrity policies and procedures that govern all HBS faculty output also apply to cases, and if an allegation of research misconduct were to arise, the dean is empowered to take action.

Clear expectations. To ensure integrity, good case writers have extensive discussions upfront with sponsoring executives, very early in the case research process. In these discussions, our case writers highlight the importance of candor. Case writing is not worthwhile unless a company will approve a case that reveals real challenges and missteps, because cases that read like advertisements typically fail in the classroom.

If a sponsoring executive is not committed to candor, our case writers typically walk away. This happens frequently. In fact, HBS makes it easier for case writers to disengage by paying the expenses associated with writing a case whether or not it is released. We finance new cases from funds raised through sales of existing cases, endowment proceeds, alumni donations, and our educational programs. Although sponsoring companies have so-called “veto rights” before a case is released, these rights are very limited and, in practice, rarely used.

Full disclosure. Since 2012, HBS has required that case authors disclose any interests they have in the subject organization on the front page of the case. This might include an economic relationship with or a financial holding in the company in question. Disclosure also is required in the rare instance when a company funds the writing of a case to be taught to its employees. If that case is later made public, the company’s funding support is disclosed on page one.

Competition. A brutally competitive market for this content is a final safeguard against cases becoming “puff pieces.” Most courses have 10 percent to 20 percent annual turnover in cases; in fact, a surprising number of cases are taught just once, shelved because the discussion fails to live up to a faculty member’s hopes. One-sided cases that lack intellectual integrity—that don’t spark spirited discussion and compelling learning—have short lives. Faculty want to write cases that are used widely for years, so these market forces are strong incentives for them to write candid explorations of the companies they select.

WHAT ALTERNATIVES?

What if an institution decides to forgo using cases—are there realistic alternatives? It could use “library cases” written from public sources, without direct interaction with subject firms. Library cases can be useful, but they often don’t reflect the truths and messiness of actual business situations. We believe that programs that rely on library cases alone would produce graduates who are less prepared for leadership and professors who are less informed about business realities.

We know that cases and the case writing process are not perfect. That’s why at HBS we routinely seek, and find, ways to improve the integrity of cases. Right now, for example, we are investing in better ways to monitor compliance with our conflict-of-interest policies. We also are exploring other alternatives to the case method—for instance, deeply engaging online experiences that take students into the field. These options are exciting and promising. But as we dive into them, learn their limits, and realize how expensive they are, we return to marvel at the power and efficiency of responsibly written business cases.

Nitin Nohria is the dean of the faculty and Jan W. Rivkin is the senior associate dean for research at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2018 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.