Harvard’s Case Studies Retain Their Luster in MBAs

Despite coming under fire, the case method allows business schools to stay relevant and justify their hype

The case method, when students pore over real-life corporate challenges, has been a core part of the MBA curriculum for decades. It was developed in law schools, but introduced to MBA teaching by Harvard Business School in 1919.  

However, Harvard’s case studies have come under fire in recent years. Some critics say that minority leaders are insufficiently represented, or that cases are too theoretical. Or outdated.

But many business schools present an impassioned defense of the case method, which still dominates MBA teaching. “The case studies add a much more experiential learning approach to classrooms. This is what sets the MBA apart from other graduate programs,” says Shameen Prashantham, MBA director at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai.

He says research has shown that people retain more knowledge when they are involved in the teaching process. Lectures are more of a passive experience whereas the case method is much more active.

“Every time our students learn about a framework or a concept, it is backed by real-world examples, rather than taking the theories at face value,” Prashantham says. “And, as all the case studies require a rigorous classroom discussion, the students learn not only from professors but from their peers, who have very diverse backgrounds.”

It is widely accepted in business schools that a variety of perspectives enriches the learning experience. More than just learning about the concepts, MBA students take up valuable skills through the case method. “Through the discussion process the students build critical listening and persuasion skills,” says Prashantham.

Furthermore, as students are made to think like a protagonist and base their judgment on the limited information available in the cases, they get trained on making decisions in the face of ambiguity. “This is quite important because more often than not, business leaders have to base their decisions on incomplete information,” the CEIBS professor adds.

And there are implications for faculty. Case studies require professors to have good research skills and a constant, direct relationship with industry, ensuring content is up to date.

“This is quite critical as the world of business is very dynamic, the business principles that were established years ago might not be as relevant now,” says Prashantham. “So in a way it is the case study method that allows business schools to stay relevant and justify their hype.”

How case studies are evolving

Over the years, cases have become more interactive, often coupled with hands-on group work with actual tools that MBA students will use in the future. For instance, INSEAD professor David Dubois always includes in his cases ideas for group exercise where students get to learn how to use analytics tools.

“We’ve also learnt a lot from the Covid crisis,” says Dubois. “Online settings offer other powerful tools — of which polling is king — that can augment learning and enrich the narrative of case conversations.”

Professor Lily Fang, dean of research at INSEAD, says some of the trends are shorter, more brief cases, just in time cases, live cases, and more diverse cases in terms of geography and protagonists. She also defends the case method: “The learning is beyond getting to the right answer. Effective teamwork requires leadership, collaboration, and communication — all of which are incredibly valuable in real life.”  

Brian Kenny, chief marketing and communications officer at HBS, also points to changes. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are already having an impact on case research. For example, students could interact online with chatbots that provide them with insights about the case depending on the questions asked.

Similarly, virtual reality (VR) could let students become the case protagonist and interact with other participants; they will be able to make decisions in real time and experience the results of those decisions. “This technology will make it easier for students to immerse themselves in a case and understand the complexity of the problem the protagonist faces,” says Kenny.

Brandon Kirby, senior director of admissions at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, would also like to see case studies presented in a more visual format. “If the case is about Amazon, why not do a video and film on location?” he says. “I also think presenting a more diverse set of protagonist in the cases would be good. Things have improved a little over the years, but a focus on underrepresented minorities would be great.”

But he warns that developing cases is extremely challenging and involves getting buy in and clearance from the participating company.

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