For decades, the case study has been the gold standard method of instruction for MBA programs. The method where students pore over real corporate dilemmas, has gained stardom at Harvard Business School, which pioneered the approach, and sells its cases to hundreds of business schools around the world.
But some schools are now railing against Harvard’s cases, claiming that they are outdated and fail to represent protagonists from all of society. These schools are relying less on Harvard’s cases and are developing their own in varied ways, or are rejecting the method fully as online and experiential learning proliferates.
Is there a better way to teach future business leaders? Should the case method change, or be scrapped entirely?
Soon after Harvard’s business school was established in 1908, it assumed the case study as its core approach to schooling under its second dean, Wallace B Donham. It was created 50 years before that at Donham’s alma mater, Harvard Law School (hence the name).
The cases became wildly popular as a method of teaching, and proved highly lucrative for Harvard. Cases accounted for a large chunk of the $221m revenue of its publishing division in 2017. The school produces about 350 new cases each year, on top of the 7,500 already published. In 2018, Harvard sold some 15m copies, mostly to business schools around the world.
MBA students prepare for cases in advance of class, poring over pages of information and embodying the protagonist, usually a senior executive. They then debate their solutions in class, with the discussion facilitated by the professor.
MBA case studies provide insight into real business contexts
Andrew Yuen, associate director of MBA programs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, says the beauty of cases is that students experience the relevancy of the knowledge in a real business context. “It is crucial for our students to apply what they learn in practice.”
He adds that cases enable students to encounter a vast number of business scenarios in a short period of time, much more than they could in the workplace.
At Yale School of Management in Connecticut, about 59 percent of MBA classes include cases. Jaan Elias, director of case study research at Yale SOM, says that they are vivid and memorable ways to think about business solutions. He still recalls cases he studied decades ago. “There is something about tying knowledge to a particular narrative that makes it more compelling than memorizing rules and formulas,” says Elias.
Schools say students are often more engaged in case discussions than in lectures, which can be dry.
Elias adds that case discussions encourage students to learn how to present views to their peers. Group discussion also makes students consider issues from varied perspectives, which can lead to better solutions.
However, case studies have critics. Maura Herson, assistant dean of the MBA program at MIT Sloan School of Management in Massachusetts, points out that cases often rely on dated examples of companies.
She adds that professors need specialized training to facilitate case discussions, without which the delivery may be flat. “You have to practice,” she says. “Very few cases really shine the first time you teach them.”
Brandon Kirby, director of MBA recruitment and admissions at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, agrees. “Cases are generally very static and one-dimensional, which can be problematic in a fast-moving world.”
Another problem, he says, is that there is not much diversity of protagonists. In particular, he is alarmed by the lack of representation of women in leadership positions. “Students might miss out on learning if they can’t identify with the protagonist,” Kirby says.
A recent study found that in cases taught in Stanford’s MBA between 2015 and 2017, for example, just 16 percent of the protagonists were women.
Yale’s Elias says: “The case writing community has been rightly criticized for making white men the lead actors in most [cases].” He says this disparity may reflect the lack of women in senior leadership roles. “You have to deal with the population that you are given.”
Another concern is that most cases are written about western companies, which may not be as relevant to Asian students, says CUHK’s Yuen. “Although the situation is improving, there is still lack of cases in other regions, including Asia,” he says. For this reason, CUHK professors have written more case studies about local companies.
A new approach to the MBA case study
Yale has pioneered a new approach to the case study. It produced 150 so-called “raw” cases that are supplemented with reports, videos, spreadsheets and media articles that give students different perspectives and contradictory viewpoints.
Elias says that case writers often trim much of the context from their studies, to focus exclusively on a particular skill, and in doing so can miss the corporate dilemma. “[Our] method has improved the ability of cases to become platforms for wide-ranging discussions,” he says. But time pressure limits what can be discussed.
The most effective alternatives to case studies, Elias believes, are internships or consulting projects, working with real companies rather than cases on paper. But they are expensive to setup and maintain, he says, and a limited number can be fit into an MBA course, which runs for up to two years. Sometimes host organizations are not hospitable to having outsiders in their midst.
Nevertheless, as online learning proliferates, there will be fewer case studies taught at business school because the method does not lend itself to the digital environment, Elias says. “Lectures and problem sets are a far cheaper method of presenting online materials, and there is no need for synchronous discussion.”
At MIT Sloan, fewer than half of the MBA classes are taught using case studies. But Herson says there will always be a place for the case method: “It’s a pedagogy that encourages [students] to step into the protagonists’ shoes. The goal most often cited by MBA students is to become a more effective leader. So the case study, complemented by other skill-based tools and [practical] learning, definitely has a role in management education.”
CUHK’s Yuen agrees: “Case teaching is a key component in MBA education and there is not valid reason to scrap it entirely.”
Kirby, at RSM, adds that schools may be reluctant to give up cases because producing them can be lucrative, and cases also build up schools’ brand and reputation.
He does not believe that anyone has found an alternative to the case study that works for all schools and students, who have different needs.
He says: “I am all in favor of changes, but until we find something to change to, I don’t see case method going anywhere.”