A valuable taste of the real world

Case studies are vital raw material, but they must be handled with care. By Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

"Within six weeks of the live case study we implemented three initiatives that have really made an impact," says Henderson.

A simple tweak to the room service roster, putting someone in charge of food and beverage quality during the peak evening hours, reduced rebates by 72 per cent in just two weeks. Henderson reckons this could save the hotel between £30,000 and £40,000 a year.

For the business school, the experience resulted in real "bang for buck". The live study had a number of follow-ups, including hot seat debates, business simulations and a hotel-themed "creating value" assignment. Students relished the opportunity to get stuck into a real business, where problems, and solutions, are muddied by human personalities and real life complexities.

"You don't get those subtleties in a written text," says Ashridge student Kay White. "And your recommendations aren't theoretical; you are accountable to a real company."

It's this accountability that prompted Lancaster University Management School to develop a series of live case studies for its 2005/6 intake of MBA students. "Students put the theory into practice with real companies, where there are consequences for their point of view," says Frank Cave, course leader for entrepreneurship at Lancaster.

Yet written case studies remain, rightly, a staple of the MBA diet. They may not offer the face-to-face interaction of a live case study but they do provide a realistic backdrop against which business theories can be tested.

Jaideep Prabhu, professor of marketing at Tanaka Business School at Imperial College, London, believes case studies are an indispensable teaching aid.

"MBA students have worked in industry, so they tire easily of theory because they know theoretical abstracts often break down in the real world," says Prabhu. "A good case study should reflect the complexity you find in real organisations."

Yet not all case studies are equal. Harvard Business School, which pioneered the case study method of learning, no longer monopolises output and business schools across Europe and the Far East are now churning out material. Some of these case studies are very good, but others come with a health warning.

"Top European schools like INSEAD and London Business School are producing material of a high quality but we now get case studies from all over the world and the quality is variable," says Jeffrey Gray, director of the not-for-profit European case study clearing house ECCH.

It's not just the quality of the case study but how it is used that counts, says Gray. "The material must lend itself to controversy," he says. "Often, there's no right or wrong answer. In a good discussion, everybody wants to get involved. It's a powerful learning experience."

Teachers at HEC School of Management in Paris are using technology to enhance that experience. Students there read the case study and then log onto a website to vote on the recommendation they would make to the company's CEO. They must also answer 10 online questions to justify their decision.

"Students tend to be good at analyzing problems but it's harder to come up with creative solutions to those problems," says Bernard Garrette, associate professor of strategy and business policy. "This forces them to take a personal position on what the company should do. It puts the emphasis on making recommendations."

It also makes the time in the classroom more productive. "Because the students have already taken a position, you get stuck in," says Garrette. This type of discussion requires careful handling. In the past, it was common for the classroom debate to be manipulated so its culmination was a not particularly helpful demonstration of the teacher's superior knowledge. This problem is dying out as widespread internet access shrinks the information gap between student and teacher.

Teachers also need to make sure case studies are more than a series of corporate war stories.

Ray Ball, professor of accountancy at Chicago Business School's London campus, is adamant that case studies should be underpinned by some testable abstract principle. "You can graduate from business school and know how to solve 300 case studies but what use is that in the real world?" asks Ball. "At CBS, we are insistent the student goes away with some structure that will carry them through their lives."

He believes the rise and fall of energy giant Enron is a clear example of the strengths and weaknesses of case studies. "People read into Enron every one of their prejudices," says Ball. "I've seen it used to illustrate ethics, market inefficiency, government regulation, everything."

Yet a number of peer-reviewed academic papers have shown there is no general lesson about conflict of interest to be drawn from the Enron debacle.

"It can be too easy to generalize from case study material," says Ball, who still remains a fan of case studies as a teaching device, as long as the material is handled with care.