For nearly a century, case studies have been the bread and butter of business schools across the world. Most institutions swear by them as a way of bringing real life to the classroom, and on average devote a third of MBA tuition to case discussions. Harvard is said to sell seven million cases a year to other universities, bringing in some £20 million. But is the case study always the best way to teach the managers of the future?
No, say Professor Ken Starkey, of Nottingham University Business School, and the business historian Nick Tiratsoo. Their recent book The Business School and the Bottom Line argues that case studies are simply non-academic: simplistic, unquestioning, and too restricted in their sources, often relying on information supplied by the company alone.
"The business school has become too preoccupied with business and not enough with being a school," says Starkey. The concern is that the MBA students of today are paying a lot of money to learn basic, outdated histories that recycle simple, capitalistic assump-tions about the way business should be conducted.
David Sims, of Cass Business School, agrees. "The case study is always in the past," he says. "The lessons have been learned by your competitors a long time before you." Case studies, he says, only sound like real world situations. "Reality is always far more complicated, and what makes management difficult is precisely the complexity that gets left out of case studies."
The book argues that the case study session leader is crucial to the learning process. And yet, with rising student numbers, administrative duties and intense pressure to publish, it's increasingly difficult for tutors to give cases rigorous academic attention. Instead, they are often taught "off-the-shelf", with tutors simply relying on the teaching note, which summarises the case itself and how it should best be taught to a class.
The shortcomings of case studies often are not ironed out at the teaching stage, the authors claim. Hard-pressed staff, aware they are not doing well, can become demoralised. "There's a real sense of doom around a lot of business schools," says Tiratsoo.
But Mark Jenkins, the director of graduate programmes at Cranfield School of Management, argues that this off-the-shelf teaching doesn't happen at his school. "Tutors would not survive on the courses at Cranfield if they did that. They'd be taken to pieces."
Jenkins is also the chairman of the European Case Clearing House, the major distributor of case studies in Europe. The Clearing House awards annual prizes to the most popular case studies – a number of which come in for stiff criticism from Starkey and Tiratsoo. But Jenkins argues that the authors have missed an essential separation between research case studies, which try to understand the totality of organisation, and case studies intended for teaching, which present just one perspective.
"Case studies are not the answer to every learning situation," he says, "but they're a powerful way to bring organisational reality into the classroom."
Professor Landis Gabel, a former Clearing House award winner and the Novartis chair in Management and the Environment at Insead, says his school is not ideological about cases: some classes use them, others don't. But he balks at the suggestion that a business school would use simplistic cases.
"If a case is simplistic then the class falls flat – and what do you do for the remaining three-quarters of an hour?" He says the best tutors want lively debate, not a closed case.
"The problem is not case studies in themselves but the quality of the teachers. A good teacher can make a case discussion interesting. A bad teacher is going to teach a case badly, no matter what."
But while Starkey and Tiratsoo are concerned that business school tuition is stagnating, there are signs of innovation. Students on the redesigned MBA at the University of Surrey's School of Management are experiencing action learning cases. These are real-life business cases set by local companies. Students work in groups to come up with recommended business plans to tackle a challenge facing a company.
Durham University Business School has also begun to use "living" case studies. Groups of five or six students are assigned a company and asked to prepare a report on that organisation's history and financial status, using whatever resources they can find, including visiting the company. The groups then have to present their findings to a real CEO in a simulated boardroom situation.
David Spence, 39, studying for an MBA at Durham, took part in a recent "living" case study and found it useful. "There's always an element of hindsight with case studies. It's interesting to see what people have done – and reading them, it's easy to say 'yeah, nice story, I've understood it, move on'. The test is trying to apply the theory.
"With the living case study, there is no right answer. It's not, 'this is how I got from A to B'. It's 'we're at A, how can we understand what B might look like?' It's about really trying to understand, in the mass of data in a company, what's really going to make a big difference."
Dr Julie Hodges, a senior teaching fellow at Durham, says the students are working under pressure and the CEO really challenges them. "They have to have done a really thorough analysis and understand the company."
'It's what you do with the knowledge that counts'
Ahmed Ali Jaleel, 37, from the Maldives, is studying for an MBA at Manchester Metropolitan University
"Case studies are helpful to international students like me – particularly those from developing nations. The case study discussions in class help us to visualise the business environment from a different perspective, using situations that we may never come across back at home.
Learning the lessons your competitor has learned is not the issue. It is what you do with the acquired knowledge that counts, especially if you can turn it to your advantage. I think learning the same lessons as a competitor, and then beating that competitor at the same game is an achievement to be proud of."