Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Case Study : The #1 Study Method for a MBA

One of the important study formats in a MBA program is the case study format. Case studies have been invented at Harvard University in the 1920s and from then on they have dominated the MBA education system all over the world.

The Birth of an HBS Case Study :
When Harvard Business School first opened its doors in 1908, the case method of instruction was just an idea of the School's first Dean, Edwin F. Gay. Gay envisioned an approach to classroom teaching that would revolve around discussions of problems in business administration. In 1911, Arch Wilkinson Shaw began teaching a Business Policy course in which he presented to the class real problems faced by business executives. These presentations would become the first examples of the case method at HBS. HBS published its first case study, The General Shoe Company, in 1921, written by Assistant Dean Clinton Biddle.

The years have brought many changes in the way cases are conceived and produced, and topics have expanded as innovations have broadened the scope of business. Yet the case method remains the heart and soul of how business is taught at HBS. "It's action learning," says HBS senior lecturer Michael J. Roberts, executive director of case development. "As professors, we have to distill the realities of complex business issues and bring that into the classroom. Students, in turn, want to extrapolate from that narrow experience to the world at large. So, we have to pick good examples and maintain the relevance of them."

Eighty years after the first case was written, the case method is as much as ever at the center of teaching and learning at HBS. Roberts believes that the case method continues to be the most effective teaching technique because of its applicability to real management situations. "Those who practice business are in the real world making decisions that have real consequences," he says. "The case method is intellectually engaging for students because they acquire the knowledge, skills, and tools to deal with the kind of problems they'll encounter in their careers. Because they go through this inductive reasoning process to arrive at answers, the learning process is more powerful."
So What exactly is a case study?

Typically, an HBS case is a detailed account of a real-life business situation, describing the dilemma of the "protagonist"—a real person with a real job who is confronted with a real problem. Faculty and their research assistants spend weeks at the company that is the subject of the case, detailing the background of the situation, the immediate problem or decision, and the perspectives of the managers involved. The resulting case presents the story exactly as the protagonist saw it, including ambiguous evidence, shifting variables, imperfect knowledge, no obvious right answers, and a ticking clock that impatiently demands action.

Collectively, HBS cases cover every inch of the rich landscape of issues general managers confront—from finance and manufacturing to marketing and human resources, from the broadly strategic to the deeply personal, from companies and institutions small and large, from places around the globe. They also draw on the full range of knowledge and analytical tools business students must know to confront these issues, providing a rich context for their application. Though every case is different, nearly all center on one overarching question: What should the protagonist do? In their two years at HBS, students study more than 500 cases—500 chances to join with their classmates to test themselves against the rock-hard realities of life in business.

How does it work?
Every week, our MBA students pore over fourteen or so cases, which usually include a range of financial and other supporting data. After spending a couple of hours studying each case on their own, and conducting quantitative analyses as appropriate, they test their thinking before class in small study groups of four to six people.

Almost inevitably, class begins with a "cold call," a provocative question the professor poses to one specific student to open the case and ignite the thinking of the section as a whole. In the course of a year, every MBA student is cold-called at least once, and you never know when it will be your turn—a powerful incentive to come to class prepared.

From the springboard of this opening question and the response, the class collectively dives into a riveting eighty minutes of analysis, argument, insight, and passionate persuasion. In more traditional classrooms, practically the only voice you hear is the professor's. HBS professors aren't soloists, but rather conductors who every day orchestrate a stimulating rapid-fire discussion, playing off all ninety minds in the room to analyze and synthesize the situation. Since 50 percent of each student's grade depends on class participation, everyone is inspired to contribute.

Class rarely ends with a tidy solution to the protagonist's dilemma, but more often with a deep appreciation of the complex factors at play, a clear idea of how to apply appropriate techniques to analyze and assess the problem, and new insights into how to deal with the untidy uncertainties of real business.

HBS has developed 'sections' and 'study groups' to amplify the use of the case method.

Sections are intended to maximize one of the strengths of the case method: Every student is also a teacher. A great part of what students learn at HBS comes from listening to the dozens of contrasting analyses, opinions, and perspectives of their sectionmates, a diverse constellation of exceptionally talented people from an extraordinary range of personal and professional backgrounds. After years of experience, faculty have set the size of a section at about eighty to ninety students, a number that allows them to bring this rich diversity to bear on case discussions while encouraging the proper level of vibrant interaction.

For those used to solitary nights in the library, the emphasis at HBS on study groups may come as a surprise, but they are universally described by MBA students as key to their success; a personal and intellectual resource they couldn't do without. Offering a miniature version of the diversity in a section as a whole, a study group is a place to clarify difficult concepts, test ideas, ask "dumb questions," learn new ways of attacking a problem, and sometimes just to relax.

Is this method effective?

The HBS approach to the case method of teaching may represent the most demanding, engaging, and provocative way to learn about the skills of leadership, short of actually serving as a CEO. But does that preparation lead to significant results in the real world?

Perhaps the best measure is the extraordinary success of our alumni. HBS graduates have gone on to positions of leadership in an exceptional range of entrepreneurial firms, established companies, governments, and nonprofit organizations in countries across the globe. And many of them have maintained that their experience with the case method at HBS has been crucial to their success, giving them the knowledge, the skills, and confidence to deal effectively with the wide array of difficult decisions they have faced throughout their careers.

I would like to add that the case method has been successful all over the world and hence can be considered one of the most important "education innovations" for the MBA.

Some resources on case studies :


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07 April, 2009 16:08  
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