The case method is alive and well: reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.
When I became Director of The Case Centre six years ago I was unfamiliar with cases and how they are used in business education. I read some cases, researched the topic and became a little skeptical. It seemed hard to believe that students could gain much benefit from studying these cases; some seemed bland and uninspiring in style and I doubted that universally applicable learning outcomes could be derived from them. Perhaps, I conjectured, they might even lead students to believe that management problems could be easily solved like crossword puzzles.
I could not have been more wrong.
My conversion came when I first watched a case being taught: it was a revelation. In the classroom, the case method becomes more than the sum of its parts, and in the hands of a skilful teacher the atmosphere becomes electric; students find their most fundamental beliefs and assertions being challenged as they learn to think differently and more effectively, taking on board new ideas and concepts almost by collective osmosis.
A successful case method session is a thrilling spectacle. No wonder so many case teachers report hearing from students years after graduation who still remember the cases and case method sessions that provided the philosophical, theoretical and practical bedrock for their subsequent management careers.
Students can gain so much from the case method; within the context of real-life decision-making they can learn business and management theory while at the same time developing a wide range of vital skills. These include negotiation, analysis, defending and challenging viewpoints, team and lone working, and the ability to guard against making decisions based on too little information.
The case method both harnesses and challenges the wisdom of the collective. Students find there is rarely a single answer, although a number of preferred solutions can be established. The best outcome is the best one possible in the circumstances Ð although, as in real life, rarely perfect. The case method enables the application and testing of theory, challenges accepted practice, and enables vital dialogue and cross-pollination between business practitioners and academics. There is no place for ivory towers here.
Flexible and adaptable
It is true that we are dealing with an entirely new, although no less intelligent, breed of student in the 21st century. Some observers may lament their apparently short attention spans and almost physiological connection to the online world, but these are not going to change. However, the case method can, and this is its beauty. Its flexibility and adaptability is unparalleled as a teaching and learning tool; it is able to constantly evolve, easily keeping pace with the rapidly changing demands and expectations of students and adapting with ease to exploit new technologies as they emerge and develop.
A number of case writers and teachers are already making the most of technological advances to reinvigorate cases so they remain relevant and appealing to students while maintaining rigorous learning objectives.
A perfect example is one of The Case Centre’s recent prizewinners, Teaching the Virtually Real Case Study. This highly innovative approach to case teaching was developed by Sabine Emad, University of Applied Sciences (UAS) Western Switzerland – Geneva School of Business Administration, and Wade Halvorson, SP Jain School of Global Management, Singapore & University of Western Australia. They transformed the written case format by introducing online gaming techniques and virtual simulation, offering a truly engaging experience for a new generation of students who have no patience with text-heavy materials but are comfortable and confident in virtual environments.
The case method is endlessly inventive, uniquely able to recreate itself and emerge strengthened and renewed in the face of rapid and irreversible change. As such, it remains an irreplaceable cornerstone of management education in business schools across the globe.
In our technology-saturated world, it’s instructive to recall that the case method, in all its current guises, has its roots in antiquity, calling on the ancient techniques of Socratic dialogue, or ‘questioning’ used to prove the falsity of an assumption, as well as Aristotelian logic and the method of argument and counter-argument. Its longevity has already been proven, and I believe its future remains secure.
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Richard McCracken is the Director of The Case Centre