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Harvard Business School Case Method Video Slated for Makeover

case method videoIf you’ve looked at the new essay prompt for Harvard Business School (HBS) this year, you may have noticed that applicants are encouraged to view a video before starting to write. If you hadn’t noticed, you’re welcome.

HBS Managing Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Dee Leopold is passionate about applicants watching this video, which brings to life the signature HBS case method. “I am a nut about that,” she confesses. “If I could require that applicants watch it, I would.”

The case method is so central to the MBA at HBS that becoming as familiar with it as you can should be a central component to evaluating whether or not you could thrive at the school, Leopold believes. Because HBS understands that not every applicant will be able to visit campus and attend a class for him or herself, it features the aforementioned video on its website as a means of providing a taste of what the case method is all about.

The only problem: The video is from 2007. Although three of the four professors featured are still at HBS, much has changed in the in the eight years since the video was produced. For starters, the professor who teaches the actual case at the center of the video—Jan Rivkin—has risen from mere associate professor to become the Bruce V. Rauner Professor of Business Administration and senior associate dean for research. David Thomas, another of the professors featured, has moved on from HBS to become dean of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. The other two professors, Janice Hammond and David Garvin, have also become named professors in their respective departments.

Career progression, of course, is to be expected. Still, the case at the center of the current video—“Bitter Competition: The Holland Sweetner Co. vs. Nutrasweet”—was written in 1993, about a competition that ensued between NutraSweet and the Holland Sweetener Co. (HSC) following HSC’s entry into the aspartame market in 1987.

Perhaps even more concerning to Leopold, though, are the clothes people are wearing in the case method video. “I want a new video just to update the fashion,” she says—not once, but twice.

Of course, a huge part of the reason that HBS has gotten away with not overhauling the case method video before now is that the teaching style at its core hasn’t changed. In a recent interview, Professor Frances Frei referred to it as “a learning by advocacy” model. Students pour over cases on their own and discuss them passionately in learning groups all before ever reaching the classroom. In class, they need to be prepared to have a position or recommendation and to defend it with facts.

“We teach people the courage to act under uncertainty,” Professor Garvin says in the video. “It’s not a passive process, and frankly, management is not a passive process,” echoes Professor Rivkin. “They get to try out many of the component processes of management in the classroom, and you can build muscles around things like judgment.”

“You are asking people to learn how to take a stand,” Garvin adds. A fringe benefit: Students seem to really enjoy it. “Fun is one of the most underrated aspects of the case method,” Rivkin says. “Learning shouldn’t always be difficult. Learning shouldn’t be painful. There is this element of joy that comes with learning.”

Even so, the fashion is outdated, students are taking notes on legal pads instead of laptops, and there’s nary an iPhone in sight. Well, Leopold is getting her wish. The video is slated for overhaul “this year,” she says.

Part of the challenge, she notes, is choosing a new case that will stand the test of time while also proving accessible to a mass audience. If HBS has zeroed in on a recent case to spotlight in the new video, Leopold wasn’t giving it up.

Whether you  apply this year and watch the case method video from 2007—or next year, when a new video is slated to be available, Leopold has a singular hope. “I want prospective applicants to imagine themselves in this case study,” she says. “Because HBS is truly a 100 percent case method learning environment.”