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Why the MBA Case Method Should Surprise You

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As a former case study researcher and writer at HBS, where I co-authored about 35 cases, I spent a great deal of time working to develop cases that would achieve a lot of outcomes simultaneously. Ideally, the published case would capture a real-world business dilemma in a compelling narrative. It would bring the “characters” in the company to life. And it would challenge students to, independently and collectively, generate an optimal solution to a non-trivial business problem—while allowing diverse perspectives to sharpen and enrich the learning.

Developing cases in this way provided many surprises to case researchers and writers like myself. For instance, it was not always easy to anticipate which case facts would become central to case discussion once the case went live. Even as we worked to seed the cases with critical facts, data points, diverse perspectives and opinions from industry experts and managers, there were times when students themselves saw things in the case that we, the architects of the learning experience, did not anticipate as vital.

This is because with the Case Method, unlike a pure textbook or lecture approach, invites students to direct their own learning. Many students are surprised to discover that although a case provides copious details about the company and business situation, it leaves out the very essence of its intended pursuit: A real-world, actionable solution.

The primary task for students, then, is to “put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist.” This requires a broad set of skills not necessarily developed in college or, even necessarily, during the first few years of professional life. Part of the “fog of learning” that many students encounter in business school centers around finding a way to analyze decisions that are, by design, complex.

Solving a case is not as simple as making a single quantitative solution, although such calculations are often integral to the process. Solving a case is not as simple as agreeing or disagreeing with an idea offered by a manager as quoted within the text, although interrogating the validity of the ideas of managers is often important. And solving a case is not as simple as quoting a business theory, although the close application of theory often helps arrive at a solution.

The students who excel at case analysis tend to be good at breaking problems into their relevant parts. They appreciate that the process involves not memorizing a series of indeterminate facts, but rather selecting the most important facts on which the solution will turn. Students analyzing cases—like managers in the real world—should be looking for the discrete set of facts, perspectives, and calculations that lead, logically, to insight. Watch a class of MBAs discussing a case and you will see that the students at the forefront of the discussion are the ones who offer original insight. What’s more, they are capable of incorporating insights of their classmates into a cohesive argument that supports a recommended course of action, a case solution.

In 2020, roughly 18.75 million case studies were sold into what is now a large and expanding global market.1 Approximately 40% of MBA classes at most top business schools use the Case Method, with leading proponents of Case Method using this approach in fully 80% more of their classes.2 Case writers and case distribution shops are popping up at many, many schools around the globe who are making their own unique contributions to the field of management education. At Yale School of Management, for instance, innovative online cases share the spotlight with traditional paper and pencil versions, and online engagement in Case Method is a trend to watch.

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Students who initially struggle to get their arms around case analysis should take heart: It’s difficult even for many experienced professionals. On a few occasions during my six years at HBS, the case sponsor from the company on which we developed a given case would say some version of the following: “Now that the case is written, with all the data available to analyze it and solve it, what do you think we should do about this? How should we solve our own case?”

The answer to this question lies in the approach. Students and professionals alike are encouraged to take a repeatable approach to case analysis – no matter the industry, function, or business era. Having an effective “gameplan” allows the analyst to cut through the confusion so often introduced by the deluge of data packed into the case text and exhibits. Even then, allow yourself to be open to surprise. Sometimes, the most thorough analysis you conduct before class will be complicated by new ideas introduced by classmates or the professor once the class discussion begins. Herein lies the fun–and challenge–of becoming a skilled case analyst, a valued classmate, and a successful manager.

How the best business schools use Case Studies

Business School Case Study Lecture Team
Harvard Business School 80% 10% 5%
Western Ontario (Ivey) 75% 10% 5%
Virginia (Darden) 74% 6% 10%
IESE Business School 70% 10% 10%
UC-Berkeley (Haas) 50% 20% 17%
UNC (Kenan-Flagler) 50% 20% 15%
Dartmouth (Tuck) 45% 23% 20%
Stanford GSB 40% 20% 15%
Pennsylvania (Wharton) 40% 20% 25%
Columbia Business School 40% 38% 15%
Yale School of Management 40% 34% 10%
Georgia Tech 40% 25% 25%
IE Business School 40% 20% 20%
Indiana (Kelley) 35% 25% 20%
Texas-Austin (McCombs) 35% 35% 15%
MIT (Sloan) 33% 25% 20%
Duke (Fuqua) 33% 33% 24%
Northwestern (Kellogg) 30% 30% 25%
London Business School 30% 30% 15%
INSEAD 30% 30% 20%
Cornell (Johnson) 30% 30% 20%
UCLA (Anderson) 30% 40% 15%
Vanderbilt (Owen) 30% 40% 30%
SMU (Cox) 30% 25% 25%
ESADE 30% 30%
New York (Stern) 25% 25% 25%
Michigan (Ross) 25% 20% 15%
Notre Dame (Mendoza) 25% 27% 22%
Emory (Goizueta) 25% 30% 20%
Maryland (Smith) 25% 25% 20%
Georgetown (McDonough) 25% 30% 25%
Oxford (Said) 25% 40% 25%
Carnegie Mellon (Tepper) 20% 50% 10%
USC (Marshall) 20% 48% 25%

Source: Bloomberg Businessweek | Poets & Quants

1Harvard Business School 2020 Annual Report shows roughly 15M cases sold. As HBS holds an estimated market share of 80%, this translates into a market estimate of 18.75M (15M/0.8).

2Sameer Kamat, “Case Study Method: Why and How the Best Business Schools use It,” MBA Crystal Ball.

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James Quinn
James has 20 years of experience as a researcher, consultant, and case writer in the private and nonprofit sectors. At Harvard Business School, he co-authored 35 case studies on strategy, marketing, finance, operations, negotiation, general management, and social enterprise. CSC custom cases, advisory services, and digital learning content have been used widely in leading organizations around the world.