The Case Method: Still a Good Fit for Today’s Business School?

The case method, synonymous with management education since its creation in the early 20th century by faculty at Harvard Business School, has come under fire of late. In this week’s issue of Working Knowledge, HBS professor Jim Heskett asks: Is too much emphasis being placed on cases as opposed to other forms of instruction in training decision makers?

Most recently, the question has been raised about whether the case method encourages the development of skills in framing problems prior to decision making. Heskett asserts that traditional cases have been criticized for being self-contained documents that describe a protagonist facing a decision with a set of packaged data available on which to base the decision. Research outside the case may be discouraged; there may not be time for it in a curriculum packed with cases designed to encourage students to acquire decision making habits, he says.

Heskett isn’t the only one with concerns. Back in February, we told you about Columbia Business School dean R. Glenn Hubbard’s decision to create what he calls “decision briefs”, which offer less information and don’t present a solution until students have hashed out the issues on their own. “We want our students to be used to dealing with incomplete data,” Hubbard said. “They should be able to make decisions out of uncertainty.”

The article has already generated scores of reader comments online. Jack Slagle, Senior Program Manager at L-3 Communications, says “case methodology is an excellent tool for teaching management and should be retained. Learning from the past can prevent disastrous historical repeats; however, with the advent of technology, there are emerging techniques and processes that could be used in addition to case studies.”

Meanwhile, Susan Strayer, Director of Talent Acquisition for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company LLC, offers a different take. “While I gained great insight from case methods in B-school, it is far from real-world experience. When working through the issue in real time, you are forced to make decisions along the way with data you have at that time that cases cannot capture…To me the real problem is the professors teaching the cases. Many haven’t ever worked full-time in a leadership role of a company or if they have it was years ago. I think schools would benefit if they had more real-world instructors in combination with revised teaching methodologies.”

Ubiquitous though it may be, do you think case method instruction is in need of an overhaul?

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