The world’s first “Master of Business Administration” program began at the Harvard Graduate School of Business & Administration in 1908. Fourteen years later, in 1922, the case method of teaching was established as the primary teaching tool at Harvard.
It all started with an interesting incident in April 1919, when the management of General Shoe Company noticed that their employees in their manufacturing plant frequently stopped working 45 minutes before the usual end of shift time. And this despite the fact that the company had a large backlog of outstanding orders that needed to be produced. What was the problem then? A Harvard case study has been developed on this.
In the face of volatile demands for business education and multiple world events such as world wars, volatile business cycles, political upheavals, and the 2008 global financial crisis over the past 100 years, Harvard has added new initiatives to experiential learning. These included Field Immersion Experience for Leadership Development (FIELD) projects, technical simulations, flipped and experiential classrooms, introspection exercises and many more. In April 2021, he launched a campaign in his faculty lounge to explore a few key questions: How well have business schools adapted and endured the case method 100 years later? Do they work?
4th IR, Covid and more
Business schools in 2021 are under immense pressure from potential employers for the different types of skills they expect from students. Every job onboarding is expected to deliver results from day one and perfectly hit targets. And a subject that is not talked about much is “entrepreneurship”, in which many young people seek to grow. Can case studies prepare students for success in a world that is changing faster than cases can be written? What are the shortcomings in these cases?
Students have been flocking to business schools for many years and we have seen in India the proliferation of many new institutions every year offering management programs. This has had an effect on the availability of qualified and quality teachers, which is detrimental to the cause of education.
Teaching involves thirst for knowledge, passion, commitment and hard work. Teaching does not replace the fact of not having another job! At the same time, not all successful managers can be good teachers or vice versa. How to train enough management teachers to transmit knowledge?
Adding to the changing business landscape is the rise of new-era startups and knowledge-centric gig economy roles. None of these startups or companies had a precedent or a playbook to learn from. How can cases written 10 years ago be relevant today? The modified context makes the content irrelevant! The Covid pandemic has also shown that no case study can be treated as an up-to-date playbook and these could not help decision makers by coming up with ideas.
In the era of Industry 4.0, business disruption is evident as 54% of Fortune 500 companies in the year 2000 are extinct (remember Kodak?) and many others who could be in the list 2030 may not have been born yet! The McKinsey study suggests that the average lifespan of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies was 61 years in 1958, which is now less than 18 years. She also estimates that by 2027, 75% of companies currently listed on the S&P 500 will have disappeared. Can we prepare the future of management students with the help of cases with fleeting examples?
Indian B-Schools: time for introspection
The use of case studies as part of teaching in business schools has been seen as a better way to awaken students’ cognitive, analytical and evaluative skills.
When students solve and present a case, it hones their soft skills and gives them the opportunity to learn and articulate their points of view from the diverse ideas and perspectives of group members, classmates, and teachers. On the other hand, professors who can develop and teach with quality cases are often considered good teachers because they know how to keep students interested, spark healthy discussions, and avoid monotony. Teachers with a one-sided monologue style or poor case study skills are not well accepted, either by their students or their peers.
It is observed that many professors in most business schools in India are using cases that were written many years ago even though almost all management functions have undergone phenomenal changes over the past few years. Most case studies written or used in the last decade are below average. They are filled with flowery language, pompous jargons that hide the inadequacy of actual study, exaggerated claims that glorify past achievements from the case writer’s point of view. Unfortunately, they are a chore in themselves and yet the faculty use them as a proven method of teaching management courses.
Writing a case study is a process based on extensive research and empirical analysis. There are no shortcuts or “hacks” for this. Case writing is not painstaking work, as many think! The other unacceptable “hack” is that teachers use “Caselets” that run in a few lines; and calling them “Cases”. It’s like a rookie cricketer claiming to be as good as the next Virat Kohli, just because he can handle a bat and play gully-cricket!
Only those case methodologies based on a contemporary and accurate context and tested with intensive empirical evidence and real-world experience will be worthy of being an invaluable teaching tool in business school. This is supposed to be research and not just a Google search!
Does the faculty have the patience and commitment necessary for such involvement? After all, it is a great responsibility to lead the thought process of today’s students, who aspire to be future decision-makers in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.
If Indian management professors don’t raise quality standards fast enough, someone may soon be writing a quality case on them!
Benjamin Franklin’s words now have a much deeper meaning: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn”.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are personal observations and are not attributable to their official roles or the organizations they represent.
Warning: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise indicated, the author writes in a personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be taken to represent the official ideas, attitudes or policies of any agency or institution.