Death by synonym

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The case method, as we know it and support it at The Case Centre, is a broad church encompassing and encouraging diversity in case writing and in approaches to case discussion. This range and diversity of approach, setting and location, and protagonist, is at the heart of delivering our mission to advance the case method worldwide, sharing knowledge, wisdom and experience to inspire and transform business education across the globe.

And so we should be careful to avoid using that familiar shorthand “Harvard’s case study method” to refer to the case method in all its rich and diverse entirety.

Harvard’s approach, wonderful though it is, is one of the many varied and diverse approaches found and explored by practitioners of the case method around the world, reflecting their own cultures, attitudes and needs.

The phrase resurfaces in a recent Poets & Quants article Is It Time to Retire The Harvard Case Study? where yet again the case method comes under attack from critics for whom the Harvard template is synonymous with the case method.

The article is useful in drawing attention to some criticisms of the case study method, such as:

  • failing to understand the relationship between business and society
  • lacking in relevance and outdated
  • perpetuating rather than challenging existing managerialist power structures
  • excluding the voices of those who are poor, oppressed or discriminated against.

These criticisms must be addressed by all of us for whom the case method remains the most striking and impactful way of bringing meaningful experience of decision making into the classroom. Case authors should bear them in mind when researching and writing their next case.

But I think the picture is more complicated than the article has room to portray.

Some critics are too quick to use “Harvard” and “the case method” generically, while others use each as a stick with which to beat the other.

Just as Harvard cases are only part of the huge diversity of cases available and still being written, so, too, is the case only part of the totality of the case method. The case method is a combination of research, case writing and teaching.  It is only fully realised as a living synthesis of the case delivered, examined, explored through class discussion.

Teachers, too, have a responsibility to address these criticisms, and they can do that in how they require students to prepare for class and how the discussion is hosted and facilitated in class.

According to the article, some critics suggest that the case method emphasises teaching students about how one thinks rather than what one thinks, or that case scenarios or protagonists exclude a range of voices.

Why not challenge that when questioning the class and stimulating the case discussion?

Most of all, be vocal in talking about your own approaches to case writing and case teaching, as part of a broad and multifarious spectrum of academic opinion, identification and purpose that goes way beyond a genericised ‘Harvard case study method’.

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The growing popularity of technology

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Last month’s Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management in Boston, US, was its bustling, tiring, rewarding, and enjoyable big old self.  There was around 10,000 of us there. Here are my thoughts on what I got out of it.  If you were there, too, tweet me (@cases_richard) your thoughts.

The case method was more in evidence than in some previous annual meetings. Even while balancing my commitments across the conference, I was able to attend 10 case-related sessions across the main conference programme, and Sunday’s very vibrant Teaching and Learning Conference, while many exhibitors featured case-related products prominently.

Talk of new technology, prevalent for a number of years, seems to be maturing and becoming more realistic and reflective of experience rather than ambition.

A good example of this was Replacing Seat Time: Teaching Strategy in Hybrid and Online-Only Formats (pictured, below), an excellent session tucked away early on Saturday morning, with presentations from Manuela Hoehn-Weiss and Lynn Greenhough; both of Oregon State University, Pinar Ozcan of Warwick Business School, Glenn Hoetker of Melbourne Business School, Chris B. Bingham of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Anu Wadhwa of Imperial College Business School. The session was a wonderful, stimulating blend of shared experience, practical advice and discussion around the future direction of using cases beyond the physical classroom.

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This is a topic to which I will return in an upcoming blog, and one that we are working on in a two-part feature, with the first appearing in the September edition of our e-newsletter Connect.

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