MBA’s Case Study Method Still Stands Strong

Although the case study method has received criticism for its shortcomings, numerous business schools still use it as a core part of their teaching for a reason

Harvard Business School (HBS) first adopted the case study method in 1921 to allow students to apply theories in practice as they delve into real-world cases. Ever since then, the method has been used as a dominant approach to teaching at a large number of business schools.

In recent years, however, some critics have pointed out that the method is outdated, for it insufficiently represents minority leaders and focuses too heavily on highly theoretical cases.

Nevertheless, business schools still celebrate the case studies as one of their pillars of teaching. Shameen Prashantham, MBA director at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai, says that the teaching method allows courses to provide better experiential learning to students. She adds, “This is what sets the MBA apart from other graduate programs.”

Prashantham believes, based on research results, that students absorb more knowledge when they actively participate in the course through case studies than they do in less involving traditional lectures.

He underlines that the cases expose students to real business dilemmas and decisions, with which they learn how to apply theories in practice. “And, as all the case studies requires rigorous classroom discussions, the students learn not only from professors but from their peers who have very diverse backgrounds,” he says. As many MBA programs acknowledge that diversity in perspectives leads to a richer learning experience for students, the teaching method is even more valued by the schools.

Moreover, the case method intentionally puts students in uncomfortable situations where they do not have enough information available on the case. The director at CEIBS says that training students to work in such circumstances is important because, in reality, business leaders often have to make decisions based on limited information.

In the meantime, the method poses challenges for improvement to faculty as well. The field of business is highly dynamic, according to Prashantham, which in turn requires professors to maintain a close relationship with the industry in order to constantly update their lectures with relevant business principles. He says, “So in a way it is the case study method that allows business schools to stay relevant and justify their hype.”

The method has evolved over the years

Since numerous business schools adopted the case study, it has been modified to be more interactive. Recently, students are guided in class to use actual tools which they will use in the field after graduation. For example, students at INSEAD have opportunities to learn how to use analytics tools through group exercises in professor David Dubois’ class.

The professor thinks that there have been a few positive changes to the case method brought about by the pandemic. He says, “Online settings offer other powerful tools [such as polling] that can augment learning and enrich the narrative of case conversations.”

New technologies can change the paradigm of learning experience. Photo: / Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Brian Kenny, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at HBS, notes changes in the teaching method brought by technological advancements. For instance, applying artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to case research changes the paradigm of learning experience of students. While students discussed with their peers and professors to get different perspectives, they can now interact with chatbots online to get insights on a case.

Likewise, virtual reality (VR) allows students to be immersed in the case study through realistic simulations—students can better see themselves as a protagonist in a given case scenario and make real-time decisions interacting with other participants. Kenny adds, “This technology will make it easier for students to immerse themselves in a case and understand the complexity of the problems the protagonist faces.”

Brandon Kirby, senior director of admissions at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, welcomes the changes in case studies resulting from new technologies. Kirby says the capacity to visually present diverse scenarios and protagonists in cases can help bring more focus on underrepresented minorities.

However, Kirby acknowledges that developing cases is an exceedingly complicated task as it requires getting buy-in and clearance from the participating firms.


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