Posted April 1998
Special: Managing Agricultural Research
The "case method"
Cover page | Overview | The manual | Orientation | Case studies | Course content | Training | Programme planning | Ordering the manual
THE CASE METHOD has long been accepted as an important method for training
managers and administrators. It is a method of learning based on active
participation and cooperative or democratic discussion of a situation faced
by a group of managers. The method of discussion also replicates the manner
in which most decisions are taken in practice. It also involves replicating
discussions with supervisors, peers or subordinates. If properly used, it
has the power to improve the acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitudes.
What is a case?
No universally accepted definition of "case" exists. We may consider a
case, to quote Carl Christensen, as:
"...a partial, historical, clinical study of a situation
which has confronted a practising administrator or managerial group. Presented
in a narrative form to encourage student involvement, it provides data -
substantive and process - essential to an analysis of a specific situation,
for the framing of alternative action programmes and for their implementation,
recognizing the complexity and the ambiguity of the practical world."
Thus, broadly speaking, a case is a description of a situation faced by
an individual or organization.
Types of cases
A case could be a one-page, or even smaller, description with very little
quantitative or qualitative information, of a situation faced by a manager
concerning just one of the aspects of management involving just another
individual. This is usually termed a "caselet." It could also be extensive
and detailed, forming what is called a "comprehensive case."
Dimensions of a case
Three possible dimensions encompass a large part of the case:
What is described. A case could merely describe an individual, an
incident, an organization, or a system. On the other hand, it could describe
a decision making situation faced by a manager, involving part or whole
of the organization, with a focus on one or more of the elements of the
problem solving approach.
Purpose. The purpose of a case may be either research or learning.
If the purpose is learning, the emphasis could be on one or more of the
forms of learning, namely acquiring knowledge, gaining skills, and developing
attitudes and values.
Mode of description. The nature of presentation could be written,
audiovisual or oral.
The case method should more appropriately be called the "case discussion
method" as discussion in a group of co-learners is an integral part
of the method. This involves the following steps:
Study and analysis of a case by an individual manager would bring to bear
only that individual's knowledge, skill, experiences and attitudes in resolving
the problems faced by the manager in the case situation. Discussion in small
groups or a class by several managers, with their respective backgrounds,
knowledge, skills and attitudes and values, has the potential to enlarge
the perspective of each individual. Discussion is supposed to take place
in a democratic spirit, where each participant is free to present their
analysis and the rest of the class or group tries to assimilate and understand
it. Co-learners try to see the similarities and differences in such presentations.
On the basis of strong logic, and not brute force of lung power, the issues
are analysed and final assessments made. Thus, through discussion in small
groups and class, an individual would:
- study of a case by an individual learner, analysis of the case, and
development of a strategy and action plan from the point of view of the
decision-maker in the case;
- study discussion in a small group (6-10 individuals) of the individual
learner's analysis and proposals, and consequent revisions, if needed;
- study discussion in a plenary session (up to 80 to 100 individuals)
with the help of a discussion leader (resource person/faculty member); and
- study post-plenary session discussion with co-learners and discussion
leader to consolidate the learning, if necessary.
- acquire new knowledge, and learn about skills and attitudes possessed
- reflect on the applicability of their own knowledge, skills and attitudes
or values, and
- learn the art of listening to others, convincing others and social interaction
in a group setting.
Usefulness of the case method
The case method has been found to be extremely useful in acquiring knowledge,
developing skills, forming attitudes and influencing behaviour.
In the managerial context, knowledge is, firstly, situation-specific concerning
policies of those - both external and internal - who influence managers'
actions, and, secondly, concepts, approaches and techniques expounded in
the literature or by colleagues, or from other sources. A manager needs
to acquire such knowledge, not merely as words but so as to be able to appropriately
interpret it for improved decision making. In the case method, knowledge
is acquired while grappling with a real-life situation and not in isolation
of its context.
Development of skills involves an element of actually doing. The case method
helps, through discussion of real-life situations, to discriminate properly
between the situations where particular skills could or could not be applied.
The practice part could be accomplished by doing the exercise repeatedly
or using different cases over a period of time.
Forming attitudes and values
Formation of attitudes and values for adults is a time consuming process,
as attitudes and values are fixed early in life. It seems that the discussion
mode of the case method, particularly with co-learners, helps a great deal
in re-examining the attitudes and values of managers. Such discussions in
small groups should be characterized by a relaxed, tension free, non-evaluative
atmosphere in which participants may discuss their own experiences. Exposure
to different ways of looking at the same situation might provoke the process
of re-examining one's own attitudes and values. Needless to say, the longer
the duration of the programme, the higher the likelihood of more participants
starting such personal re-examination and attaining a greater degree of
change in attitudes and values.
Behaviourial learning is done mostly through on-the-job training and experience.
However, the learning of attitudes and behaviour could be enhanced by supplementing
the case method with the syndicate method and field project work. The syndicate
method (discussions in small groups) is an integral part of the case method.
Field projects are widely used in degree-type programmes to provide real
life behaviourial exposure. It is, however, difficult to use this method
in short-duration, executive development programmes (SEDPs).
Facilitating the process of learning
For any learner, the major motivating element in the case method is the
process of grappling with a situation faced by another manager. A better
identification with the situation leads to increased involvement and enhanced
learning for the entire group of participants. Other motivating elements
could be embedded in the process by which participants are selected by their
organizations, possibly in combination with the interest they show in the
programme. As noted earlier, an element of feedback also leads to improved
learning of positively reinforced action. In SEDPs, depending on the maturity
and experience of participants, the discussion leader or teacher may have
to provide feedback to improve the learning climate. Participants would
receive the feedback and develop their own mechanisms of improving learning.
This would not only help in learning during a programme but also afterwards
in real life.
The application of learning obtained through the case method is effective
on two counts. Firstly, the learning instrument (a case) is just like the
situation faced in real life. Secondly, the process of arriving at the situation
in real life, i.e., discussion with peers, use of the problem solving approach,
and convincing others about one's proposed action, also matches with the
process used in the method.
Training of managers
The case method has been found to be quite successful for training managers
and administrators in both conceptual and pragmatic considerations. Some
of the important features and dimensions of the case method which have enhanced
- The approach suits the mission of training managers and administrators,
which is not merely to know but to act, and, there too, not merely to act
but to learn how to act. This matches with the everchanging and complex
situations encountered by managers and administrators.
- The method provides practical experience in group behaviour, such as
learning to listen, express and gain confidence in one's judgment.
- It helps individuals discover and develop their own unique frameworks
for decision making.
- It is suitable for all three forms of learning: acquiring knowledge,
gaining skills and developing attitudes and values.
- The resource person finds the method intellectually stimulating, as
each group of participants raises different questions and group dynamics
are always distinct, although the case being discussed may be same.
- It meets the learning and research needs of a resource person in a professional
institution by requiring him or her to keep in touch with practice by way
of writing cases and deep interaction with practitioners in the teaching-learning
- It is an economically efficient method for a class size as large as
60 to 100 participants. In comparison, on-the-job training and small group
learning could be very costly and time consuming, besides having a narrower
Using the case method
The decision to use cases would be based on programme objectives, potential
participant profile and contents of the programme. The case method of learning
requires significant preparation by individual participants, discussion
in a small group (of 6 to 8 members) before attending the class, class discussion
by participants with the help and guidance of a resource person, and after-class
discussion and reflection. The above processes take place each session,
day after day, during the programme to achieve the programme objectives
and to match the contents and the profile of participants. The learning
from each class session and from the programme could be significantly influenced
by some characteristics of short-duration executive development programmes.
Sequential process of the case method
The process of training through the case method involves the steps below.
- The case method involves preparation, both individual and in small groups,
and also discussion with the help of a discussion leader (resource person)
of a situation as described in the case. This is done with the aim of not
only of solving the problems faced by the manager in that situation, but
also of learning to solve problems by gaining repeated experience in resolving
real-life problems through analysis and discussion of a variety of cases.
- In stage 1 participants first go through and prepare each case individually
by assuming the role of the decision-maker in the situation and then decide
on appropriate decisions and action plans to resolve the problems faced.
During this preparation, a participant struggles with, first, defining the
appropriate decision areas; second, specifying objectives, purposes and
criteria for resolving the issues; third, generating options to resolve
the issues; fourth, evaluating the alternatives on the basis of information
available, which is usually incomplete; and, finally, deciding the course
of action and contingency plan on the basis of their best judgment. In other
words, they apply a problem solving approach.
- The individual participants next discuss their inferences and action
plans in the forum of a small group of 6 to 10 participants. Different individuals
might, and in fact do, come up with different inferences and action plans.
Group members need to carefully listen, understand, and appreciate these
different views, and thus expand their range of thinking as well as depth
of analysis. For this to happen effectively, the group atmosphere should
be as free as possible, and focusing on important issues.
- In-class discussion is also like small-group discussion, except that
the range of experiences encountered in the inferences and action plans
may be much larger, and that there is also a discussion leader to help the
class in its deliberations. To enhance class learning, individual participants
can play different roles, involving presenting, listening, clarifying, synthesizing
and generalizing. However, a participant or a group of participants should
not try to dominate the discussion, and should try to convince rather than
to impose their views on co-participants.
- After-class discussion should be used to reflect on class discussion.
Synthesis should be made within the initial small group, aiming to arrive
at both an improved understanding of, and better decisions made in, the
particular situation, and also tentative generalizations about individual
approaches, attitudes and values for improved decision making in the future.
- The instructors assign the cases and associated readings for the classes,
provide guidance, if any, for preparation, and make themselves available
for any clarifications. They do a thorough analysis of the case and devise
a class strategy for themselves, which includes:
- deciding the objectives of the session,
- how to open the discussion,
- whom to call on for opening the discussion, for particular clarification
- decide on the nature of questioning to bring out certain crucial issues
if participants do not touch those issues,
- how much direction to use in the particular case discussion, and
- how to close the discussion.
While doing all this, the resource person should not seem to teach but merely
provide learning impetus and thought space during the course of class discussion.
- The programme coordinator, along with the programme faculty and support
staff, creates a learning climate conducive to peer learning through planning
as well as implementing both academic and non-academic components of the
- The method as such demands time, effort, involvement and self-discipline
from participants as well as from the programme teachers and resource persons.
This could be frustrating, particularly at the beginning of a programme.
However, as the programme progresses, the pace and quality of learning improve
and is quite satisfying in terms of achieving the learning objectives.
Role of the resource person
One of the critical components in the effective use of the case method is
the degree of preparedness of the resource person. A poor case, poorly prepared
by the participants, can still be a valuable learning experience if the
resource person is fully prepared. The case method relies heavily on the
leadership skills of the resource person.
The role of the resource person in a case discussion is basically to guide
and direct. The objective is to keep the discussion moving towards useful
goals, with a minimum of intervention. The resource persons should keep
themselves in the background until they feel that direction has been lost,
that there is a need for more analysis, or that the key points are not receiving
proper emphasis. To be effective, the resource person:
Participants in the case method approach often feel uncomfortable because,
more often than not, there is no single solution to the situation described
in the case. There are likely to be no irrefutable principles of management
highlighted by the case which can be remembered for use in future situations.
There is no hard and fast answer. To resolve this dilemma, the resource
person must make clear to the participants that the case method is designed
to develop their analytical and judgmental skills. It is the process by
which they reach their decision that is important. The objective of the
case method is to nurture this thought process; not to communicate facts
to be memorized.
- should be prepared;
- should be flexible. Accept the fact that this is necessary in using
case materials. Try not to force the discussion along predetermined lines;
- should ask questions when necessary, but ask as few as possible to support
the open nature of the decision without leading into unproductive channels;
- should never become emotionally involved in the case discussion; they
should never advocate or oppose a particular idea; and
- should summarize at the end and leave time to pull together the key
points of the case. Many participants will need assistance in drawing out
concepts from the ongoing discussion.
Role of participants
The case method heavily relies on adequate preparation and analysis by participants.
Discussions are best for cases which are short and can be analysed on the
spot. Case materials should be given to the participants at least one day
before the proposed discussion, together with both instructions as to the
amount of time they should spend on case analysis, and some insights as
to how the case should be analysed. The former is important since many participants
underestimate the amount of effort needed for effective case analysis. For
example, a 30-page case would require approximately one hour to read. A
preliminary analysis might take a further hour, and a detailed analysis
and preparation might take an additional one to three hours, depending upon
the complexity of the case. Case analysis is clearly not something which
can be dismissed in ten minutes just before the discussion.
Guidance to participants
The extent to which a resource person may wish to provide guidance as to
the optimal line of analysis will depend on a number of factors, such as
the complexity of the case, relative time available for its discussion,
and the participants' experience and skills in analyses. If the case is
complex and there is a strong possibility that the class discussion will
fail to focus on the key topics, or if participants are inexperienced in
handling cases - as they normally will be in research and development (R&D)
management workshops - analyses and instructions are both appropriate and
The following is a general set of instructions, which could be given to
workshop participants to help them with case analyses.
- Read the case through quickly to get a first impression of what it is
about or what the basic issues may be. Then, re-read more slowly and begin
to note down the facts and quasi-facts supplied and their relationship.
- Once the data in the case have been itemized, analyse and determine
the major as well as the secondary issues. The analysis itself can be done
in several ways. For example, it may be conducted by -
- examining the background environment in which the organization operates
and the events and circumstances leading to the points at issue, and -
- determining the major areas with which the problem is concerned.
Some major points for analysis, commonly encountered in analyzing R&D
management cases are:
- The nature of competitive R&D organizations.
- The organization's reputation and how this affects the issues.
- National economic conditions and their effect on the demand for R&D.
- The characteristics of the user community for the R&D organization's
services in terms of location and relationship to the R&D organization.
- The characteristics of the organization's product, i.e., research,
development, information, consultancy, etc.
- The nature of the extension activities that connect the laboratory
to the ultimate user or benefactor of R&D results.
- The impact of end-user attitudes and interests on the R&D organization's
- The project initiation and approval processes in the organization
and their implications.
- The willingness to delegate authority in the organization.
- The degree or urgency of the project.
- The amount of uncertainty involved in the project.
- As the analysis proceeds, several possible courses of action will become
apparent. Each of these should be examined, retained, or rejected as the
analysis proceeds. Take note of both the strengths and weaknesses of each
point. Few, if any, situations are totally correct or incorrect.
- The participant should try to realize when there is a need for more
data and what information is needed, or, if they are not available, what
assumptions should be made.
- Once all this has been done, it should be feasible to arrive at one
or more decisions. It should be remembered, of course, that possible solutions,
or approaches to them, are many, and others may develop an entirely different
solution or approach. Both may be equally correct if the participant has
thought through the analysis clearly and logically.
Utility of small group discussions
In an attempt to lighten the workload, participants can be divided into
groups to analyse and prepare positions on a case. Such group discussions
have proven to be highly valuable, provided each participant has made his
or her own prior analysis, and they should be encouraged. Additional insights,
ideas and perspectives are often brought out in such discussions. Participants
who are reluctant to speak out in plenary sessions will usually open out
in group discussions. Also, for most workshops, small group discussions
allow participants to discuss the case among themselves in their own language
before having to discuss in the official language of the plenary session.
In using this technique, however, care should be taken to ensure that some
participants do not use group discussions as a means of avoiding the effort
associated with an analysis of their own. It should be made clear that,
unlike the lecture approach, the case method assigns primary responsibility
to the participant. In order to maximize the benefits, they must maximize
their own efforts. The resource person should move from one group to another
during case discussions so as to be aware of the emerging analysis.
Case development and writing
Case development and writing should be an ongoing process for any institution
using the case method. Its importance arises from the fact that recent cases
not only provide an element of interest among programme participants, but
also bring to the class the latest situations being faced by decision-makers.
Identifying case development needs
Case development and writing needs arise in two different ways. First,
some of the existing cases in current courses may need replacement by new
ones as the old ones are too old to generate much interest among participants,
or they do not adequately depict the current decision making scenario in
real life. Second, an opportunity may arise to write an additional case
which would be useful.
The programme coordinator or resource person should review the objectives
of the training programmes, modules or sessions in which new cases could
be used, and then should specify the contents to be covered, the major issues
to be tackled, the level of decision making (middle, senior or top), and
the type and size of organization desired. Such specifications would provide
a somewhat sharper focus when searching for leads on appropriate cases.
Developing case leads
A case writer, having defined the case writing requirements and prioritized
them, has to look for real-life situations. Several ways are open in locating
Primary sources. Colleagues, alumni, participants in current executive
development programmes, contact persons in organizations where consulting
may be in progress or may have been provided earlier, and visiting executives
could all be sources of case leads.
Secondary sources. Scanning relevant reports (including reports of
government commissions, departments, etc.), particular industry and trade
papers and journals, and other relevant publications - all these could generate
possible case leads. These need to be followed up by correspondence or personal
visits to ascertain the possibility of developing the leads into cases from
the point of view of availability of required information as well as willingness
of the organization to allow their use.
Pursuing possible case leads. The case writer needs to prepare a
list of contacts and associated files, with names and addresses of contact
persons and organizations, and prioritize them on the basis of a priori
assessment of converting these into actual case leads. Some might suitable
for immediate application, others at a later date, and still others may
require additional effort, such as inviting the relevant executives for
an oral presentation. Systematic recording and follow-up procedures need
to be established in pursuing possible case leads.
Getting initial clearance, preferably from top executives of the organization,
is necessary for efficient time utilization in case writing. If this step
is not followed, the time spent on developing cases is wasted.
It may be helpful to brief the contact executive as well as the top executive
about the purposes for which cases are used, with assurances both of confidentiality
while working on it and of its non-use until the case draft is cleared by
the organization. While there could be benefits to the organization through
discussion of the situation, care must be exercised in making assurances
which cannot be fulfilled. In any case, initial clearance for writing the
case should be obtained fairly early.
The real work of case writing starts by planning and implementing the data
collection phase through secondary sources, both published and in-company,
and primary sources (interviews with executives and other knowledgeable
persons). In the first phase of data collection, the case writer familiarizes
him- or herself with the situation. This could include scanning of published
materials for understanding the industry and the organization, records or
personal knowledge of colleagues about previous attempts at case writing
on the organization, and other knowledgeable persons about the industry,
the company and the phenomenon under study.
The second phase would begin with preliminary interviews with key decision-makers
in the organization in order to understand the situation and acquire an
understanding of what went into decision making. Following this, detailed
data from both primary and secondary sources will have to be collected according
to a work schedule.
While secondary data from outside the organization could be collected independently,
many in-company documents are obtained whilst or as a result of interviewing
executives. It may be useful to plan out the nature of data that the case
writer is seeking since many documents may not be allowed to leave the organization's
premises and so will have to be studied in the limited time available during
the visit. This phase is like conducting research based on secondary sources
of data as well as in-depth interviews of executives. It demands all the
capabilities of a good researcher.
Preparing the case outline
The case writer may have prepared a preliminary case outline even before
embarking on data collection, but, having collected the data, a firm outline
of the case should be elaborated. Some of the elements to be dealt with
in this phase are listed below.
- Identify the major issues in the situation and those which need to be
highlighted in the case.
- A background of the organization, its situation and executives should
be included in the case as it is relevant and useful in providing a perspective
for the case analyst. Usually this description follows the opening paragraphs
on the major issues in the case.
- The nature of information from secondary and primary sources and their
sequencing in the text.
- Essential aspects to be included in the text, versus explanatory and
supportive information to be put in exhibits or appendixes.
- A sequencing of items to provide for easy reading and comprehension,
unless the purpose of the case suggests otherwise.
Preparing a case draft
The efforts put into preparing the case outline should help in writing
the case draft. Additional considerations and suggestions are given below.
- The case writer must keep the focus on the decision-maker, and be faithful
and objective in describing the situation. Therefore personal comments,
reactions, etc., of the case writer must be avoided. The language and terminology
used by executives or generally used in the trade or profession must be
retained. If such terminology is not likely to be understood by participants,
explanations should be given in a glossary.
- A case should be written using a structure which promotes an easy flow
of thought for better understanding and comprehension by the participant.
For the same reason, the language of the case should be understood by the
participant. Details could be increased or reduced according to participant's
anticipated knowledge and ability, interest and experience.
- A catchy title and dramatic opening will attract reader attention immediately.
The length should be kept as short as possible so that no unnecessary time
has to spent on reading to attain comprehension. Generally, cases are written
in the past tense. The case writer must maintain complete confidentiality.
- The final draft should be written with as much care as a professional
Clearance, registration and testing
Clearance of interview transcripts needs to be sought from executives before
finalizing the case draft, more so if they are quoted. Having written the
final draft, formal clearance must be requested from the organization. The
organization may suggest disguising the name of the organization, names
of executives, financial data, etc. Disguise helps participants in concentrating
on and discussing the case per se, without possible introduction of extraneous
information from other sources. However, disguise should not distort the
situation to the extent where the purpose of the case is defeated. Having
made such changes, formal clearance must be sought and obtained.
After obtaining formal clearance, the case needs to be tested. This could
be in two stages. First, it could be discussed among other faculty members.
This is particularly helpful when case writing activity is new, and many
faculty members are willing to participate in such an activity not only
to help a colleague but probably also to learn from each other's experiences.
Alternatively, the case writer could request experienced faculty colleagues
to comment on or personally discuss the draft.
The second, and more useful, test should be on the kinds of participants
for whom the case is prepared. It would be useful if another colleague is
involved in this process to learn about how the case was discussed, what
issues emerged, how were they analysed, was some critical information missing,
was some available information irrelevant, etc. Depending on the reactions,
the case could be revised.
The case should be formally registered so that issues of copyright, use
and distribution are in proper form.
Writing a teaching note is an extremely important activity in the case writing
process. It helps in checking the adequacy of the case for the purposes
it was written, in describing its use, in ensuring that proper analysis
can be done, and in outlining strategy of its use. A teaching note should
- programmes in which the case could be used;
- position of the case in the programme and module for which it is intended;
- learning objectives, major or minor, which could be achieved by using
- major issues and their analysis, both qualitative and quantitative;
- background information and reading which would facilitate learning from
and use of the case;
- preparation required by the resource person and the participants;
- possible assignments for facilitating preparation and learning;
- strategies to be used by the resource persons to get the best out of
- past experience in using the case; and
- what happened in real life (if the organization featured in the study
allows the information to be shared).