Research and technology Knowledge

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.

Case discussion

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:

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.

Acquiring knowledge

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.

Developing skills

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.

Behavioural learning

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 learning are:

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.
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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:
  7. 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 programme.
  8. 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.

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 desirable.

The following is a general set of instructions, which could be given to workshop participants to help them with case analyses.

  1. 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.

  2. 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 -
  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 such situations.

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.

Initial clearance

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.

Data collection

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.

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.
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. The final draft should be written with as much care as a professional journal article.

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.

Teaching notes

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 cover:

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