The MBA Case Method – Is it Worth the Hype?

The modern MBA classroom is not about monologues or long lectures. Professors, administrators, and students alike understand that today, the full potential of the MBA teaching environment is reached when that environment is interactive. Indeed, simulations, discussions, and guest lectures are an important part of the MBA classroom today. However, this article is about the MBA Case Method – a teaching pedagogy that has for some time dominated the classrooms of some of the world’s most renowned business schools. The Case Method is not just another teaching tool; for many schools (such as Harvard Business School itself) it is the dominant method of teaching. Neither is the popularity of the method restricted to the US alone – it is used as much by schools across geographies, including IMD (Europe), Ivey (Canada), and ISB (India), to name just a few.

What is the MBA Case Method? 

The MBA Case Method is essentially a system through which students are assigned case studies (or ‘cases’ for short) that pertain to specific business decisions. A case study is a detailed problem scenario with various smaller scenarios built in and information provided with facts. The aim is to use all of this information along with the conceptual framework already built in to find solutions to the problems posed at the end of the case study. Most case studies are drawn from real-life situations, although they may contain some simulated or masked data as well. Students usually view the case study from the point of view of a key decision-maker in the given scenario. Sometimes, there can be open-ended case studies that do not have a definite and single correct answer but are contextual and aim to basically generate a debate or discussion of various ideas among the students. In real-life situations as well, there may be multiple paths to achieve a given objective, without any one path being the only correct one. Thus, inculcating the thought – process of problem solving and resolution is the purpose of the case method. As many case studies themselves note, the method and cases themselves are meant to enable discussion in class, and are not supposed to be guides on managing a specific business situation in the way it is managed in the case.

The MBA Case Method, though, should also be necessarily distinguished from the MBA Case Study Method. While both sound the same, and are occasionally interchangeably used, the MBA Case Study method may pertain to a different process, one that requires MBA students to develop case studies as part of their research or analysis of a specific topic.

Case Study MBA
Case Study MBA

Top 5 MBA programs that use the MBA Case Method

The purpose of an MBA program is to mimic real-life situations and help the student be prepared for various possibilities in the corporate and industry. Various subjects are taught to build the foundation of inter-disciplinary concepts and proven methods that can be combined to reach to an acceptable solution. The purpose of research and its condensed form is to educate the students in learning how to think. The Case Method has similar aims.

Most top business schools across the world use the case study method as an addition to, rather than necessarily as a replacement of, the lecture method. The conceptual framework is laid down in 20% of the classes and rest are dedicated to case studies and practical training. This method was made popular by Harvard Business School for Management, though it was an age old technique to teach Medical students. The following schools have are known to use the case method extensively in their MBA classrooms:

  • Harvard Business School, USA – Unsurprisingly, 80 percent of the pedagogy is case study. They lat 10 percent stress on team projects and 5 percent on experiential learning. Harvard has become so good at it that it publishes its academic case studies as part of its “Harvard Business Review” magazines. They have become the epitome for cases across MBA schools in India. Strategy, Leadership and Organisational Behaviour are subjects which they are famous for.
  • Richard Ivey Business School , Canada – it focuses 75 percent on case studies, 10 percent on lectures and 5 percent on experiential learning. The school emphasizes case study learning in their undergraduate studies as well and has a collection of 400 proprietary cases. In MBA classes, students discuss over 300 cases in just one year!
  • Darden School of Business, USA – Darden students engage in lively discussions in class and work through 500 case studies throughout their MBA. They believe in following the four step process – the student read and consider the case on their own first, identify problems, define alternatives, analyse data with decisions and create a course of action. It then asks students to share these with the rest of the class and focus on areas of uncertainty. This is followed by a discussion and inputs are taken from all around and finally each student is to reflect on the changed status of the initial ideas. Darden also breaks up its curriculum as 74 percent for case study.
  • IESE Business School, Spain – Using 70 percent of their time on case studies, IESE students crack through 300 cases throughout the program. It takes best practices from various other schools with an extensive list of cases from ECCH (European Case Clearing House), Harvard, Stanford and others. Considering different cultural sensitivities and viewpoints is an integral part of the discussions.
  • INSEAD, France – INSEAD’s faculty won the ECCH 2012 award for a case study on the Portuguese paper company Renova. It is the next most used school for its case studies after Harvard. Its uniqueness is that it specifically caters to a diverse cultural arena like cases and business problems from China, India, Ukraine, Costa Rica, Kenya and many others. Thus, it has a wider global perspective on business interactions.
Pros and cons of case study
Pros and cons of case study

Pros and Cons of the MBA Case Method

There are unparalleled benefits of the case method as it introduces the concept of a “structure-less” and fluid environment in which the future managers need to make quick decisions. It is a proven way to prove list of issues and contextual business scenarios. In many MBA classrooms around the world, it is an effective method to not just draw upon the teacher’s experience, but also to assimilate the experience of accomplished students, who bring in their own professional expertise and experience from years of work.

However, each approach will always have some pitfalls. Cases need to be written very well in order to be effective in driving a point home. Cases are generally written from an outside perspective and gaining true state information is difficult. Also, some cases may have been originally written only from a specific viewpoint, ignoring other important factors in a particular situation, and so may feel to give students a complete picture. It is also true that most cases have been created by top business schools in Europe and the USA, and so cases that truly reflect the Asian flavor of business are fewer in number. However, this is changing now, with more Asian business schools developing their own cases as well.

Going through various case studies will build you a problem solving approach towards things but is not the only way to build business acumen. Other qualities such as tolerance, patience with others, clarity of thought, lucidity in speech, and effective , complete communication will go a long way in making a good team player. There may also be further aspects of business theory involved that may not be covered by a case.

Ultimately, cases are an effective tool for nurturing future thinking managers and should be retained as an important part of the curriculum. They also help increase the industry interface with the students and gives them an opportunity to students to showcase their skills and prowess to future employers by gaining exposure to more business scenarios than they otherwise could. Cases are also directly relevant to careers in industries such as Management Consulting, where project engagements themselves are indeed categorized as ‘cases’, and where consultants tend to analyze alternatives in a similar (though much deeper) manner. Many schools even engage and conduct Case study competitions under company sponsorships, events that later become part of the placement selection process. A business manager’s job, after all, is the real-world version of a case study too!

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