Some MBA programmes put a lot of emphasis on using business case studies in the classroom. In this way they put students into the position of decision makers in an actual business situation. However, this approach is very demanding. Professors need to be well trained in order to use cases effectively in their teaching, and students need to prepare hard to perform well.

The case method was introduced early in the 20th century by Harvard Business School and a decade later at Richard Ivey School of Business (Canada). Today, this method is widely used in business schools around the world.

What is a business case?

Ivey School of Business, one of the world leaders in producing cases, explains:  “A business case study is a description of an actual situation, commonly involving a decision, a challenge, an opportunity, a problem or an issue faced by a person (or persons) in an organization. Cases contain data about the issue available to the key person in the case, plus background information about the organization. Cases may vary in length from one to more than 40 pages, but normally range between three and 20 pages of text, and one to 10 pages of pictures or exhibits.”

There are strict requirements when it comes to producing business cases. Case study writers, usually university professors or Ph.D. students, have to be trained how to prepare a case. They then work directly with the company which will be presented in the case. Writers research the actual situation and conduct an in-depth interview with the decision-makers involved in the situation presented in the case. Case writers are also provided with the relevant data by the company so that they can be accurate in all details. For confidentiality reasons, some data may be changed. Each case has clear learning objectives and teaching instructions describing the discipline and the subject covered by the case.

Leading producers of business cases are Harvard Business School, IESE, the Darden School at the University of Virginia, University of Michigan Ross School of Business, INSEAD, Richard Ivey School of Business, Asian Institute of Management, Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and Asian Case Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong. Ivey School of Business, being the first North American business school to launch an EMBA programme in Asia, is the world leader in producing Asian cases.

Why cases?

Although there are MBA courses which are taught entirely via cases (no books), cases are usually intended to help students understand and illustrate the theory, and to connect it with its application in real situations. In the award winning video  “Inside the Case Method”  HBS professors share:  “We put the student in the seat of a manager or an employee confronting a problem” , and “ expect the students to ask themselves seriously ‘What would I do?’”.  As described by Ivey School of Business  “Cases enable students to put themselves in the place of actual managers. Students analyze situations, develop alternatives, choose plans of action and implementation, and communicate and defend their findings in small groups and in class.”

Demanding for both professors and students

Students prepare for classroom case discussion in several steps. Initially they start individually by reading the case and identifying the important details, and then prepare their arguments and recommendations on the different scenarios. Then they usually discuss informally or in pre-selected teams, exchanging their ideas, perspectives and arguments and identifying issues they had not considered. Preparation for and participation in a business case discussion is far more demanding than just reading theory in your course book. Professors, on the other hand, need to be trained in using the case method in class. In addition, before each case class discussion they prepare intensively both individually and in their teaching teams. Professors usually prepare much more than the individual students, as they need to ensure that the learning objectives are met and be ready to react to all possible scenarios, perspectives and comments which students might have during the class case discussion.

More of the Case Method

The case method, introduced more than century ago, has taken territories beyond the MBA classroom in teaching other disciplines. Some schools, e.g. IMD (Switzerland), use a business case during the MBA assessment day (interview). Cases may also be used during job interviews, especially for consulting positions.

Companies which provide details about the writing of cases usually also benefit from the process. Often it is the interaction with the writers, their questions and comments, which suggest new ideas to the management of the company, in a way similar to the process of management consulting. Amongst the case interview tips provided by McKinsey & Company we read:  “Relax and enjoy the process. Think of the interviewer as a teammate in a problem-solving process and the case as a real client problem that you need to explore and then solve. Our clients need pragmatic solutions that they can act on as soon as possible. Always focus on actionable recommendations, even though sometimes they may not be the most elegant solution to the problem.”

If you are now in the process of selecting the best MBA for you and you feel attracted by the learning-by-doing approach, research further to make sure that you can meet this challenge and that the professors of your selected programmes are experienced at mastering the case method in the classroom.

The best way is to visit the school and attend a class to put yourself in the position of an MBA student, just as MBA students in the case method put themselves in the position of the actual decision makers.