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Students, Faculty Reflect on 100 Years of Harvard Business School’s Case Method | News

Teruo Yabe, the new general manager of Tessei – the company tasked with cleaning Japan’s high-speed trains in seven minutes – was facing a series of challenges.

According to a 2015 Harvard Business School case study, Tessei suffered from a “laundry of inefficiencies” that prevented the company from cleaning railcars effectively and quickly.

“Yappi, I thought Tessei could do better, but how?” Ask the case. What levers should he pull first?

Trouble in Tessei presents the dominant features of a Harvard Business School case study. Presenting the challenges facing the company through the perspective of its leader, Case 2015 asks questions about how to improve the company. In one 80-minute semester at HBS, which focuses its curriculum around the case method, students at the school will seek to answer these questions.

The first case of HBS was written in 1921 by HBS alumnus Clinton B. Biddle, 13 years after the school was founded. Because the school was founded as an “experiment,” said Jan W. Rifkin, senior associate dean of the MBA program and HBS professor, HBS has spent years figuring out the most effective way to teach college graduates business, leadership, and management. The faculty believed that the case method was the best infrastructure to achieve this mission.

In 1922, by faculty vote, this method was named the “state system,” and 93 universities have adopted at least one of the first five HBS textbooks. This “rapid adoption” was because the environment was “mature” for the case method, said Vilangadu G. Narayanan, head of the MBA elective – or second-year curriculum – and HBS professor.

“How do you study something that is grounded in practice?” Narayanan wondered.

Narayanan traces the origins of the case method to pedagogical approaches devised by the faculties of law and medicine.

“The idea that you can learn inductively from problems and then generalize — that idea really got its start in law and maybe even in medicine,” Narayanan said. “The business school was standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Rifkin said the case method had become a “magic tool” for HBS—it was at the same time a method of teaching, an opportunity for faculty to conduct research and networking with practicing managers, and a way to generate funding to develop more cases.

One hundred years since its inception, the case method has evolved into a cornerstone of the business school. Through a series of events and interviews on their website, HBS roasts the Centenary Year of the Case Method.

500 cases

As each case is developed, Harvard researchers and HBS faculty investigate a real dilemma the company has faced from the perspective of its business leaders. Based on interviews with company executives, media articles, and the company’s finances, one case presents a business case through a 10- to 20-page narrative.

For HBS Professor Ethan S. Bernstein, A successful case is made up of three components: 10 pages to brief individuals, a dilemma of division, and a generalizable lesson.

Hong Lu, a professor at HBS, described case sourcing as “exciting” from both the teacher and researcher’s point of view.

Sometimes she begins researching an issue by speaking with company executives, Lu said, while other times she begins examining publicly available information about the company.

Pedagogy at HBS is centered on case analysis, which poses dilemmas and poses questions but does not answer them. Then the professors organize their sessions around the issues. Students discuss more than 500 cases during two years at school.

An important aspect of the case method is cold calling. Each HBS case method class begins with a “cold call,” where the professor selects a random student to give their opinion and start the discussion.

Bernstein described the cold call as “punishment with a purpose.” He argued that the goal was not to embarrass the students but to push the class collectively, and professors were trusted to attract voices that would be useful to the discussion.

HBS professor Aisha Day said that in her experience, students love cold calls.

“You often get students who might be more shy, and they might not always, you know, either be from a culture or be willing to raise their hand,” Day explained.

“So when you call my hand, I often hear students say, you know, ‘I’m glad you called me because I wouldn’t raise my hand, and because you called me, the light was on me, and I had to talk and it really made me think, and I was so happy’ Because I was able to contribute,” she said.

Outside of Harvard, business schools around the world pay for access to HBS’ “case books” to educate their students. In 2020, HBS sold more than 15 million cases, according to the school’s website.

Diverse teaching method.

Case studies are like “meeting rooms,” according to Bernstein.

Bernstein, who graduated from HBS in 2002 and subsequently worked for the Boston Consulting Group, said his experience practicing the case method at Harvard prepared him for consulting.

“When I was on BCG,” he said, “I came across a few times where it’s like, ‘Oh, this is the moment to fill in the blank with the name of the case.’” This mark in my memory reminded me of how to think about solving a problem, at least based on the way we tried to do That’s in class.”

“Of course, real life – the real world – is not quite like a classroom, but it is more like a case conversation than a lecture,” Bernstein added.

Ilana R. said: Springer, a second-year MBA student, is able to recognize the skills she learns through cases in her work experience.

“Since it’s told as a story, you kind of remember it when you find yourself in a similar situation,” she said. “And you might not remember the name of the case hero or something, but there were a few times over the course of the summer, for example, where I texted people from my department and was like, ‘I just tested XYZ. “

Springer described the case method as “the most effective way to learn” for aspiring business professionals and said she “couldn’t recommend it highly enough”.

“None of us will go to very straightforward jobs where we know everything we expect to do,” she said. “It’s very important to learn more about all the tactical skills in the context of a larger ecosystem, and that’s what they teach us to do.”

New York University professor Kevin M. Booney, who is conducting research on where the case method is effective, described it as a “versatile teaching method.”

“It’s effective because it uses a narrative approach that promotes problem-solving and critical analysis while really engaging students,” he said.

Rebecca A. said: Karp, HBS professor, who will be studying the case method in a strategy class for first-year MBA students in the spring, the case method enhances students’ ability to form an argument using evidence-based analysis.

“As a student, it really forces you to support your point of view,” she said. “So you can’t get an opinion kind of subjective, as if you had to use the facts of the case to make your point. And that’s an important lesson to learn in the business world.”

The business school visiting Professor Josephine S. Nelson — who began teaching at HBS this year — said professors put students in the position of champion of the case to prepare them for real-world decision-making.

“That’s the key to putting the students in those situations — by virtue of making the situation and making them heroes, and really having the experience of walking in those shoes for a while — so that when they’re out there in the world, I feel like you have more to relate to,” Nelson said. Lots of things from before so you have an idea of ​​how this world works.”

Springer said that the structure of the discussion style in the classroom allows her to identify the strengths of her classmates.

“I have this whole network of people to call whenever I have any questions,” she said. “If you were sitting in a lecture hall, you wouldn’t know what the greatest strength of all is.”

Diversification of the protagonists of the case

Despite its venerable history, business school case studies have historically excluded certain races, genders, and regions.

William M. “Willis” Emmons ’81, who directs the C. Roland Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning, which trains HBS faculty in how to teach the case method, said the lack of diversity in cases can be attributed to the makeup of HBS faculty and alumni who They recommend companies to study.

“We’ve come to realize that sometimes one of the risks with faculty driving all the development of our case, is that the faculty themselves are not very diverse,” he said. “You can sort of find yourself with a group of people, without really intent, to end up with a group of heroes, issues, and situations that don’t fully reflect the diversity of situations one might take.”

Emmons said research groups working on case studies try to diversify their topics in terms of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and geographic location. He said that diversifying the topics of the case studies was necessary but not sufficient.

“We also need to make sure that our faculty members are comfortable and able to lead discussions on issues and champions that may not be as traditional as in our curriculum,” he said.

Emmons added that it’s important that case study authors make sure they use sensitive language.

Kevin D. said: Wang, a second-year MBA student, appreciates that his professor has asked questions about the role of implicit bias in shaping the case studies.

“These more subtle questions are being incorporated into some relevant cases in the world,” Wang added.

—Staff writer Carrie Hsu can be reached at carrie.hsu@thecrimson.com.

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