Case Method


.... the root of the true practice of education must start from the particular fact, concrete and definite for individual apprehension, and must gradually evolve towards the general idea.

Alfred North Whitehead
It can be said flatly that the mere act of listening to wise statements and sound advice does little for anyone. In the process of learning, the learner's dynamic cooperation is required.
Charles I. Gragg

In these two statements are the educational underpinnings of the case method: Inductive reasoning (from the particular to the general) and active participation. The validity of this approach for the study of the general manager rests on the nature of the subject matter and on the objectives of management education.

As the text has underscored and the cases will demonstrate, general management is an enormously complex subject, and the general manager has an enormously complex job. To rely on principle for either the study or the practice of general management is to stand on shaky ground for several reasons. First, any important challenge a general manager faces typically involves too many critical factors to yield to simple recipes. Several principles are likely to apply to a given situation, and they will often be at odds with one another. Second, innovative managerial actions repeatedly vitiate or alter the significance of business precedents and principles. Accepted routines and conventions are successfully broken every day in practice as enterprising managers find ingenious new ways to deal with obstacles and opportunities.

While these limitations to the use of principles as the basis for studying general management are severe, even more compelling is the lack of definition and clarity the general manager typically faces. As experience shows, one of the general manager's most critical challenges is to identify and define problems and opportunities. It does little good to act in accordance with principles in dealing with the wrong problem. As you will discover in reading the case studies, the problem is seldom exactly what you thought it to be. And a single modification in the definition of a problem can change the whole analysis and call for a radically different course of action. Only a skillful selection and analysis of the many facts and conjectures about a given situation can provide the general manager with the diagnosis effective action requires.

The case study approach is similar to the approach used in legal, medical, and other professional training, in which the aim is to develop practitioners skilled in diagnosing situations and acting accordingly. Arthur Dewing captures the essential nature of management education as preparation for the manager " to meet in action the problems arising out of new situations in an ever-changing environment."

Drawing on some forty years of experience as a dedicated practitioner of case-method instruction, C. Roland Christensen connects these educational objectives to the need for students to participate actively in the learning process:

In education for management, where knowledge and application skills must be related, student involvement is essential. One does not learn to play golf by reading a book, but by taking club in hand and actually hitting a golf ball, preferably under a pro's watchful eye. A practice green is not a golf game, and a case is not real life. Fortunes, reputations, and careers are not made or lost in the classroom. But case discussion is a useful subset of reality. It presents an opportunity for a student to practice the application of real-life administrative skills: observing, listening, diagnosing, deciding, and intervening in group processes to achieve desired collaboration.

He goes on to describe some of the specific in-class experiences good case discussions should provide:

  • a focus on understanding the specific situation;
  • a focus on the total situation, as well as on the specific;
  • sensitivity to interrelationships; the connectedness of all organizational functions and processes;
  • examining and understanding any administrative situation from a multidimensional point of view;
  • approaching problems as one responsible for the achievements of the organization; and
  • an action orientation.

Amplifying his last point, he characterizes " action orientation " as the following:

  • an acceptance of institutional conflict;
  • a sense for the possible;
  • a sense for the critical, " the jugular ";
  • a willingness to make firm decisions;
  • the skill of converting desired objectives into a program of action;
  • an understanding that obtaining the commitment of personnel to the accomplishment of any plan is crucial;
  • an appreciation of the limits of management action.

Rarely, if ever, is there one correct solution to any major problem that the general manager faces. As Dewing points out, it would be surprising if any group of experienced business people could offer an unequivocal solution with unanimous accord. He concludes:

Cases should be used with the clear consciousness that the purpose of business education is not to teach truths-leaving aside for a moment a discussion of whether there are or are not such things as truths-but to teach men to think in the presence of new situations.

In any learning experience, there is usually a direct relationship, in accordance with intelligence and aptitude, between a person's efforts and the learning that takes place. Unlike most lecture courses, the case method requires such efforts before and after classroom discussions as well as during.

Excerpt from General Managers in Action, Francis Joseph Aguilar, Oxford University press: New York, 1988.