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Case Study Basics

What Is a Case Study? *

A case study is a snapshot of an organization or an industry wrestling with a dilemma, written to serve a set of pedagogical objectives. Whether raw or cooked, what distinguishes a pedagogical case study from other writing is that it centers on one or more dilemmas. Rather than take in information passively, a case study invites readers to engage the material in the case to solve the problems presented. Whatever the case structure, the best classroom cases all have these attributes: (1)The case discusses issues that allow for a number of different courses of action – the issues discussed are not “no-brainers,” (2) the case makes the management issues as compelling as possible by providing rich background and detail, and (3) the case invites the creative use of analytical management tools.

Case studies are immensely useful as teaching tools and sources of research ideas. They build a reservoir of subject knowledge and help students develop analytical skills. For the faculty, cases provide unparalleled insights into the continually evolving world of management and may inspire further theoretical inquiry.

There are many case formats. A traditional case study presents a management issue or issues calling for resolution and action. It generally breaks off at a decision point with the manager weighing a number of different options. It puts the student in the decision-maker’s shoes and allows the student to understand the stakes involved. In other instances, a case study is more of a forensic exercise. The operations and history of a company or an industry will be presented without reference to a specific dilemma. The instructor will then ask students to comment on how the organization operates, to look for the key success factors, critical relationships, and underlying sources of value. A written case will pre-package appropriate material for students, while an online case may provide a wider variety of topics in a less linear manner.

Choosing Participants for a Case Study

Many organizations cooperate in case studies out of a desire to contribute to management education. They understand the need for management school professors and students to keep current with practice.

Organizations also cooperate in order to gain exposure in management school classrooms. The increased visibility and knowledge about an organization’s operations and culture can lead to subsidiary benefits such as improved recruiting.

Finally, organizations participate because reading a case about their operations and decision making written by a neutral observer can generate useful insights. A case study preserves a moment in time and chronicles an otherwise hidden history. Managers who visit the classroom to view the case discussion generally find the experience invigorating.

The Final Product

Cases are usually written as narratives that take the reader through the events leading to the decision point, including relevant information on the historical, competitive, legal, technical, and political environment facing the organization. A written case study generally runs from 5,000 to 10,000 words of text supplemented with numerous pages of data exhibits. An online raw case may have less original text, but will require students to extract information from multiple original documents, videos of company leaders discussing the challenges, photographs, and links to articles and websites.

The first time a case is taught represents something of a test run. As students react to the material, plan to revise the case to include additional information or to delete data that does not appear useful. If the organization’s managers attend the class, their responses to student comments and questions may suggest some case revisions as well.

The sponsoring professor will generally write a “teaching note” to give other instructors advice on how to structure classroom discussion and useful bits of analysis that can be included to explicate the issues highlighted in the case study.

Finally, one case may inspire another. Either during the case writing process or after a case is done, a second “B” case might be useful to write that outlines what the organization did or that outlines new challenges faced by the organization after the timeframe of the initial case study.

* Portions of this note are adapted from E. Raymond Corey, “Writing Cases and Teaching Notes,” Harvard Business School case 399-077, with updates to reflect Yale School of Management practices for traditional and raw cases.