On the Case: At the Defense Acquisition University, Case Studies Are an Integral Part of Its Program Manager's Development Course. Here's How to Make Best Use of Them

Article excerpt

In today's resource-constrained environment, it is essential to efficiently and effectively transfer learning from the classroom to the workplace. To be successful, you must design an innovative instructional framework that meets organizational needs while engaging adult learners within the environment and context.

The Defense Acquisition University (DAU) is responsible for developing and preparing managers for weapons system and services programs. Program management is unpredictable and provides numerous dilemmas due to the many stakeholders in the process and the effects their decisions can have on the programs. To that end, DAU incorporates case studies in its program manager's course to enhance learners' problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Benefits

A good case study, according to professor Paul Lawrence, is "the vehicle by which a chunk of reality is brought into the classroom to be worked over by the class and the instructor. A good case keeps the class discussion grounded upon some of the stubborn facts that must be faced in real life situations."

According to research findings by Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger in The Career Architect Development Planner, about 70 percent of development derives from on-the-job experiences, tasks, and problem solving; about 20 percent from the feedback of others and from working around good or bad examples of the need; and about 10 percent from courses and reading.

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Effective use of case studies addresses all three. They bring on-the-job situations into the classroom where discussions are guided to encourage creative approaches to addressing the situation, with feedback provided from other participants based on their analysis and experience.

The case study methodology engages learners when it is perceived as realistic and representative of situations they have encountered or may encounter in the future.

At DAU, we refer to a case as a story that describes events or problems to enable students to experience complexities, ambiguities, and uncertainties confronted by the original protagonist in the case. In other words, cases bring a snapshot of real life into the class-room for analyzing, determining the root problem from the symptoms, considering alternatives, formulating strategies to address, and making decisions--all while considering alternative points of view and learning from a supportive network of fellow learners.

Types of case studies

Two types of cases familiar to most educators are historical cases and decision-forcing cases. Historical case studies typically are presented in a narrative format and include an already developed solution to an identified problem that is analyzed and evaluated. This historical perspective also is accompanied by lessons learned. Class discussion often focuses on alternative options or critique of the provided solution.

Alternatively, a decision-forcing case stops short of what actually happened, which forces participants to analyze and assess possible solutions they would consider in the situation. This type of case presents a dilemma, conflict, or problem that one or more of the characters must negotiate. In effect, decision-forcing cases provide an opportunity to create a new ending to an old story--perhaps even a better ending--as you draw on the wisdom of the group.

Program manager's course

DAU's program manager's course is a 10-week executive education-like program whose objective is to enhance analytical thinking and decision-making skills to better lead large complex weapons systems and services programs.

The course uses about 90 case studies from actual program situations developed from extensive interviews with U.S. Department of Defense program personnel by DAU professors who write the cases. During these visits, program representatives identify the dilemmas they have personally encountered. …