The Case Method

Article excerpt

The Case Method

Are people "getting down to cases" in your training classes? The case method, which traces back to ancient Chinese, Hebrew, and Greek teachings that used parables and special questioning techniques, is still evolving.

The method's current name and form took general shape about a century ago at Harvard University. Over the years, Harvard and such schools as Yale University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania have used and modified the method. These days, consultants, inhouse trainers, and representatives of schools and training companies use the case method in countless organizations, combining it with other methods and modern media.

The case method centers on a case or case report. Training participants analyze the case individually, and then discuss and analyze it as a group. Benson P. Shapiro, author of Harvard Business School's Hints for Case Teaching, defines a case as "any description of a business situation in which is embodied a decision to be made. It can be a paragraph long to book-length." Typically, cases run from a few to two dozen pages.

Why use the case method? Shapiro cites the title of a still-popular 1940 Harvard publication: "Because Wisdom Can't Be Told." Shapiro explains that true wisdom is learned by doing, not by hearing, "which means an instructor cannot tell you things like management and judgment, but can only help you learn them." He says that readins and lectures are efficient for transmitting knowledge--but not for developing skills. Training literature associates the case method with participants' practice and improvement of skills in analysis, communication (listening, questioning, and persuading), interpersonal relations, problem solving, and decision making.

A case should fit the needs and issues of an organization and the skills of the participants and instructor or facilitator. Some cases deal with complex, strategic-level issues that are difficult to teach; other cases deal with narrower topics and are easier to teach. Fortunately, more people need to be exposed to the "simpler things" than to the more complex ones. As Shapiro puts it, there are few strategists in a company, but a lot of supervisors.

According to Shapiro, the tradeoff between complexity and realism versus effectiveness in the classroom and time is one reason why Harvard has more than 4,000 active cases, supported by printed materials and, sometimes, software and videos. …