The Case Method at the Harvard Business School: Papers by Present and Past Members of the Faculty and Staff

By Malcolm P. McNair | Go to book overview
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III. The Values and Limitations of the Case Method

POWELL NILAND

My knowledge of the case method has come from my contact with it as a student and, more recently, as a research assistant; I do not have any considerable acquaintance with its use outside the field of business administration or in ways other than those employed at the Harvard Business School. My experience to date, however, has caused me to become an enthusiastic advocate of the case method for teaching business administration. At the same time, I believe that the lecture method can make a smaller but essential contribution.

The case method has unique characteristics which make it highly effective in training the student to cope with situations which confront an individual business. First of all, the case material is interesting to the student. It is real, it is lifelike, and it deals primarily with concrete and specific questions--Should the production manager recommend to the board that the Ajax Company erect a new factory building?-- rather than with generalities and abstractions--What are the general advantages and disadvantages of a single-storied versus a multistoried building for production purposes?

Realism is enhanced further by the student's being cast in the role of the administrator rather than in the role of an outsider studying the performance of an administrator. For example, in a case presenting the situation which confronts a production manager, the student takes the position of the production executive and decides what, if anything, should be done and how any recommendations are to be accomplished. Thus because the raw material of instruction is concrete, specific, and personal, it is more easily visualized by the student.

Not only can the student visualize the subject matter of the course, but cases have the appeal of a "story," a human interest appeal. Most people are interested in learning what other people do, how they do it, and whether they succeed or fail. This applies particularly with reference to business; witness the popular appeal of Horatio Alger's "from rags to riches" series and the wide reading of biographies of leading administrators.

A second characteristic which makes the case system effective in the teaching of business administration is that it provides experience in performing essential parts of the administrative task. The student studies by partaking of the administrative process. The importance of this fact lies in the nature of the administrative process. My analysis of

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