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Case studies - Is There A Case For It?

Can business cases written 5-10 years ago be relevant today? The changed-context could make the content irrelevant ! Is it time to rethink about usage of Case studies ?

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World’s first program in “Master of Business Administration” began at Harvard Graduate School of Business & Administration in 1908. Fourteen years later, in 1922, case method of teaching was established as the primary tool of instruction at Harvard. 

It all began with an interesting incident in April 1919, when the management of General Shoe Company noticed that their employees in their manufacturing plant frequently stopped working 45 minutes before their usual shift end time. And this was despite the fact that the company had large backlog of orders in pipeline that needed to be produced. What then was the issue? A Harvard case study was developed about it.

Faced with volatile demands for business education & multiple global events like world wars, volatile economic cycles, political upheaval, and Global Financial Crisis 2008 over the previous 100 years, Harvard added new initiatives for experiential learning. These included Field Immersion Experience for Leadership Development (FIELD) projects, Tech Simulations, Flipped and experimental classrooms, Introspective exercises and many more. In April 2021, it launched a drive through its Faculty lounge to explore a few primary questions: How well have the business schools adapted and endured the case method 100 years later? Do they work?

4th IR, Covid & More
Business schools in 2021 are under immense pressure from prospective employers for different kinds of skill sets they expect the students to possess. Every job onboarding is expected to deliver results from day-one and meet targets flawlessly. And a topic not spoken much about is “entrepreneurship”, which many youngsters are looking to grow in. Can case studies prepare students to succeed in a world which is changing faster than cases can be written? What are the gaps in those cases?

The students have been thronging to the business schools past many years and we have seen in India, the mushrooming of many new institutions every year, offering management programs. This has had an effect in the availability of quality trained-teaching-talent, which is a huge disservice to the cause of education.  

Teaching involves hunger for knowledge, passion, commitment and hard work. Teaching is not a substitute for not getting any other job ! At the same time, not every successful manager can be a good teacher or vice versa. How do we train sufficient management teachers to impart knowledge?

The rise of new-age startups & knowledge-centric gig-economy roles are adding to the changing business landscape. None of those startups or businesses have had any precedence or textbook to learn from. How can cases written 10 years ago be relevant today? The changed-context makes the content irrelevant ! The Covid pandemic has also shown that no case-study can be treated as an updated-playbook and those could not help decision makers by offering any ideas.

In this age of Industry 4.0, business disruption is evident from the fact that 54% of the Fortune 500 companies from the year 2000 are extinct (remember Kodak ?) and many other that could feature in the 2030 list may not have been born yet ! McKinsey’s study suggests that the average life-span of Standard & Poor's 500 firms was 61 years in 1958, which now stands at less than 18 years. It also believes that, in 2027, 75% of the companies currently quoted on the S&P 500 would have disappeared. Can we prepare management students for the future with the help of cases with vanishing examples?

Indian B-Schools: Time to introspect
Using Case studies as part of teaching in business schools has been considered to be a better way to kindle cognitive, analytical and evaluation skills of students. 

When students solve and present a case, it hones their soft skills and gives them an opportunity to learn and articulate their views from diverse ideas and perspectives of group members, classmates and teachers. On the other hand, the faculty with the ability to develop and teach with quality cases are often rated as the good teachers since they are good at keeping students engaged, subject-interest alive, instil healthy discussions and to avoid monotony. Teachers with one-way monologue style or poor case study skills don’t get accepted well, either by their students or their peers. 

It is observed that many faculty in most Indian business schools use cases which were written many years ago, even though almost all management functions have undergone phenomenal changes in the last few years. Most of the case studies written or used in the past decade or so are below par. They are filled with flowery language, pompous jargons that hide the inadequacy of the actual study, exaggerated claims that glorify the past achievements from the lens of the case writer. Sadly, they are a drudgery in themselves and yet the faculty use them as the time-tested method to impart management lessons. 

Writing a case study is a process based on comprehensive research and empirical analysis. There are no short cuts or “hacks” to it. Case writing is not a minute job, as many think! The other unacceptable “hack” is faculty using “Caselets” that run in a few lines; and calling them “Cases”. It’s like novice cricketer claiming to be as good as it as the next Virat Kohli, just because he knows how to hold a bat and play gully-cricket !

Only those Case methodology based on contemporary & precise context and tested with intensive empirical evidence and actual field experience will worthy of being an invaluable pedagogical tool in business school. It is supposed to be research and not mere Google-search !

Do the faculty have the patience and commitment for such an involvement ? After all, it is a mighty responsibility to steer thought-process of the today’s students, who are aspiring to be future decision-makers in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. 

If the Indian management teachers don’t improve the quality standards fast enough, someone might soon write a quality case on them ! 

Benjamin Franklin’s words have far deeper meaning now : “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn”. 

Disclaimer : All views expressed here are personal observations and not attributable to their official roles or organisations they represent.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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Dr Bigyan Verma

Dr Bigyan Verma taught Finance at XLRI and was an Investment Banker for JM Morgan Stanley. He was an Adjunct Professor for Carleton University, Canada and IIM Kozhikode. He is a Gold Medalist and holds PhD in Finance. He is currently the Director for SIES College of Management Studies. He is the President of IAABS, EC member of BMA and NHRD, Mumbai. He has written a book on “International Finance"

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