Richard McCracken, Director of The Case Centre, and Professor Adrian Zicari, ESSEC Business School–Council on Business & Society, lead us through the teaching case – a rich and challenging journey that combines research with narrative strength and Socratic questioning to deliver student engagement and sustained learning.
Learning through the Unresolved Dilemma: A tribute to the teaching case, by Richard McCracken and Adrian Zicari.
Our businesses, our careers, our daily lives, depend upon our ability to make decisions. So much depends upon our ability to recognise and squeeze the most out of the parameters and options within which we must operate.
Decision making is a dynamic and experience-based process, one of the most important skills that business schools teach. And there are many tools for teaching decision making:
- Research papers can expose, analyse, and capture the data and context of decision making.
- Lecturing may explain and deliver the quants, the facts, and explain the theory.
- Storytelling can share examples of success or failure.
These are successful and valued tools and resources for every business educator. However, the case method brings together elements from all of these tools to produce a uniquely dynamic and impactful learning environment.
Would you like to know why the case method is such a high impact tool for teaching and learning? Let me tell you a story.
The lecture and the teaching case: A story
It was 8 o’clock on a January morning in 18th Century Vienna and Leopold Mozart was worried. Leopold knew that the success of the family business depended on his gifted son Wolfgang Amadeus meeting their princely benefactor promptly at 9 am. But Wolfgang was still in bed.
The bedroom of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was bitterly cold. Anticipating the frost on the inside of the window, and the chill floor on his bare feet, he drew the covers more tightly around him and prepared to grab a few more minutes asleep when…
Now, here, dear reader, a lecture completes the narrative. Like this:
…the sound of a scale floated up from downstairs, the notes moving satisfactorily in sequence away from C until they seemed certain to conclude by returning to C an octave higher. Almost, but not quite. The player stopped one note short of the resolution Wolfgang anticipated. He tried to fall back to sleep. He couldn’t. He tried to ignore the imperfection. He couldn’t. The more he tried, the more it niggled until it became impossible. Leaping out of bed, Wolfgang ran downstairs, bumped his father away from the harpsichord and played the single note that completed the scale and ended his frustration.
There is something to be said for a simple, impactful, and memorable example of a good leader understanding how to motivate his workforce, rather like the proverbs by which we learn the rudiments of what might be called common sense. The problem is that attempting to apply such lessons in practice soon exposes their limitations and contradictions. Should my start-up hire (because many hands make light work), or fire (because too many cooks spoil the broth)?
The case method is much richer. Its three components – the case, its accompanying teaching note, and the case discussion – combine research with narrative strength and Socratic questioning to deliver student engagement and sustained learning.
The case typically describes a protagonist’s unresolved dilemma. The teaching note supports the teacher in driving the case discussion and linking practitioner experience to academic theory. Then the methodology resolves in the case discussion, a teacher-facilitated discussion of the scenario that engages and challenges students as they attempt to resolve the dilemma. Case method students confront the dynamic of real-life business decisions. Real experience is delivered into the classroom forcing students to apply theory, their own experience, and collaborative soft skills to resolve the dilemma.
Now consider Leopold’s story as a teaching case.
As the case teacher and her students attempt a resolution by working through his dilemma, students are likely to generate unpredictable variants to Leopold’s decision. Could he heat Wolfgang’s bedroom? Install double glazing? Should he avoid early morning meetings with rich and influential patrons, or bring Wolfgang into the management team? What if Wolfgang played a different instrument, or what if he were a painter or carpenter rather than a composer. Would the unresolved scale still work? Which data, management theories or approaches might help?
There are challenges here for both teachers and students.
Testing the teachers, challenging the students
Case classes are demanding. Students must prepare well, more rigorously than for lectures, and be willing to be tested in the discussion. In return they will discover and develop skills in preparation and analysis, self-confidence, and empathy to supercharge their recruitment and provide valuable touch points throughout their careers. One can see students growing in confidence, particularly international students who benefit from being experts when discussing cases written about their homelands.
Teachers also are tested. It takes a confident and well-prepared teacher to facilitate and capture a dynamic discussion while retaining ownership of the classroom. Many teachers benefit from the insights and links to theory and practice shared by case authors in the accompanying case teaching note. The reward is a rich classroom environment and greater engagement from students that can extend beyond graduation.
The case approach is also flexible and responds well to the demands of teaching in hybrid and online environments post-COVID. Case teachers and writers adapt well to the new environment. We surveyed our members to ask which online elements they would keep when they returned to campus. They reported that the case method performed better online than alternative approaches such as lectures. Online, students have more time to consider and research their responses, students who are not native speakers are able to follow more easily than in the classroom – and that input from educational designers is invaluable. This points towards the future in which the strengths of the case method are more fully realised than ever, expressed through alternative formats suited to hybrid or blended course environments.
The case for sustainability
Teaching cases may address many different issues in management, and they are particularly useful for exploring the complex world of Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility, the fields that interest the readers of this magazine. Besides, those disciplines deal with pressing social and environmental issues, involving many stakeholders, and frequent tensions between social impact and profits. That is, the kind of complexity that a teaching case, with its rich context, based in real life situations, can better address.
Moreover, while Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility have global aspects (for instance, carbon footprint is the same anywhere in the world), some other aspects remain local. Social demands on companies are different across the world. What works well in Paris maybe does not work that well in Buenos Aires. Thus, there is a need for developing international cases that prepare students to be great managers anywhere in the world. This resonates with the international reach of the CoBS, with its member schools spanning four continents.
Thus, I invite the readers of this magazine to consider case teaching as a key tool in teaching business. A tool that is efficient, reliable, powerful and particularly appropriate for the fields of Sustainability and CSR. We are looking forward for more cases in these fields, hopefully authored by faculty from the CoBS member schools. Help us deliver a case method that is more varied and open to variation than ever before – a river with many tributaries. Be a part of it.
- Link up wit Richard McCracken and Adrian Zicari via LinkedIn
- Discover A brief guide to case teaching on the The Case Centre website
- Browse the learning materials available at The Case Centre
- Read a related article: Education, Imagination, and Innovation
- Download this article and more in Global Voice magazine #21
- Study at ESSEC Business School, France-Singapore-Morocco.
Learn more about the Council on Business & Society
- Website: www.council-business-society.org
- Twitter: @The_CoBS
- LinkedIn: the-council-on-business-&-society
The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
Member schools are all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.
- ESSEC Business School, France-Singapore-Morocco
- FGV-EAESP, Brazil
- School of Management Fudan University, China
- IE Business School, Spain
- Keio Business School, Japan
- Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
- Warwick Business School, United Kingdom.