Teruo Yabe, the new managing director of Tessei – the company tasked with cleaning up Japan’s high-speed trains quickly in seven minutes – faced a series of challenges.

According to a 2015 Harvard Business School case study, Tessei suffered from a “laundry list of inefficiencies” that prevented the company from cleaning rail cars efficiently and quickly.

“Yabe believed Tessei could do better, but how? the case asked. “Which levers should he pull first?” “

“Trouble at Tessei” presents the dominant characteristics of a Harvard Business School case study. By presenting the challenges facing the business from the perspective of its leader, the 2015 case asks questions about how the business can improve. In a single 80-minute class at HBS, which centers its curriculum on the case method, students at the school would seek to answer these questions.

The first HBS case was written in 1921 by HBS graduate Clinton P. Biddle 13 years after the school was founded. Jan W. Rivkin, senior associate dean of the MBA program and HBS professor, said that because the school was founded as an “experiment,” HBS spent years figuring out what was the most effective way to teach students. university graduates in business, leadership and management. The faculty believed that the case method was the best infrastructure to fulfill this mission.

In 1922, by faculty vote, the method was named the “case system” and 93 universities adopted at least one of the first five HBS casebooks. VG Narayanan, president of the MBA Elective Curriculum – or second-year program – and professor at HBS, said this “rapid adoption” was due to the environment being “ripe” for the case method.

“How do you teach something that is based on practice? Narayanan questioned.

Narayanan traced the origins of the case method to the educational approaches developed by law and medical schools.

“The idea that you can inductively learn from problems and then generalize – that idea had already started in law and maybe even in medicine,” Narayanan said. “The Business School stood on the shoulders of giants.

Rivkin said the case method has become a “magic artifact” for HBS – it was both a teaching method, an opportunity for professors to conduct research and connect with practicing managers, and a way to generate funds to develop more cases.

One hundred years after its creation, the case method has become a cornerstone of the business school. Through a series of events and interviews on their website, HBS celebrates the centenary year of the case method.

500 cases

In developing each case, Harvard researchers and professors at HBS investigate a real dilemma a business faces from the perspective of its business leaders. Based on interviews with business leaders, newspaper articles and company financial data, a case presents the business problem through a 10 to 20 page narrative.

For HBS professor Ethan S. Bernstein, a successful case consists of three parts: 10 pages for educating individuals about information, a dividing dilemma, and a generalizable lesson.

HBS professor Hong Luo described the case finding as “exciting” from both an educator’s and a researcher’s perspective.

Luo said she sometimes began to research a case by speaking with company executives, while other times she started by reviewing publicly available information about the company.

The pedagogy of HBS is centered on the analysis of cases, which present dilemmas and ask questions without answering them. The teachers then structure their lessons around cases. Students discuss over 500 cases during their two years at school.

An important aspect of the case method is canvassing. Each Case Method class at HBS begins with a “cold call,” in which the professor selects a random student to give their opinion and initiate discussion.

Bernstein described cold calling as “punishment with a goal.” The goal, he argued, is not to embarrass the students but to push the class together, and teachers are trusted to bring voices that will be useful to the discussion.

HBS professor Aiyesha Dey said that in her experience, students actually like cold calls.

“A lot of times you have students who can be more shy, and they might not always be, you know, from a culture or ready to raise their hands,” Dey explained.

“So when you cold call, I’ve often heard students say, you know, ‘I’m glad you called me because I wasn’t going to raise your hand, and because you called me. , the spotlight was on me. , and I had to speak and it made me think, and I was very happy to have been able to contribute, ”she said.

Business schools around the world outside of Harvard pay for access to HBS “case studies” to teach their own students. In 2020, HBS sold more than 15 million cases, according to the school’s website.

“Multipurpose teaching method”

Case studies are like “meeting rooms,” according to Bernstein.

Bernstein, who graduated from HBS in 2002 and went on to work for the Boston Consulting Group, said his experience practicing the case method at Harvard prepared him for the board.

“When I was at BCG I ran into a number of times, where it’s like, ‘Oh that’s a fill-in time for the name,'” he said. “This panel in my memory reminded me of how to think about solving the problem, at least based on the way we had tried to do it in class.”

“Of course, real life – the real world – is never quite like the classroom, but it’s much closer to a case conversation than a lecture,” Bernstein added.

Second-year MBA student Ilana R. Springer said she is able to recognize the skills she learns through cases in her work experiences.

“Since it’s told as a story, you kind of remember it when you find yourself in a similar position,” she said. “And you might not remember the name of the protagonist of the case or whatever, but there have been several times during the summer, for example, where I have texted people in my area. section and told them, “I just experienced XYZ. “”

Springer called the case method the “most effective way to learn” for future business professionals and said she “cannot recommend it highly enough.”

“None of us are going to take jobs that are very specific and where we know everything we’re supposed to do,” she said. “It’s super important to learn all the tactical skills in the context of a larger ecosystem, and that’s what they teach us to do.”

New York University professor Kevin M. Bonney – who conducts research on contexts where the case method works – described it as a “versatile teaching method.”

“It’s effective because it uses a narrative approach that promotes problem solving and critical analysis while genuinely engaging students,” he said.

HBS professor Rebecca A. Karp, who will teach the case method in a strategy course for first-year MBA students in the spring, also said that the case method refines students’ ability to argue using analysis. evidence-based.

“As a student it really forces you to support your point of view,” she said. “So you can’t just have an opinion willy-nilly, like you have to use the facts of the case to get your point across. And that’s such an important lesson to learn in the business world.

Business School visiting professor JS Nelson – who started teaching at HBS this year – said professors put students in the position of the protagonist of the case to prepare them to make real-world decisions.

“This is the key to getting the students into these positions – making the situation out and making them the protagonists, really making them experience walking in those shoes for a while – so that when they are in the world, you feel you have a little more to do, ”said Nelson. “You’ve seen so much already that you have a sense of how this world is going to work. “

Springer said the discussion-style structure of the classes allows him to learn about the strengths of his classmates.

“I have this whole network of people to turn to whenever I have questions,” she said. “If you’re sitting in a conference room, you wouldn’t know what everyone’s superpower is. “

Diversify the protagonists of cases

Despite its venerable history, the Business School’s case studies have historically excluded certain races, genders, and regions.

William M. “Willis” Emmons ’81, who heads the C. Roland Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning, which trains HBS teachers to teach the case method, said the lack of diversity in teaching subjects. case can be attributed to the composition of HBS. professors and alumni who recommend companies to study.

“We recognized that one of the dangers at times of having all of our case development led by teachers is that the teachers themselves are not very diverse,” he said. “You can end up with a bunch of people, without really wanting it, only to end up with a bunch of protagonists and cases and situations that don’t fully reflect the variety of situations that you could make cases about. “

Emmons said research groups working on case studies are trying to diversify their topics in terms of race, gender, socioeconomic status and geographic location. He said that the diversification of the subjects of the case studies is necessary, but not sufficient.

“We also need to make sure that our teachers are comfortable and able to lead discussions about cases and protagonists that may not be as traditional as in our program,” he said.

Emmons added that it’s important for the case study authors to make sure they’re using sensitive language.

Second-year MBA student Keven D. Wang said he appreciated his professor asking about the role of implicit bias in writing the case studies.

“These more nuanced questions are incorporated into some of the relevant cases,” Wang added.

—Editor Carrie Hsu can be contacted at [email protected]

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