During my decade as Dean of Harvard Business School, I have spent hundreds of hours chatting with our alumni. To liven up these conversations, I relied on a favorite question: “What was the most important thing you learned from your time in our MBA program?” “

Responses from former students varied but tended to follow a pattern. Almost no one referred to a specific business concept they learned. Many mentioned close friendships or the classmate who became a business or life partner. More often, however, former students pointed out a personal quality or skill such as “increased self-confidence” or “the ability to defend a point of view” or “knowing how to work closely with others to resolve issues. problems “. And when I asked them how they developed these abilities, they inevitably mentioned the magic of the case method.

Harvard Business School pioneered the use of case studies to teach management in 1921. As we commemorate 100 years of case teaching, much has been done. writing on the effectiveness of this method. I agree with many of these observations. The cases expose students to real dilemmas and business decisions. The cases teach students to quickly assess business problems while taking into account the larger organizational, industrial and societal context. Students remember concepts better when presented in a case, just as people remember words better when used in context. The cases teach students how to apply theory in practice and how to induce theory from practice. The case method cultivates the capacity for critical analysis, judgment, decision-making and action.

There is one word that aptly describes the larger set of skills that our former students have reported learning from the case method. This word is meta-skills, and these meta-skills are an advantage of the case study instruction that those who have never been exposed to the method may underestimate.

Educators define meta-skills as a group of enduring abilities that allow someone to learn new things faster. When parents encourage a child to learn to play a musical instrument, for example, beyond the hope of instilling musical skills (which some children will master and others not), they may also appreciate the benefit the child derives from a deliberate and consistent practice. This meta-skill is invaluable for learning a lot of other things beyond music.

In a related vein, let me suggest seven vital meta-skills that students acquire through the case method:

1. Preparation

There is no room for the students to hide in the moments leading up to the famous “cold call”, when the teacher can randomly ask any student to open the discussion on the case. Decades after graduation, students will vividly recall cold calls when they, or someone else, froze in fear, or when they stood up to defend the very case. facing a fierce grill from the professor.

The case method creates powerful incentives for students to prepare. Students typically spend several hours reading, highlighting, and discussing cases before class, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups. The number of cases to prepare can be overwhelming by design.

Learning to be prepared – to read documents ahead of time, set priorities, identify key issues, and get an initial perspective – is a meta-skill that helps people be successful in a wide range of professions. and work situations. We have all seen how the prepared person who knows what they are talking about can gain the trust of others in a business meeting. Habits of preparing for a case discussion can transform a student into that person.

2. Discernment

Many cases are long. A typical case might include history, industry background, a cast of characters, dialogue, financial statements, source documents, or other exhibits. Some documents may be degressive or not essential. Cases often have gaps – critical pieces of information that are missing.

The case method forces students to identify and focus on the essentials, ignore the noise, hover when possible, and focus on what matters, the meta-skills required for any busy executive faced with the paradox. simultaneous information overload and scarcity. As one alumnus said, “The case method has helped me learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.

3. Recognition of biases

Students often have an initial reaction to a case arising from their background or from their previous work and life experiences. For example, people who have worked in finance may tend to view cases from a financial perspective. However, effective CEOs need to understand and empathize with different stakeholders, and if someone has a natural tendency to favor one point of view over another, discussing dozens of cases will help reveal that bias. Armed with this self-understanding, students can correct this prejudice or learn to listen more carefully to their classmates whose different perspectives can help them see beyond their own prejudices.

Recognizing and correcting personal biases can be an invaluable meta-skill in business settings when leaders inevitably have to work with people of different functions, backgrounds and perspectives.

4. Judgment

Business puts students in the role of the protagonist of the case and forces them to make and defend a decision. The format leaves room for nuanced discussion, but not for gossip: teachers push students to choose an option, knowing full well that there is rarely a right answer.

Indeed, most cases aim to stimulate a discussion rather than highlight an effective or ineffective management practice. In any case they study, students receive feedback from their classmates and teachers on when their decisions are more or less convincing. This allows them to develop the judgment to make decisions under uncertainty, to communicate that decision to others, and to gain buy-in – all essential leadership skills. Leaders earn respect for their judgment. This is something that students of the case method get a lot of practice on.

5. Collaboration

It is best to make business decisions after much discussion, debate and deliberation. As in any team sport, people improve by working collaboratively with practice. Discussing cases in small study groups, then in class, helps students practice the meta-skill of working with others. Our alumni often say that they came out of the case method with better skills to participate in and facilitate meetings.

Orchestrating a good collaborative discussion to which everyone contributes, every point of view is carefully considered, but a thoughtful decision is ultimately made is the arc of any good case discussion. Although teachers play the primary role in this collaborative process while they are in school, it is an art that students of the case method internalize and improve upon when leading discussions.

6. Curiosity

The cases expose students to many different situations and roles. Either way, they take on the role of entrepreneur, investor, functional leader or CEO, across a range of different industries and sectors. Each case offers the opportunity for students to see what resonates with them, what excites them, what annoys them, what role they might imagine playing in their career.

The cases stimulate curiosity about the range of opportunities in the world and the many ways that students can make a difference as leaders. This curiosity serves them well throughout their lives. This makes them more agile, more adaptable, and more open to doing a wider range of things in their careers.

7. Self-confidence

Students are expected to take on roles during a case study that are far beyond their previous experience or abilities, often as leaders of teams or entire organizations in unfamiliar contexts. “What would you do if you were the protagonist of the case? Is the most common question in a case discussion. Although imaginary and temporary, these “stretch” assignments increase students’ confidence in their ability to meet the challenge.

In our program, students can study 500 cases over two years, and the range of roles they are asked to take on increases the range of situations they think they can face. Speaking in front of 90 classmates seems risky at first, but students become more comfortable taking the risk over time. Knowing that they can do well in a highly organized group of competitive peers builds student confidence. Often alumni describe how discussing cases prepared them for roles or challenges far greater than they had imagined they could handle prior to their MBA studies. Self-confidence is hard to teach or coach, but the case study method seems to instill it in people.

There may well be other ways to learn these meta-skills, such as repeated experience gained through practice or the advice of a gifted trainer. However, under the guidance of a masterful teacher, the case method can engage students and help them develop powerful meta-skills like no other form of teaching. This quickly became evident when case teaching was introduced in 1921 – and it is even more true today.

For educators and students, recognizing the value of these meta-skills can offer perspective on the broader goals of their work together. Returning to the example of piano lessons, it may be natural for a music teacher or his students to judge success by a simple measure: is the student learning to play the instrument well? But when everyone involved recognizes the broader meta-skills that instrumental instruction can instill – and even those who work their way through Bach can still reap lifelong benefits from their instruction – it can lead to appreciation. deeper of this work.

For recruiters and employers alike, recognizing the full long-term benefits that flow from studying through the case method can be a valuable perspective in assessing candidates and charting their potential career paths.

And while we are certainly to use the centennial of the case method to imagine even more powerful ways to educate students in the future, let’s make sure we evaluate these innovations for the meta-skills they might instill, as well. than the mastery of the subject that they could allow.


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