Listen to this article
In business education, there is widely perceived to be a battle over the utility of the case method. True, but it is not the battle one generally imagines: a professor engaging students in a discussion of a real-world case study, against a professor lecturing on a technical business concept.
That battle is over. All consequential business schools believe the case method is a superior form of teaching for some portion of a business education. To be sure, Harvard Business School and the Ivey School act on their belief that case-based teaching is superior for 100 per cent of the curriculum. But the difference is only one of degree. All other business schools use cases when they think a case discussion provides the best learning experience. No remaining battle exists on the teaching side of business education: every school values and employs case-method teaching.
Not so in business research, where an exceedingly interesting battle rages. Only HBS, Darden and Ivey believe in case-based research and create a meaningful number of cases each year. The remaining schools focus primarily, if not exclusively, on what might be called contemporary social sciences research.
The ascendancy of CSSR in business research began with the damning Ford and Carnegie Foundation studies of business education, which opined that business research was unscientific and needed more academic rigour.
In the subsequent half-century, CSSR has penetrated business research and its practitioners are increasingly dismissive of case-based research. Their antipathy is based on the premise that nothing scientifically meaningful or empirically sound can be determined from studying one company. But case research involves exactly that: the study of one company. For CSSR practitioners, the only research worth doing studies a statistically significant sample of events – rather than one event or situation.
In contrast to the teaching side of business education, where the majority of professors would agree on the value of case-based teaching, the vast majority of CSSR practitioners dismiss the value of case-based research. This has created a widening gulf between the HBS/Ivey/Darden island and the rest of the business school professoriate.
Arguably, the “standards battle” has been decisively won by CSSR. The irony is that while this little island is under siege for its research methodology, many of the CSSR practitioners prosecuting the siege need for teaching purposes the very cases produced by the research method they dismiss – and some days seem determined to destroy.
Both sides of the battle need to realise that case-based research and CSSR are complements and not substitutes. CSSR practitioners are correct; case-based research is not as academically rigorous as CSSR – but that is only the case for phenomena that lend themselves to CSSR. And these are known issues in which statistically significant data sets can be found or created – like the response of supermarket consumers to price promotions.
But there is a hole in CSSR and it is in emerging issues that are so new and so indeterminate that data sets are not yet available or producible to study with methods acceptable to CSSR practitioners. For such issues – such as how crowd-sourcing will alter innovation effectiveness – case-based research is the best way to start accumulating knowledge.
However, case-based researchers continue to write cases about phenomena that CSSR practitioners can study better and CSSR practitioners ignore important issues that can’t be readily subjected to their methodologies – ensuring the two approaches remain unproductive substitutes.
It is time for case-based researchers to focus on areas CSSR practitioners cannot tackle and for CSSR practitioners to acknowledge the value of the case-based complement.
If this does not happen, case-based research will wither, business knowledge in new areas will advance more slowly and CSSR practitioners will wonder where those great teaching cases went.
Roger Martin is dean of the Rotman School of Management
Be alerted on Business education