Think Harvard Business School (HBS) and you think the “case study” method of teaching. It’s as likely a pair as salt and pepper. More than 80% of HBS classes are built on the case method.
The case method is rooted in Harvard Business School’s original vision. Edwin Gay, first Dean of HBS, called it the “problem method” and foresaw its value in creating leaders able to adjust as necessary to ever-changing business climates. HBS was created in 1908 and established its case study method in the 1920s. The School has two important teaching principles. First, it uses cases as teaching vehicles and does not rely on lectures and readings. Second, it engages the students in the learning process by getting them to teach themselves and each other.
The case method has been one of the highlights of my HBS experience. It is a profound educational innovation that presents the challenges confronting organisations – complete with the constraints and incomplete information found in real business issues—and places me in the role of the decision maker. Three weeks into the AMP and dozens of cases later, I now know that there are no simple solutions to a case; yet through the dynamic process of exchanging perspectives with 80 other AMP participants in class, countering and defending points, and building on each other’s ideas, I believe I am becoming adept at analyzing case issues, exercising judgment, and coming up with a set of recommendations.
The case method work as follows: A situation in an organisation is described – I start by reading and reflecting on the case alone, and then discuss my findings with my living group before going to class for a general discussion of the case. In class – under the questioning and guidance of the professor – we probe underlying issues, compare different alternatives, and finally, suggest courses of action in light of the organisation’s objectives. This classroom interaction is enriched by 80 classmates from diverse industries, functions, countries, and experiences. At the end of the class, I am always amazed at what I learn from exchanging ideas with my classmates and the fact that 80% of the time it was us, the students talking!
As I begin week 4 of the 9-week Harvard AMP programme, I have now read and prepared dozens of cases – I agree whole-heartedly with these words from the late HBS Professor, Chris Christensen, the world’s leading authority on case method teaching during his time. He described case method teaching as “the art of managing uncertainty” – a process in which the instructor serves as “planner, host, moderator, devil’s advocate, fellow-student, and judge,” all in search of solutions to real-world problems and challenges.