ISSUES IN EDUCATION

The Case for Writing Cases

By Matthew Drake

I am certain that most academics who teach quantitative courses in business schools have, at one time or another, lamented the fact that the end-of-chapter problems are a little too rote. Even if students can correctly solve these textbook problems, it does not necessarily indicate that they could apply the techniques to a practical problem once they leave the classroom. Case studies are often seen as a remedy to this problem, giving students a complicated decision environment to analyze by applying the tools that they have learned in the course until that point.

One of the major challenges for instructors is finding a solid set of case studies that fit the goals and learning outcomes of the course. Instructors can spend hours downloading and reviewing sample cases and teaching notes from the major case libraries such as Harvard Business School Press, Ivey Business Publishing, Darden Business Publishing and the European Case Clearinghouse to identify cases that are appropriate for their courses.

The good news is that there is another option: Instructors can write their own cases. I know that this may sound like much more work than combing the case libraries looking for appropriate cases, but writing cases can also enhance an academic portfolio beyond the benefit that comes from having interesting cases at hand to use in class. In the rest of this article, I will share my experiences of writing cases ever since I first entered graduate school 10 years ago. (Writing sentences like that really makes me feel like I’m getting old!)

Research as a Teaching Moment

Many faculty members in business schools have the valuable opportunity to work with companies on research projects that ultimately result in peer-reviewed publications that help to build their case for tenure. At most business schools, these peer-reviewed research publications are a major factor in the tenure decision, and much of the faculty member’s efforts are (rightfully) spent in conducting this sort of research.

When I was entering graduate school, one of my mentors from my undergraduate program gave me some advice about life in academia. He told me that when he begins a new academic research project with a company, his goal is to get three outputs from the research: (1) a peer-reviewed journal article in a high-level journal such as Management Science or Operations Research, (2) a practitioner-focused journal article in a journal such as the California Management Review, and (3) a teaching case. Most practical research projects with companies should generate enough insights to support a teaching case if their results warrant publication in academic and practitioner journals.

Academics have a great deal of experience writing journal articles, but crafting effective case studies and teaching notes is a slightly different task. Writing the case itself is usually the most enjoyable part of the process for me because it represents the closest that I will ever come to being a creative writer. Case studies provide the author with an opportunity to write dialog that brings the decision environment to life and engages the reader as an active participant, which is rare for academics in a business school.

The Student’s Perspective

I have found that it is helpful to keep the student’s perspective in mind when writing the case. The students will not have had your vast experience with the company, so the case must provide enough information that they can understand the situation at hand and conduct a meaningful analysis. If you are only planning on using the case in your classes, the students can always ask you for clarification. However, if you are expecting to distribute the case to other faculty members around the world, they will not be able to guide their students if the information is not included in the case or the teaching notes.

The teaching notes that accompany a case study should provide all of the information that other instructors would need to use the case effectively in their classes. In addition to providing solutions to any analysis required in the case, the teaching notes should detail a comprehensive teaching plan that suggests how the case could be used in class. Common elements in teaching notes include assignment questions that the students should answer when analyzing the case, a breakdown of how the case should be discussed in class with recommended times allotted to each activity, and a list of additional discussion questions that instructors could use to better align the case with the course syllabus.

The Case for Promotion and Tenure

An instructor writing cases for use solely in his or her own course will certainly improve the students’ experience in the course, but the case would not directly help the instructor improve his or her case for promotion and tenure. Most schools outside high-level research universities will acknowledge the development and dissemination of case studies in peer-reviewed outlets as a worthwhile indicator of excellence in teaching, which is a component of the tenure decision. A major outlet for case studies is INFORMS Transactions in Education, which publishes case studies and teaching notes that can be accessed for free by confirmed instructors and used in class for free as well. Other journals such as Operations Management Education Review and the International Journal of Information and Operations Management Education also publish case studies.

Case authors can also submit their cases to Ivey Business Publishing and the European Case Clearinghouse for inclusion in their case libraries. The Council of Supply Chain Management solicits cases each year for its case library, which is available for free to its members. Even if an author does not want to submit a case for publishing in a peer-reviewed outlet, INFORMS and the Decision Sciences Institute hold case competitions each year at their respective annual meetings.

It is my hope that more academics will start writing case studies to expand the overall case library in the field while diversifying their CVs for promotion and tenure at the same time.

Writing case studies is a win-win for business school professors and thier students.

Matt Drake (drake987@duq.edu) is an associate professor of Supply Chain Management in the Palumbo-Donahue School of Business at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.