How They Teach The Case Method At Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda works in a deadly South African mine - Gautam Mukunda photo

Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda works in a deadly South African mine – Gautam Mukunda photo

If you wanted to learn about making currency, your best stop might well be the U.S. Mint. If you wanted to learn about taffy trees, lollipop bushes, and Oompa-Loompas, you’d go to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. And if you wanted to learn about the business school case method, you’d look to Harvard Business School, where it all started. But while you could take a tour of the Mint, and read Roald Dahl’s book, HBS is a little trickier: to get in, you generally have to have a GMAT score north of 700 and a couple hundred thousand dollars to spend.

Now, however, there’s a much simpler, and cost-free way to gain an understanding of the case method, straight from the original – and by far most prolific – source. This month, HBS launched “Cold Call,” a twice-monthly podcast, each episode featuring a different professor discussing a case they’ve written. So far, you can follow one HBS prof deep into a deadly South African mine, and travel with another into the world of luxurious – but sustainable – high fashion.

In the case method, first called “the problem method” when developed by HBS faculty in the 1920s, students must analyze a real-world business challenge from the perspective of an actual business leader confronted by it, then provide solutions. While the average amount of class time devoted to the case method in other top schools is typically around 30%, at HBS more than 80% of the school’s classes are built around this teaching technique. In those classes, students do 85% of the talking, and talk they must: in many courses, half of a student’s grade derives from class participation – professors’ questions draw energetic hand-raising.


HBS is not just the place where the case method was pioneered, it’s also a veritable case method factory, churning them out like Wonka does Everlasting Gobstoppers. Of all the cases sold across the entire planet, 80% are created by HBS faculty. And speaking of minting money, the school’s publishing operations pretty much give it a license to print cash, racking up $194 million in revenue in 2014, largely from case study sales. Each year, the faculty produce about 200 to 250 new cases – it’s a good thing, because the school needs a lot of fodder: each case is dealt with in one class, with the next class covering another one, and so on. An HBS MBA student will study more than 450 cases over two years, according to the school.

Harvard Business School CMO Brian Kenny

Harvard Business School CMO Brian Kenny

Getting familiar with each case before it’s brought up in class is crucial – woe unto the MBA candidate who neglects to prepare sufficiently and gets the “cold call” at the start of many classes when the professor picks out a student who must present the facts and issues of the case.

“It’s one of the most terrifying or exhilarating moments for any MBA student,” says HBS chief marketing officer and Cold Call host Brian Kenny.


HBS case studies usually run from two to 25 pages of text and exhibits. Typically, students receive a case a week before it’s to be discussed. After receiving it, they’re supposed to meet with their “learning team” – a group of peers from different sections with diverse backgrounds – to compare notes and bounce opinions back and forth about how the case problem should best be solved. For most school days, HBS students have three cases to study.

“Nothing is spoon-fed to you,” HBS strategy professor Jan Rivkin says in the school’s “Inside the HBS Case Method 2007” video. “You’ve got to be prepared and you’ve got to come ready to play every day.”

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