CASE METHOD SIMULATES THE GENERAL MANAGER ROLE
The case method is also an example of form meeting function at HBS and IESE. Both schools subscribe to a general management philosophy. As a result, the cases often complement – if not simulate – the roles that students will ultimately play after graduation.
“We believe it trains people to do what general managers do all day long in that part of the job,” argues IESE’s Prats. “It puts you in a real situation and asks you to play the role of the protagonist. I think it is very effective because, at the end, it is like you were in a small trial and you can learn how to act and react. It’s not just a story. It’s not something where you can play around and just give opinions. It is a very different thing that requires you to be well-prepared. It is something where people change their mindsets.”
Rivkin agrees that the case method mimics the processes followed and tradeoffs weighed by general managers in making decisions. “Before class, you have to confront a messy set of facts; discern the facts, problems, and opportunities; consider alternatives in your own mind; and come to an initial point of view on what you can and should do. During class, you have to listen to what others think; try to draw others to your suggested course of action; consider alternatives again enriched by others’ perspectives; choose a course of action; and after class you have to ask yourself, what did I just learn?”
CASE PREP TAKES A TON OF WORK
In repeating this process case-after-case, Rivkin believes students are following a regimen that strengthens those “muscles” that they’ll be calling on over-and-over in their careers. “For helping groups learn to balance arguments, make difficult judgments and act in uncertainty and think for themselves, it is a pretty good way of going about things,” he adds.
On the surface, a student-centric model would seem to be a breeze for faculty. Instead of being the proverbial “sage on the stage” who devote hours to organizing densely-researched lectures, a case professor can simply act as a devil’s advocate who guides the discussion with the occasional question or observation. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Rivkin. For one, it ignores the process of researching and writing the case itself, which is standard for HBS professors. The behind-the-scenes preparation is equally arduous – but in a far different way than preparing a lecture.
“With a lecture, you have to figure out what you’re going to say,” Rivkin notes. “When you’re preparing a case discussion, you’re trying to figure out all the possible things that a student might say. You’re trying to devise questions or craft a conversation that will lead to meeting the teaching objectives. So it is really putting together a puzzle. If the student says X, for example, what question do I come back with and how do I put that together into something that delivers a particular idea? That’s a very different task and underlying skill set.”
Even more, the case method requires a tremendous trust and in students – and vice versa. The case method takes time to internalize, meaning discussions may be uneven at first. It also demands talented teachers who can shepherd students to the right destination – the one where students can hold each other accountable to raise their performance across the board.
CASE PROFESSORS GET TO KNOW STUDENTS…BEFORE THEY ENTER A CLASSROOM
It’s a delicate balance. And that’s why case professors go the extra mile in their preparation, always coming to class knowing which students can bring the greatest value to discussions. That’s critical in a program like HBS, where half of grading is based on participation – and the classrooms include scribes (and software) that track who said what.
“The professors here memorize the names and backgrounds of students for their classes before the first day,” says Rivkin. “On my wall, there are giant printouts of two sections of students with their faces and names. That’s my wall decoration. For most faculty, this is what is on their walls. I have a habit of looking at that before I go to teach. So there are a lot of little things that are done in very distinctive ways.”
Of course, being associated with the Harvard brand doesn’t hurt either. With alumni often strategically located throughout leading industries, regions, and companies, Rivkin adds that the HBS faculty often find doors opened when it comes time to conduct research and write their vaunted cases.
INTENSIVE FEEDBACK AND MENTORING BRING NEW PROFS UP TO SPEED AT IESE
“Our faculty get out into the world a lot. There is a tremendous blessing in that we can get into most organizations. They trust us. That means our faculty tend to have an orientation to practice, particularly the practice of general management. So we go into the classroom a little bit different as a consequence.”
Still, IESE and HBS professors don’t just walk into a classroom and shine. It takes time. More important, it requires high expectations and constant development reinforced by structure. At IESE, Prats believes her team can take a talented academic and turn him or her into an excellent teacher within 3-5 years. That’s because the school is serious – dead serious – about promoting teaching excellence.
It starts with intensive training. New professors will regularly attend classes taught by senior members of the department, says Prats. Along with gaining a feel for what works, new hires spend time with these professors after class to ask questions and test drive ideas. These seasoned professors will also return the favor, sitting in on new professors to offer regular documented feedback. In addition, IESE will formally pair a senior and junior professor together. This fosters a mentoring relationship, Prats notes, where up-and-coming professors absorb the formal frameworks and savvy to become as successful as their experienced peers in the classroom.
TEACHING THE TEACHER
How serious is Harvard Business School about teaching? It actually runs a program called START, which Rivkin describes as orientation for incoming faculty on case method teaching. “Most of it is taught in cases,” he says, “so we have cases about situations that arise in class. We discuss them as a group.
There is an institution here called the Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning. These are professionals who do nothing but help our faculty become better at teaching.”
The support doesn’t stop there, either. “One thing that may not be clear from the outside: There is a tremendous amount of infrastructure behind teaching at HBS,” Rivkin explains. “Along with writing our own cases, we teach almost all courses by cases. The students and faculty both get very good at it. Then, we have teaching groups. Every first year required course is taught by a team of 5-10 people – and those people get together about once a week to discuss what they’re going to teach in the coming week, share ideas, and work on their craft. Our classrooms are even set up to facilitate case method discussion.”
Like at IESE, senior faculty takes responsibility for formally mentoring junior faculty. Look no further than Rivkin himself. “Today, I spent 8:30-10:00 this morning sitting in on a colleagues’ class taking notes and then debriefed with her on how the class had gone, what I thought she’d done great, and what she might want to work on. Later today, I have a videotape of a faulty member that I’ll be looking at too.”
Go to Page 3 to see student and alumni survey scores given to 25 top MBA programs on faculty quality.