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Is It Time To Retire The Harvard Case Study?

A case study discussion plays out in a Harvard Business School class

Is It Time To Retire The Harvard Case Study?

Harvard’s case study method is perhaps the most widely-used teaching style by the world’s leading business schools.

But some experts argue that the case study is limiting in its moral compass and indifferent to societal ills.

Lila MacLellan, of Quartz, discusses the problems with the Harvard Business School case studies raised by critics in a recent piece.


Wallace Donham, who is credited with establishing the case method, even had second thoughts on his method being fit for teaching modern business.

“…Donham sincerely believed it was too indifferent to larger societal ills, too insensitive to the labor market, and thus to economic prosperity and equality among workers,” MacLellan writes.

Despite Donham’s misgivings about the case study method, HBS itself continues to champion the method as a standard.

Todd Bridgman, a management professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and lead author of “Restating The Case: How Revisiting the Development of the Case Method Can Help Us Think Differently About the Future of the Business School,” discusses how HBS still sees the case study method as ‘central to the HBS brand.’

“He and his colleagues, whose work was published in the Academy of Management, propose that the case study, now central to the HBS brand and its revenue, has been given a convenient origin story that created a new, accepted truth,” MacLellan writes.


One of the short fallings of the HBS case study method, according to critics, is its failure to  understand the relationship between business and society, especially those who are often marginalized.

“In recent years, the case method has been knocked for several serious moral failures, accused by various critics of ‘constructing mythical, heroic portrayals of leadership’ and ‘privileging senior management views and managerialism,’” MacLellan writes. “It’s been said to exclude the voices of women, the poor, and labor, and to contain ‘a flawed logic of translatability from one context to others.’”

Part of this, according to critics, is due to the fact that method emphasizes teaching business students about how one thinks rather than what one thinks.

Additionally, critics also say the case method lacks relevant and modern cases.

In an interview with Financial Times, Yubo Chen, associate dean of Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, says his students are demanding more relevant topics and that’s one reason why Tsinghua University is beginning to write their own teaching cases.

“Our students are not satisfied with Harvard cases,” he tells Financial Times. “The environment is changing so fast, and we need cases on China. It’s very difficult to talk, say, about Amazon. They want to know about ecommerce in China.”


2021 marks the 100-year anniversary of the first written case study.

In an email statement to Quartz, HBS stated that the faculty at Harvard “strive to produce cases that reflect the latest developments in all aspects of leadership and management, leveraging what has happened in the past to help students understand the challenges they may encounter in the future.”

HBS adds that it is aware that its case studies have room for improvement, but critics still argue that simply tweaking the case studies won’t do.

“There may well be cases where you’re positioned as a manager at BP, and you have to make a decision about your approach to climate change,” Bridgman tells Quartz. “But to me, that’s different from actually standing back and looking at, broadly, the role of business in society, and questioning capitalism, and asking those more fundamental questions, rather than just looking at those issues in the context of a manager who is really tasked with maximizing profits for their shareholders.”

Sources: Quartz, Financial Times