The case method has been the dominant way of learning in business school since it was pioneered at Harvard Business School in the early 20th century. The case method, in Harvard’s description, is simply a discussion of real-life situations that business executives have faced.
If you’re headed to business school, you need to know all about it. Here are some tips on how to review MBA case studies like an executive.
First things first: If you don’t have time to read an entire case study, at least read the abstract — the first few paragraphs — so you have a general idea of what’s being discussed. The abstract is a summary of the study that has a logical flow, and lets you know what the main issues are.
You should probably know more about what a case study is talking about, though. If you want to make the most of your time, then you’ll want to know a method I learned from the past winner of a global case study competition. It’s not as speedy as just reading the abstract, but it’s a quick, structured, and thorough way to understand the main ideas.
1. Create an outline based on the abstract
- For each point in the abstract, create a header and sub-header. My headers typically include the Problem, the Story, the Theory (why this happened), the Response, the Result.
- Number each header and sub-header so that later on, it’ll be easier to reference. You’ll thank me.
2. Read the case study, take notes. Make a key problems and issues document.
Each time you read the case study, have a different goal in mind, a different way of looking at what’s been written. This is more efficient than reading the case study many times and trying to remember everything in it.
- On your first read, quickly scan it to get a general impression.
- Do a second, more thorough read. Highlight important facts, write notes in the margins. Assign these to each header in your outline.
- Read the case study a third time. In a separate document, write out the key problems and issues that stood out to you.
3. Review all 3 documents — your revised outline, key problems and issues, the case study
- It’s time to put it all together. Reference key problems and issues from your 3rd read, and notes from your 2nd read, against each header in the outline.
- Identify some considerations and questions that come up when you map these against one another. I recommend noting that in your outline. Ask yourself what concepts, rules, or principles are being questioned?This creates context. Context, not content, is king (or queen).
- Try and answer these questions with a simple qualitative or quantitative analysis. Base your analysis on assumptions that were in the case study. For example, numerical data presented in tables. Chances are it will look something like this.
- Look for similarities and differences that prove or disprove what is being claimed as true or “feels true.”
This is important. Rely on the case study’s evidence, avoid personal judgment, and other influences like politics or ideology. Speculation isn’t evidence, unless it’s in the case study.
5. What would you do about it?
- Develop a set of recommendations around a logical flow, using your analysis. If the situation plays out in the way that’s described, your recommended course of action should make sense to people who don’t know the case study as well as you do.
- Come up with an effective way to present your findings. Think about how to quickly convince people your thinking makes sense. For example, quickly drawing a diagram or chart on paper or chalkboard.
- Use a framework you’ve previously discussed in class, if you really want everyone to know you’ve been paying attention.
Philip Chang is a researcher and past Student Council president at National Taiwan University.