A Century Of Cases: Harvard Marks 100th Birthday Of The Case Method

Harvard’s new exhibit explores the origins of the Case Method, which laid the foundation for a century of graduate business education. Photo courtesy HBS archives

Late last month, HBS celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Case Method with the official opening of the first post-pandemic in-person exhibit at the Baker Library. It is not hyperbole to say that the experiential learning approach first developed in 1922 was the foundation of graduate business education — truly, the beginning of everything.

Harvard’s exhibit, “From Inquiry to Action: Harvard Business School & the Case Method,” offers insight into the Case Method through a rare peek at materials from the HBS archives. It explains, in fascinating detail, the school’s early contributions leading to the growth and global adoption of the participant-centered teaching practice.

The Case Method’s 100th anniversary brought together HBS community members, including current students, as well as faculty, staff, and alumni at a “champagne celebration” on March 30. Alongside the exhibit opening, the school held a series of case discussions on such topics as hybrid learning, artificial intelligence, and business ethics — as well as a look at the oldest and first HBS case written a century ago, about the “General Shoe Company.”

INQUIRY TO ACTION

“The 100th year anniversary of the Case Method can’t be complete without this exhibit at the Baker Library,” says V.G. Narayanan, chair of the HBS MBA elective curriculum.

Exhibits are part of HBS tradition, Narayanan says. “Whenever we mark occasions, we turn to the Baker Library,” he explains. “Our library is an integral part of campus life and having this exhibit brings us all together.”

While the Case Method’s history spans 100 years, this exhibit goes deeper into eight key areas of its timeline: business education and the Case Method, the first “General Shoe Company” case, case writing and the industry, the expansion of the Case Method, the Case Method classroom, teaching and the Case Method, impact on research and curriculum, and global reach.

“We centered the exhibit around these eight themes to look at the origins of the Case Method and how integral it was in the very beginning of the school’s history,” says Rachel Wise, HBS archives manager.

V.G. Narayanan at the celebration of the opening of “From Inquiry to Action: HBS and the Case Method” on March 30. Photo by Ethiopiah Al-Mahdi

HIGHLIGHTING THE HBS ARCHIVES

“It was a challenge to take this rich topic and consolidate it into eight display cases,” says Laura Linard, senior director for Special Collections at Baker Library. “Each theme could have been an exhibit in itself.

Linard explains that this 100th anniversary milestone was a way to allow the community to have direct contact with HBS resources. “This was a chance to really highlight what’s in the HBS archives,” she says.

‘LEARNING IS RARELY AN INDIVIDUAL ACTIVITY’

V.G. Narayanan

When the first case, which featured a hypothetical situation assembly line issue at a shoe company, was written in 1922, the HBS faculty voted to adopt the case system, as it was then called, as the main pedagogy at HBS. Now, the school’s MBA students read over 500 cases throughout the course of their two-year MBA program — and graduate business students around the world read thousands more.

That’s because it works. The method — an interactive, experiential learning model that looks at real-world organizational challenges — helps to prepare students to face problems and find unique solutions as future leaders, managers, and decision-makers. It features a flipped classroom model, meaning that the knowledge creation happens by the students and the discussions about real-world problems are facilitated by the professor. It’s meant to help students learn how to take action by analyzing a problem, listening to others, comparing perspectives, and choosing an appropriate course of action.

This active approach creates a vibrant learning atmosphere, according to Narayanan. Students come to class once having read the case, and are ready to participate in discussions. “Learning is rarely an individual activity,” he continues. “It’s much better if it’s a social activity.”

Narayanan says that for the most part, everyday in an HBS class involves a case discussion. Recently, the Case Method has been used to analyze all types of situations, such as the launch of the Magnolia Network by Chip and Joanna Gaines in Anita Elberse’s class, to the Tulsa Massacre and the call for reparations of historical injustice in Mihir Desai’s class, to the analysis of HBS alum executives in Linda Hill’s class.

‘A COLLECTIVE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS’

“The Case Method involves active learning; you’re not passively sitting there,” says Narayanan. “You’re engaging. It’s a very social experience, and a collective search for answers.”

According to Narayanan, this approach essentially provides a new mode of learning. “Students figure out how to take a situation and determine what the broader implications are,” says Narayanan. “This is all very reflective of the real world, where we show up for meetings and collectively decide what action to take.”

Narayanan discloses that approximately 90% of the HBS MBA program includes the Case Method in their classes. He believes that this method helps students to build knowledge inductively rather than deductively, meaning that students get to apply what they’ve learned from one specific example to a broader applicability. Plus, since cases are often a reaction to what’s going on in the world and how industries are changing, the method gives faculty a way to explore timely events. “The whole motivation behind the cases is to bring real business situations into the classroom,” says Linard.

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