Teruo Yabe, the new general manager of Tessei — the company tasked with rapidly cleaning Japan’s bullet trains in seven minutes — was facing a series of challenges.
According to a case study authored by Harvard Business School in 2015, Tessei suffered from a “laundry-list of inefficiencies” which held the company back from cleaning the train cars effectively and promptly.
“Yabe believed that Tessei could do better, but how?” the case asked. “Which levers should he pull first?”
“Trouble at Tessei” showcases the dominant features of a Harvard Business School case study. By presenting challenges facing the company through its leader’s perspective, the 2015 case poses questions on how the company can improve. In a single 80-minute class at HBS, which centers its curriculum around the case method, students at the school would seek to answer those questions.
The first HBS case was written in 1921 by HBS graduate Clinton P. Biddle, 13 years after the school’s founding. Jan W. Rivkin, the senior associate dean of the MBA program and an HBS professor, said that because the school was founded as an “experiment,” HBS spent years discovering what was the most effective way to teach college graduates business, leadership, and management. Faculty believed the case method was the best infrastructure to fulfill that mission.
In 1922, by faculty vote, the method was named the “case system,” and 93 universities adopted at least one of the first five HBS casebooks. V.G. Narayanan, chair of the MBA Elective Curriculum — or second-year curriculum — and an HBS professor, said this “rapid adoption” was because the environment was “ripe” for the case method.
“How do you teach something that’s founded in practice?” Narayanan questioned.
Narayanan traced the origins of the case method to pedagogical approaches pioneered by law and medical schools.
“The idea that you can learn inductively from problems and then generalize — that idea had already started in law and perhaps even in medicine,” Narayanan said. “The Business School was standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Rivkin said the case method became a “magical artifact” for HBS — it was simultaneously a method for teaching, an opportunity for faculty to conduct research and connect with practicing managers, and an avenue to generate funding to develop more cases.
One hundred years since its inception, the case method has evolved into a cornerstone of the Business School. Through a series of events and interviews on their website, HBS is toasting the case method’s centennial year.
In developing each case, Harvard researchers and HBS faculty investigate a real dilemma that a company faced from the perspective of its business leaders. Based on interviews with company executives, media articles, and company financials, a case presents the business issue through a 10- to 20-page narrative.
For HBS professor Ethan S. Bernstein, a successful case consists of three components: 10 pages to brief individuals on information, a divisive dilemma, and a generalizable lesson.
HBS professor Hong Luo described sourcing cases as “exciting” from both an educator’s and researcher’s point of view.
Luo said that sometimes she begins researching for a case by speaking with company executives, while other times she starts by examining publicly available information on the company.
HBS’s pedagogy is centered on analyzing cases, which present dilemmas and pose questions but do not answer them. Professors then structure their courses around cases. Students discuss more than 500 cases during their two years at the school.
An important aspect of the case method is cold calling. Each case method class at HBS begins with a “cold call,” in which the professor selects a student at random to offer their opinion and initiate discussion.
Bernstein described cold calling as “punishment with purpose.” The purpose, he argued, is not to embarrass students but to push the class collectively, and professors are trusted to pull voices that will be useful to the discussion.
HBS professor Aiyesha Dey said that in her experience, students actually like cold calling.
“Often, you get students who might be more shy, and they may not always be, you know, either come from a culture or be ready to raise their hand,” Dey explained.
“So when you actually cold call, I’ve heard students often say, you know, ‘I’m glad you called on me because I was not going to raise my hand, and because you called on me, the spotlight was on me, and I had to speak and it actually made me think, and I was very happy I could contribute,’” she said.
Outside of Harvard, business schools across the world pay for access to the HBS “casebooks” to teach to their own students. In 2020, HBS sold more than 15 million cases, per the school website.
Case studies are like “boardrooms,” according to Bernstein.
Bernstein, who graduated from HBS in 2002 and subsequently worked at Boston Consulting Group, said his experience practicing the case method at Harvard prepared him for consulting.
“When I was at BCG, I came across a number of times, where it’s like, ‘Oh, this is a fill-in-the-blank-case-name moment,’” he said. “That signpost in my memory reminded me of how to think about resolving the issue, at least on the basis of the way that we had tried to do it in the class.”
“Of course, real life — the real world — is never quite like the classroom, but it’s a lot closer to a case conversation than it is to a lecture,” Bernstein added.
Second-year MBA student Ilana R. Springer said she is able to recognize the skills she learns through cases in her work experiences.
“Since it’s told as a story, you do kind of remember it when you find yourself in a similar position,” she said. “And you might not remember the case protagonist name or whatever, but there were multiple times over the course of the summer, for example, where I texted people from my section and was like, ‘I just experienced XYZ.’”
Springer called the case method “the most effective way to learn” for aspiring business professionals and said that she “can’t recommend it highly enough.”
“None of us are going to be going into jobs that are super clear-cut and where we know everything we’re expected to do,” she said. “It’s super important to learn about all of the tactical skills in the context of a greater ecosystem, and that’s what they’re teaching us to do.”
New York University professor Kevin M. Bonney — who conducts research on settings where the case method is effective — described it as a “versatile method of teaching.”
“It’s effective because it uses a narrative approach that promotes problem solving, and critical analysis while really engaging students,” he said.
HBS professor Rebecca A. Karp, who will teach the case method in a strategy class for first year MBA students in the spring, also said the case method hones students’ ability to form an argument using evidence-based analysis.
“As a student, it really forces you to support your perspective,” she said. “So you can’t just kind of have an opinion willy nilly, like you have to use the facts of the case to make your point. And that’s such an important lesson to learn in the world of business.”
Business School visiting professor J.S. Nelson — who began teaching at HBS this year — said professors place students in the position of the case protagonist to prepare them to make decisions in the real world.
“It’s that key of putting students in those positions — by virtue of making the situation and making them the protagonists, having them really have the experience of walking in those shoes for a while — so that when they are out there in the world, you feel like you have a little bit more to call on,” Nelson said. “You’ve seen so many things before so that you have some idea of how this world is going to work.”
Springer said the discussion-style structure of the classes allows her to get to know the strengths of her classmates.
“I have this entire network of people to call on whenever I have any questions,” she said. “If you’re sitting in a lecture hall, you wouldn’t know what everybody’s superpower is.”
Despite its venerable history, the Business School’s case studies have historically excluded certain races, genders, and regions.
William M. “Willis” Emmons ’81, who directs the C. Roland Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning, which trains HBS faculty on how to teach case method, said the lack of diversity in case subjects can be attributed to the makeup of HBS faculty and alumni who recommend companies to study.
“We’ve recognized that one of the dangers sometimes of having all of our case development being led by faculty, is that the faculty themselves are not very diverse,” he said. “You can end up kind of finding yourself with a pool of folks, without really intending to, to end up with a group of protagonists and cases and situations that don’t fully reflect the diversity of the situations that one might do cases on.”
Emmons said research groups who work on case studies are trying to diversify their subjects in terms of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and geographic location. He said diversifying the subjects of case studies is necessary, but not sufficient.
“We also need to make sure that our faculty are comfortable and able to lead discussions around cases and protagonists that may not be as traditional as in our curriculum,” he said.
Emmons added that it is important that authors of case studies ensure they are using sensitive language.
Second-year MBA student Keven D. Wang said he appreciated that his professor posed questions about the role of implicit bias in the drafting of case studies.
“These more nuanced questions are being incorporated into some of the relevant world of cases,” Wang added.
—Staff writer Carrie Hsu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.