Does the Case-Study Method make for better teaching? IBS Hyderabad provides some answers

Harvard Business School’s case-method pedagogy has been one of inspiration and learning to many b-schools across the world. In Indian b-schools however, this mode of teaching is yet to gain ground as the ‘only one.’ Yes, there are combination teaching methods in some of the older Indian Institutes of Management and others – with a big chunk devoted to the case-studies methodology.

As yet, the ICFAI Business School (IBS), Hyderabad seems to be the only Indian b-school to be running on a 100% case-method teaching system for two years now. IBS’ website states that the institute has a stock of 4,000 research cases, a thousand structured assignments and more than 1,200 teaching notes – PaGaLguY decided to check out whether it’s really as hunky dory as made out to be. We spoke to IBS Hyderabad’s Dean of Academics Prof Hilda Amalraj.

What were the reasons behind opting for a 100% case-study method at IBS Hyderabad?

Business school programmes are primarily professional training, wherein the focus of education is on application of concepts, principles and theories to real life contexts that future managers are likely to face. Cases provide the context for decision-making. In case-based learning students get to pre-assess and examine the context in which the concepts mapped for the session emerge. From the perspective of learning for application, participant-centric learning, especially the case-based method is superior to the regular lecture-based teaching. In the past, we used a mix of case-sessions and lecture-sessions, but since 2009-10 we have adopted a system which is, in entirety, case-based learning.

Cases work at HBS, because the student body has work experience and could relate to the real world scenarios in cases leading to meaningful discussions. But how can 100% case-method be effective in schools like IBS where there are also freshers, who lack either theoretical or practical knowledge of business?

No student, even in HBS, will have experience in all kinds of case situations. In other words, most case scenarios may be new or eye-opening even for someone with a few years of experience in one or two sectors. The ones with some work experience will relate to the scenario with reference to what they have seen or experienced, which could be good in many cases, but constraining in some others. A fresh student carries no such baggage. On the other hand, especially for someone who has had no real-world work experience, case pedagogy provides an excellent introduction to managerial decision-making. The more cases they do during their programme, the better it would be.

It is also important to remember that students dont prepare for case discussion in isolation. They read cases alongside their textbooks and additional prescribed readings – each case is mapped to readings which explains theories and concepts. Case discussions in classroom settings, facilitated by faculty members trained in the method, discuss theories, concepts and its application in the said case.

Were there any aspects of learning lost after lectures were completely done away with and why is IBS okay with it?

In terms of learning, we think, and the studies we have done with the last batch have confirmed that there are only gains and not losses. In professional education, the desired outcome should be more of application-based learning. We think that students learning managerial theory as well as practice, and being better equipped for managerial decision-making, are more important objectives for management students.

Where are the cases coming from? What percentage is developed in-house and from external sources such as HBS?

Most cases used in the first two semesters are developed by IBS faculty members and by IBS Case Development Center. All cases used in the third and fourth semesters are published by HBS. It is important to note that cases written by our faculty members are used globally and have won international prizes.

Typically, how many in-house cases are based on actual research conducted with the subject company and how many on commonly available information (such as the case studies on Apple’s products)?

There are several types of cases. Some are based on secondary information, while some others are based on primary data collection. Even secondary cases could be of different kind, some involving multiple companies, some involving economy and public policy issues and so on. All of them have their relevance. For some purpose, cases based on secondary data are more useful. On the other hand, especially in cases involving single firms or individual decision-making, primary data could be important. Either way, whether data is primary or secondary, all cases are the result of research. Some cases could be the result of more in-depth research than some others, but all research is actual research.

Developing and maintaining the cases are a costly affair. How has it impacted the cost of doing an MBA at ICFAI?

Indeed, it is a costly affair! But, our cases are used not only in IBS, but also in several universities and business schools across the world. Our Case Development Center has around hundred international universities and business schools as its customers, including Harvard and Cambridge. Therefore, while it is certainly an expensive affair, cases earn revenue too for the Case Development Center. On the other hand, our sourcing cases from external sources do result in significant outflows but that is a small price to pay for giving our students world-class learning facilities in our campus. Overall, there is some impact on the cost of our operations, but that has not altered the costs for students doing an MBA at IBS.

ICMR has been generating a high volume of cases. What is the team size working on developing these cases and what are their qualifications? Considering that India is not known for research-quality academic talent, how is ICMR ensuring rigour in these case studies?

A team of qualified and experienced professionals at various levels are involved in developing cases. Besides a good number of faculty members also are involved in the process. ICMR has evolved its own best practices to ensure that the cases developed meet quality standards. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Just this year, so far, over half a dozen cases written by IBS faculty members and staff of Case Development Center have won international prizes or awards for outstanding cases. And as I said earlier, our cases are today used world over. So, we believe, India can indeed develop research-quality academic talent.

The case-method has been widely criticized by influential thinkers such as Henry Mintzberg who argue that cases tend to look at business problems from the CEO’s point of view and leaves students completely unprepared for the initial years of their jobs. How would you react to this criticism?

Not all cases look at business problems from the CEOs point of view. For that matter, not all cases are decision cases even. Of course, most HBS cases are decision cases and the students do have to put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist to make sense of them. But, are all protagonists in these cases, owners or CEOs or Directors? Certainly not! In some cases, the key decision-maker is the CEO or the partner or a Director or a CFO, but in many others, the protagonists could be sales managers and HR managers and accountants and so on. Case method, essentially equips students for managerial decision-making. And, decision-making doesnt happen only at the CEO level. Of course, students stepping out of some business schools in India are often placed in non-managerial positions in the initial years. That is not our point of reference. We would want our management students to be fully equipped to be effective managers when they step out than condition them for jobs, which students could have anyway got right after their bachelors degree.

Can you compare both the case-study and the lecture-based styles on various parameters?

Acceptance by students: There is always some resistance to change. But once the students were convinced that they stood to gain from it, they were more than welcoming it. The fact that this method has been tried and tested in some of the best management institutions in the world, also helps the students accept it easily.

Involvement of students in class work: Case-based learning works only when students come prepared with the case and concepts to class. Class participation requires prior preparation, and it is working primarily because the students have accepted the learner-centred approach to education. They understand that their investment of time and money in the course is fruitful when they involve better. Their performance in class room is dependent on their effort and that connection is now far more obvious than in the previous system. Another big motivation for students to prepare better and perform well in the class is the grades that they earn for Class participation which carries a 30-40% weightage in the overall performance in the course.

Faculty involvement: The amount of preparation required by the faculty members has risen significantly. The faculty member has to be prepared well with not only the concepts but also the facts of the case, and she has to drive the discussion of the case in such a way that the concepts mapped for the session get covered through the discussion. And, this has to be done within the specified time slot. To manage a discussion with appropriate time, class-room and black-board management is indeed a difficult job, which requires meticulous planning and preparation.

If the system works really as well as you make it sound, why are more b-schools not going for 100% case-based learning?

It probably has to do with the resource requirement. First of all, the faculty member has to be meticulously trained for the approach. People with research and industry experience can handle cases far better than others. But, such faculty resources are costly. We have the advantage of having our own faculty development center for training. Sourcing cases would be a big challenge. Very few business schools have an in-house case development center that produces quality and internationally-accepted cases. To procure cases from Harvard or other Ivy League schools can be very costly. In our case, we meet the demand for cases from our own centre as well as from HBS. Since the concepts have to be driven through the case discussion it requires extensive effort to map cases for a course curriculum and concepts therof.

Infrastucture in terms of lecture theatres to facilitate a case discussion class and discussion rooms for case preparation by student groups are essential to make the case method effective. This may be a big shortcoming in some schools. Residential campuses are better suited for this approach than day schools. The logistics of obtaining cases from a repository and making it available to students is very cumbersome and requires meticulous planning.

Have you checked student-performance and involvement after switching to the case-study method?

When the first batch of students who had gone through the 100% case-based learning graduated in 2011, IBS did a study to evaluate the performance of the students through surveys and focus-group discussions, involving all the stakeholders. While we did identify some issues to be addressed, the conclusion of the study was that case-based learning approach should be strengthened and not weakened. .

But you need to update the cases to have the necessary impact?

Certainly, yes. The Case Development Centre publishes hundreds of cases every year. Cases produced by us are used in some of the best management institutions in the world. We regularly revise our cases and change the case mapping too to better suit the changes in the real world. Every year the curriculum is reviewed and about 30% of the cases are changed.