Preparing for the Case Method in Management

A preamble to the case analysis session in the PGP orientation program at IIM Bangalore.

What is the nature of managerial activity? Management is the continuing process of organizing human, physical, technical and knowledge elements under constrained resource conditions towards the achievement of a stated mission in line with an overall vision and a value system.

What is managerial decision making? Managerial decisions can relate to both repetitive and unique managerial situations. Managerial decisions have enormous variety and most managerial decisions are dependent on the specific decision context. So an exhaustive list of all good solutions for every possible new managerial situation can never be developed. Management decisions also involve the projection of consequences into a highly uncertain future. Management decisions are often taken with imperfect knowledge of the underlying phenomena and untested cause-effect relationships.

What data is required for taking managerial decisions? Complete data required for taking good managerial decisions is rarely if ever available. Data used can range from subjective to objective and may be quantifiable or may be judgmental. Probabilistic judgments and intuitions are often used to make real life management decisions in the absence of complete and required data.

What is meant by good managerial decision making? Good managerial decision making requires the ability to accumulate, classify, analyze and build upon a variety of earlier managerial situations and the managerial responses that were then evoked. Managers also need to create new and effective responses to managerial situations that have never been experienced before by them or by others. A relevant and varied managerial experience can over time build intuition in practicing managers and enable them to improve their judgmental ability to take better and more holistic decisions. This is why relevant managerial experience is valued in allotting top management roles and those targeting top management positions usually seek more role changes, location changes and job rotations.

Why is case analysis used as pedagogy in management? Case analysis is a major pedagogy in management schools as management cases help students develop the strong analytical and judgmental skills that are required for taking a variety of good managerial decisions. Management cases also expose students to a variety of organizations and managerial situations and help students learn to ask good and relevant questions. Management cases are usually drawn from real life and depict some significant decision making situation for a firm or an individual. The case provides or provokes multiple alternatives from which students have to identify and recommend the best alternative that can be implemented as well as the backup plans if their recommended plan fails.

What are teaching cases? Teaching cases are typically written such that the information (maybe partial or complete), the decision making issues and the objectives (may be one or many) are available but the final decision(s) taken by the decision maker at the end of case and the reasons for taking them are suppressed. In most teaching cases used in business schools, the critical issues are not explicitly identified, the information is ambiguous and contradictory and some information may be redundant or irrelevant. Typically there is no unique solution to a teaching case discussed in a business school class (cases with a unique solution are often problems disguised as cases). However some case solutions are better than others and such solutions are identified during class discussion.

How should students prepare effectively for a case session? Read the case once rapidly to get an idea of its main issues and the types of information given. Then re-read the case carefully and seek to understand the major issues faced by the decision maker. Then decide on the major issues to be resolved and seek balanced and practical answers to them. Develop answers into recommendations and consider the implementation issues and backup plans carefully. Show clearly why you do not recommend some alternates if they are being considered by the decision maker in the case.

How do students learn through the case method? There are four stages through which students learn through the entire case study process.

Stage 1: Self-study and individual analysis of the case helps students get a good understanding of the business situation and solutions attempted by the decision maker. Some solutions may emerge and students may find one or two of these solutions initially more promising at this stage.

Stage 2: A small group discussion with fellow students before the class is effective in developing new perspectives from others in the group. It will help if the group has some students with managerial experience and from arts, commerce and science as it enables developing varied perspectives.

Stage 3: The in-class discussion of the case enables learning from presenting the case analysis and getting challenged on solutions by other students in class as well as faculty leading the discussion. The more the challenge, the more students improve their ability to develop better case solutions.

Stage 4: Often missed – a careful reflection on the learning from the case and the correction on faulty or inadequate thinking styles that may apply beyond the case context. This is important as every case session helps develop the student’s individual ability to deal effectively with new cases.

Overall the case method provides a simulation for testing and refining the student’s managerial decision making skills and their judgmental skills in a rigorous yet low personal risk situation. What students lose due to bad decisions in case analysis is just marks, not their career! The case method efficiently fast tracks the student’s learning process on managerial issues before they enter actual managerial decision making situations on the job where such decisions often have long lasting career impacts. While analytical techniques are easily learnt, developing the skill of effective case analysis take more time and practice. Case analysis and presentation are important managerial skills that have lifelong positive payoffs; so developing this skill during your management program has high lifetime career value.

Ganesh N Prabhu teaches strategy and new product development at IIM Bangalore