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3.4 What makes a good case?

Once you have decided to adopt the case method in your teaching, you need to find the cases to use in your classes. You have two options. You can use ‘ready-made’ cases supplied in textbooks or by academic institutions. Harvard Business School Publishing and the Case Program at the Kennedy School of Government are the natural places to look at for such cases. Suggested sources of available case studies are indicated in section 4.

Alternatively, you can decide to create your own case studies. As mentioned above, you can use a gradual approach and take newspaper articles as your starting point. Contacts with members of the business community, consultancies and research work in external agencies can constitute other sources of inspiration. Robyn (1986) discusses the core elements of a good case, and some guidelines to take into consideration when developing a case are summarised below:

  • Pedagogical utility. The most important question you should ask yourself is: what teaching function will the case serve? What pedagogic issues will the case raise? Are those issues that cannot be raised equally well or better by an existing case? The rule of thumb for judging the pedagogical value of a potential case is: ‘Every case needs a theory’. The corollary to this rule is that cases should not be thought of in isolation but rather as part of a module or course sequence.
  • Conflict provoking. Controversy is the essence of a good case discussion: it engages the students; it forces them to analyse and defend their position; and it demonstrates to them that, while there are generally no right answers, there are certain questions that it is essential to ask. Most cases are fundamentally about something controversial: a policy over which people disagree; a managerial decision that involves difficult trade-offs; an ethically questionable business decision. In preparing your case, you can ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this an issue about which reasonable people could disagree?’
  • Decision forcing. Generally a case works better if it leaves decisions unresolved. That is, it is helpful if the case presents a choice or decision that confronts a manager or analyst without revealing what the protagonist did and the consequences of that action. A case that forces students to make a decision will prove more effective at getting them to take the first-person perspective rather than looking on from the outside.
  • Generality. A measure of a good case is its generalisation to some larger class of economic or analytical problems. Usually, if a case is interesting because it is unique, it is probably not a very useful case pedagogically.
  • Brevity. Cases that are too long and that contain too many facts tend to keep the discussion grounded in particulars. Thus, brevity is generally desirable.
  • Quantitative information. The cases should contain quantitative information presented in a variety of forms, including tables, charts and graphs. Ideally, some of this information would be irrelevant, some would need additional manipulation in order to be useful and all would require significant interpretation beyond that provided in the text of the case.
  • Institutional and historical knowledge. While the analysis of the case should require students to use theory learned outside the context of the case, it is important to select cases that do not require students to posses a large stock of institutional or historical knowledge. Usually, students have different backgrounds and cases that require previous knowledge tend to disadvantage students whose backgrounds are less comprehensive. However, if you decide to use such a case, make sure that you provide students with an accompanying handout, including definitions or some historical information if the case is incomplete.