As part of an extensive study published in 1997, Joseph Tracy and Joel Waldfogel identified only two factors in a business course that correlated with value for prospective employers. The first was the salary paid to the academics, understandable in the US market where business schools would pay a premium for good teachers. The second was the extent of the use of case-method teaching in the course.
Put simply, students who had faced and solved serious, real management problems in case-method discussions became more capable managers. Memorising theory had no effect. Being taught by academics with doctorates made no difference. It was simply a matter of providing students with real, messy business problems and allowing them to wrestle with the complexities, with discussions facilitated by a trained, experienced instructor.
This isn’t to say that other innovative approaches are not effective. In this study, the case method was the only non-traditional teaching method considered, since it was the only one in common use. However, the value of the case method does give a few clues about effective management education and development. Courses should include a significant amount of realistic problem solving, drawing on activities such as cases, simulations and industry-based projects.
Yet universities persist in using lectures as the basis of their courses. Even the Business Higher Education Round Table makes no mention of the case method in any of its publications. There is passing reference to the use of cases in its newsletter on improving teaching and learning in universities, but no recognition of the value of the case method in business education. Leading students through the complexities of real business situations is just too hard in modern, research-focused, online universities.
What are the implications?
So what are the implications for HR practice and for the selection, recruitment and development of managers? A good start would be to recruit graduates from business courses in which the case method is used. In Australia this is not so easy. Most business schools advertise their courses with phrases such as “flexible delivery” or “research-based”. There is seldom any mention of the case method.
Schools such as Harvard in the US and Ivey in Canada make a feature of their commitment to case method. Harvard even has a series of videos on YouTube showing what the case method really is.
Without any clear indication of which Australian business schools use this proven approach, it seems that HR professionals simply have to ask.
If recruiters can’t rely on information to identify the best business schools, they could consider a “case interview” as part of the selection process. For either in-house or external management development programs, the use of case method teaching offers significant benefits. A case course can be tailored to cover concepts, industries and a variety of topics to suit the needs of the company. There are thousands of case studies available from dozens of sources.
Good case method
The European Case Clearing House offers more than 47,000 cases, Melbourne Business School offers some Australian cases, and the Ivey School in Canada has a collection of Asia- Pacific cases. Books of case studies are now becoming available and there are often small cases included in standard business texts. Of course, not all cases are of the same standard as those available from big-name suppliers and careful selection is essential. Good case method teachers can write custom cases based on actual situations, or even use video cases.
A well-designed case-method course is a simulation of several years’ management experience, in a variety of roles, with advice from a room full of colleagues on every issue. It introduces participants to a wide variety of concepts and skills, applied in the context of real, messy management situations.
The case for the case method is still being explored, but when the top international business schools have been using it as the basis of their teaching programs for almost a century, perhaps it is time for HR professionals to start using this powerful approach for the recruitment and development of managers. It is a fast-track to effective management.