Are case studies over-rated?

I have heard the buzzword "case study" while researching MBA programs. I'm currently finishing an MS in Finance and was quite excited to hear that we are doing 3 case studies for the final class.

After my initial research, this is my understanding. Tell me if I'm off-track in my thinking.

  1. Find a company that made a strategic decision
  2. Look at the problem it was trying to solve
  3. Write about how the decision worked out
  4. Come away with a lesson on what a strategic leader should do based on #2 and #3.

Isn't this process heavily tainted by 20/20 hindsight and survivorship bias? I feel like they're asking me to play armchair general when experienced executives are making billion dollar decisions.

What if the company I'm studying used Strategy X and succeeded, but there were 5 other companies that did the exact same strategy with the exact same reasons and it didn't work out? How would that be reflected in the case analysis?

For the people who have academic/real life experience with this, I would greatly appreciate links to some works, even your own!

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Comments (4)

May 8, 2015 - 3:05pm

I don't think case study is to follow the decision of those who were facing the actual situation.

I think Case Study is to encourage critical thinking. You see the same questions that Execs see, and you form an opinion with rationales. Case studies also include collaborations, so someone else might pick up a flaw in your argument and vice versa. Thus you think more critically.

May 8, 2015 - 11:55pm

they are teaching you how to approach a problem. It's not about a "right answer"
I did 2 years of case studies at HBS. We learned how to look at a problem, not necessarily how to get it right. Sometimes companies get stuff right for the wrong reasons, and that's ok.

You want to learn to think about a problem in a structured way. That's why the case studies are so powerful.

Betsy Massar
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May 10, 2015 - 2:17pm

In my experiences with cases (both undergrad and MBA), you don't usually find out or spend time discussing what actually happened afterwards or what exact decision was made. It just gives you a chance to apply knowledge from your classes and experiences and come to a decision, that you then discuss with classmates and the professor. You get to learn from other points of view.

For the second part of you question, the cases are selected by the professor to demonstrate something specifically. It's not about whether that decision or strategy may have been tried by others to no success; they want you to go through a process that's going to lead to the best decision in a way that can be replicate. You win some and you lose some due to outside factors, but as long as you make the best possible decision with information that you have then you'll be alright.

For example, its really hard to do cases from companies in the 80s, knowing in hindsight what's going to happen with globalization and the internet. It feels weird to recommend accelerated retail store expansions or investing in domestic manufacturing.....but that was the right decision back then. A lot of companies did those things and failed, but you can't foresee revolution, and you aren't trying to.

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