Cinematic Scenarios and Comics: The Case Method in Context

Tuesday, June 13, 2017 at 12am

The case method is a hugely popular means of teaching MBA students and preparing them for the sort of strategic dilemmas they are likely to encounter when they graduate and ascend through the higher echelons of management. It’s important, therefore to fully understand and appreciate the concept before you enroll in a program that puts it to use.

“The case method helps students understand the importance of preparation, and helps develop analytical, critical thinking, active listening, decision making, communication and collaborative skills,” explains Debapratim Purkayastha, associate dean at ICFAI Business School (IBS) in Hyderabad, before adding that its gives MBA students, “a sense of what they will be confronted with in their future career.”

Business case scenarios – real and imagined

Reading the abstract of a business case (or case study) is often like reading a film’s plot synopsis on IMDb. ‘A young Italian MBA working for a Swiss multinational is sent to India to establish a subsidiary and implement the strategy he prepared at headquarters as a strategic planner’ reads the opening line to one business case abstract. The only thing it’s missing is some creative (and imaginary, we hasten to add) casting; ‘starring Luca Marinelli as the Italian MBA, Carla Juri as the Swiss multinational CEO and Ranbir Kapoor as the only person in India who can help save the day.’ 

The actual business case, ‘Silvio Napoli at Schindler India’, is from the Harvard Business School Case Collection and is one of Purkayastha’s all-time favorites. “I really enjoyed teaching this Harvard case,” he says, adding that, “it is written in a style that is very lucid and engaging.”

Purkayastha is a best-selling author of business case studies himself and has been recognized in awards for the format held each year by the Case Centre. “The idea for a case, or a ‘case trigger’, can come from anywhere. It can come from news, general reading, or prior knowledge or experience,” Purkayastha says, when I ask where he gets his inspiration from. “I came from the pharmaceutical industry, so some of my first cases were about pharmaceutical companies,” he adds.

Putting MBA students in a CEO’s shoes to illustrate strategic challenges

One of Purkayastha’s most recent business cases was cowritten with an ICFAI Business School colleague, Syeda Maseeha Qumer, and placed third in this year’s John Molson MBA International Case Writing Competition. It puts MBA students in the shoes of Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Air Group at the time of its acquisition of Virgin America. “The case is about the challenges faced by Alaska Air Group’s CEO as he looked at the prospects of whether to retain the highly distinctive Virgin America brand or absorb it into Alaska Airlines,” explains Purkayastha. “The case helps them [MBA students] understand the rationale behind the merger and its potential synergies, the challenges in post-merger integration, the importance of cultural compatibility in making mergers successful, and the importance of brand image and brand dilution in the aviation sector.”

Concerns over gender inequality and the longevity of case studies in a world of flux 

As popular as it is, the case method is not without its critics. For one, research has identified and outlined the lack of adequate female representation in the starring roles of business cases put before today’s MBA students, and tomorrow’s leaders. Once again, this draws certain parallels with the film industry and its struggle to ensure positive role models are available to people of both sexes.

Another point raised concerns itself with the longevity of individual case studies at a time when careers are often subject to a high degree of change. As industries evolve and adapt to new innovations rapidly, how can business school faculty members ensure that the business cases they write stay relevant for as long as possible?

“Most of the cases are bound to become redundant and go out of use,” Purkayastha says earnestly. “However, there are others that continue to be used even after decades. In fact, cases that are more than 10 years old make up more than 30% of the sales of cases every year. Does this mean that educators are using cases that are outdated and not in tune with today’s realities? Absolutely not. They continue to use these ‘classic’ cases as they continue to find them useful in driving the learning objectives. What’s important here is the underlying theories and concepts you teach along with a case, and these seldom change.”

Keeping it fresh: Comic book cases and a “thriving global case method community”

Away from the ‘classic’ cases, the need to keep things fresh is aided by the sheer number of new business cases produced around the world each year. “There is a thriving global case method community that is churning out contemporary cases throughout the year,” assures Purkayastha.

There are also Purkayastha’s comic book case studies – an example of how it’s possible to experiment within the structure of the case method. Written with Sid Ghosh, these cases aim to put a little visual stimulation into topics considered by many to be ‘dry’, or even boring. Purkayastha describes the two comic book cases as a, “fun way of engaging MBA students in learning issues related to policy and procedure management, compliance management and associated ethical issues.” The ICFAI Business School associate dean has also experimented with video cases and those that rely more on role playing, but says that the traditional format will continue to dominate in the foreseeable future. “The fact of the matter is that, even today, most of the cases used in MBA programs are the usual text-heavy ones. Not that I am complaining.”

Written by Tim Dhoul

Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications.
He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).

Originally posted on www.topmba

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