The CSUF Case Study Method

I can’t pretend to be an expert at MBA case studies.  In fact, my first case study answer two weeks ago was pretty disappointing – I couldn’t even muster up an answer to the professor’s question about Amazon.com.  What I found especially frustrating about that first case study was that I thought I was completely prepared for whatever the classroom discussion could go.  That was obviously wrong.

The professor had provided the class with a three step study process to prepare for first case study.  While most of his advice was valuable and I followed it exactly while studying the first case, I wasn’t as prepared as I wanted to be.  I’ve decided to share some of my limited insights (after only two case studies) into a case study method I now utilized based upon my experiences (so far).

Here are the three steps the professor recommended we follow when preparing for a case:

  • Short Cycle Process (15-20 minutes) – Skim the textbook chapter corresponding to the case study.  Read the first and last paragraphs of the case.  Review the case questions provided at the beginning and end of each chapter and those posted online.  Look over the charts, graphs and exhibits the provided in the case.  Take a break from reviewing the material.
  • Long Cycle Process (2-3 hours) – Read the assigned textbook chapter and the case in detail.  While reading the case, take notes in the margins and analyze the case material. While analyzing the case, apply key concepts from the chapter to the situation depicted in the case.  Identify any “noise” (unnecessary information) in the case placed there as a distraction – focus only on the information important to the case.
  • Small Group Discussions (20-30 minutes) – Use the time to bounce ideas off classmates (compare and contrast conclusions drawn about the case material).  Review difficult concepts in order to better understand them.  Discuss possible questions the professor could ask during the class discussion.

Having now worked through two case studies, I found most of the professor’s recommendations to be extremely helpful.  But not all of them adequately prepared me for the first case study, and I made adjustments before the following week’s class.  I was much happier with my participation on the second case, and will apply my additional study tips to future case studies:

  • 2-3 hours is not enough time to complete the Long Cycle Process.  If the chapter and case are long enough, it might potentially take two or more hours just to complete the first read-through.  I made the mistake of only spending the recommended amount of time reviewing the first case, and never felt adequately prepared.  I worked on the second case until I felt much more comfortable with the information and situation (about 4-5 hours), and that made a huge difference during the class discussion.
  • Write down the major concepts from the chapter.  I found that when I wrote down the key terms and major concepts from the textbook chapter corresponding to the case, I had an easier time remembering them during the discussion.  I was able to think a little about how each related to the case as I wrote them down, and apply some of those insights to the classroom debate.
  • Prepare a timeline.  The case studies may not always move in a linear fashion – some of the information presented jumps between different times periods and years.  I found that preparing a timeline helped me easily track major events covered within the case.  The professor often bounced between time periods, asking questions about a company’s strategies in 1972 and then later wanting to know why the firm made a certain acquisition in 1995.  Having a basic timeline of the case cuts down on the time I spend flipping through pages trying to find important information, and helps me quickly focus my mind and answer any questions the professor may ask me.
  • Bounce your ideas off someone outside the classroom.  I came across this gem on accident.  I was studying at my girlfriend’s house, and she was asking me questions about the case.  I found myself having to explain some of the concepts and material from the case to her, and I realized there were certain concepts and ideas from the case I had a hard time putting into words and talking about effectively.  This helped show me areas I needed to focus more of my energy on when preparing for class, and one of the questions my girlfriend asked me was very similar to one the professor asked in class!
  • There is no “right” answer.  Technically, the professor shared this piece of advice before our first case, but it didn’t resonate with me until after the second case study.  He told the class that the cases will not have a right or wrong answer – our role as students is to chose one side or the other of each argument and to demonstrate we can support that perspective with material from the textbook and case.  It seems to me, having now read a couple of these cases, that the information provided is purposefully ambiguous.  And by ambiguous I mean that one could argue for one side or another using the information provided, and probably make a solid case for either argument.  As a result, you cannot feel nervous or anxious about sharing your perspective during the discussion.  Just be confident in your research and supporting information, and share your ideas in the most persuasive way you can.

Now that I have a better understanding of the case studies, I know what preparation strategies were most effective for me.  If you have any insights or strategies you find useful when preparing for case studies, please share them in the comments section below.

Finally, here is an article I read this week that relates to this week blog post:

“What Makes a Master B-School Professor?”  This Fortune article talks about Yiorgos Allayannis, a professor at UVA’s Darden School of Business.  The article is part biography and part demonstration of what case studies are like at Darden.  Professor Allayannis is considered one of the top professors at Darden, and a respected professor throughout MBA programs.

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