We Said, They Said

“We Said, They Said” is a monthly feature in which Harvard and Wharton MBA students take opposing positions on a topic relevant to both schools. The views expressed are those of the writers only and are not meant to reflect the general views of either student body.

Point Counterpoint

The case method of classroom instruction is favored at HBS as the optimal way of preparing MBA students for their careers. Wharton MBA classes mix cases with other teaching methods such as pure lecture, problem sets, etc. In this edition, an HBS team argues the advantages of the case method for MBAs, while the Wharton team promotes other instruction methods.

Point 1 – Pro Case Method by Michael Belkin (OB)

 Before coming to HBS, I thought the prospect of teaching accounting or finance through case study was a little absurd.  Surely this convention was due to HBS’s unwavering (though misguided) adherence to the beloved case study method it pioneered over a century ago.

Before matriculating, students either complete a series of 40+ hour tutorials on accounting, finance and quantitative analysis (for those with business backgrounds) or go through a two-week analytics boot camp (for those without). It’s difficult to emphasize the intensity of these experiences; the accounting tutorial alone is essentially two semesters of self-guided study.

Point being, HBS expects its students to thoroughly understand business fundamentals before they even step foot in the room, as will their eventual Boards of Directors.  Class time isn’t wasted explaining debits and credits, it’s spent developing a fundamental and holistic understanding of the challenges managers face.

Executives aren’t presented with straight-forward problems.  The true test of one’s business acumen is her ability to make the right decision in novel and ambiguous situations.  Leaders develop this skill by repeatedly testing their intuition in real-world experiences and learning from successes and failures.  It’s very much an introspective process that requires a high degree of self-awareness and principle-based understanding, not textbook knowledge.

Undoubtedly you can learn more detail about accounting through lecture, but when you’re the CEO of a airline and your industry has just started rewarding miles to customers (Final Exam 2011), digging through old problem sets or textbooks isn’t going to help you understand how the industry will interpret this new class of liability and the impact this line item has on every aspect of the company.

You can read articles all day, but you really only know how you’re going to interpret and react to a new situation if you were forced to act with consequence to a similar situation in the past.  Case studies not only provide students with a vast repertoire of notably difficult business situations, but HBS’s extreme pedagogical emphasis on quality of classroom discussion (50% of the grade) forces students to form strong opinions and succinctly but persuasively present their reasoning.  Regular cold-calls train students to be active in the conversation, ready to jump in with something insightful at any point.

Such an experience is more valuable than listening to lectures or reading books—something one can do at any point in a career.

Point 2 – Pro Mixed Method by Anjali Kulkarni & Lisa Chen (Wharton 2012)

 We are the future business leaders of world. In less than a year, we will enter the upper echelons of the workforce, earning our salaries on the assumption that we are natural-born managers equipped with just the right mix of skills. Strapped with our own P&L’s, we will have to make crucial decisions about hiring and firing, market entry, and competitive response, among myriad others. The real world scenarios that cases present broaden our knowledge of business problems, but used in isolation, they have real potential to create misguided case-solvers rather than informed and astute decision-makers, and here’s why:

Context matters. A lot.

No two companies are alike. Each has distinct characteristics –industry, leadership, competitive landscape– that make every decision and its outcomes unique. Danger lies in students’ inclination to interpret a case’s takeaways as universally applicable to companies with similar profiles or to those operating in a similar environment. A mix of case and lecture method mitigates this risk and ensures that students understand the gravity of the context of the specific business problems they are solving.

In the real world, you don’t always know what you don’t know.

Cases are peppered with insights that leaders likely discovered in hindsight after trial-and-error, insights that student readers take as givens. As leaders in a dynamic business environment, we will not have such clear visibility into the “known unknowns” when we make strategic or operational decisions. It is at these critical inflection points that we will draw on the theoretical and practical frameworks and analytical tools from class lectures to determine what information is missing and how to factor it in.

Good case-solving does not equate to good problem-solving.

Every case begins with the CEO gazing out of the window contemplating her company’s latest conundrum. Every case includes innovative human resource decisions that have a direct impact on the bottom line or wildly tyrannical ones that imperil the company’s future. After case #3, patterns emerge, and by case #54, you know exactly where the storyline is going and what information to glean without exercising the slightest bit of critical thinking. A viable alternative to this is the SABRE market simulation, in which we make real-time decisions about product planning, sales force deployment, and budget allocation.

Cases have an important place in business education, but a mixed method ensures rich experiential learning which prepares us to make astute decisions in the face of ever-evolving business dynamics.

September 29, 2011
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