A business case study is a narrative describing a problem, challenge, or opportunity in an organization that can be used to illustrate broader issues and generate discussion. For nearly a century, case studies have been a vital learning tool in business schools around the world and central to how many MBA (master of business administration) programs prepare managers to analyze and take action on real-world business situations. Moreover, corporate reputation research has advanced based on numerous case studies in the field. Case studies can help students develop the intellectual and analytic skills to solve problems that they have not yet encountered. This entry covers the characteristics of a business case, a description of the different types of cases, and the steps in the case-writing process.
The Characteristics of a Business Case
Case studies describe a business problem in enough detail for readers to understand its nature and scope. They attempt to explain events as accurately and completely as possible and incorporate as many viewpoints as feasible. Case studies differ from case histories, which summarize events and focus on managerial solutions. By describing how the company addressed a problem, historical summaries often constrict the wide-ranging imagination that case studies seek to stimulate. Case studies do not offer solutions to the problems depicted and do not seek to identify heroes and villains. Rather, they serve as a jumping-off point for discussion and learning.
Business cases are learning tools that provide opportunities to explore issues not easily addressed by deduction or memorization. They are not well suited for training in which students are asked to memorize specific answers to questions. Instead, they stimulate analytic problem solving and critical thinking, promoting learning in situations that involve uncertainty and a variety of potential outcomes.
Types of Cases
There are three basic types of case studies: (1) field cases, (2) library cases (or public record cases), and (3) armchair cases.
Field cases involve the cooperation of managers who experienced the events discussed in the case. The writer extensively interviews people, who are often identified by name in the narrative. The information contained in these cases is often known only to insiders in a business. Business records and databases can provide background and context for the events, and accounts in the business press may help establish key facts. Often, however, the only way for a writer to ascertain exactly what happened is with the active cooperation of the company: It takes in-depth interviews with insiders to discover the sequence of events, what was said to whom, what each manager knew at the time, and what options were available.
Field cases are the most in-depth type of case study, but the writer faces a dilemma. What does a company gain by granting access to its records and employees? Is it trying to make managers look good after the fact—attempting public relations after a crisis? Often, to gain access, a writer must have a relationship with the owners or managers and a reputation for fair and unbiased reporting. Field cases have the disadvantage that they are hard to modify after publication and may soon become dated.
Library cases involve no special access to the businesses involved and no interview material or direct quotes unavailable elsewhere. They usually include no figures, data, or information that are not part of the public record. Understandably, after a major failure—a lost opportunity, turning down the wrong path, or failing to act when they should—companies are reluctant to give access to their employees or their records. If a company has committed a crime or endangered the public welfare, it may do all it can to cover its tracks—a challenge facing business reporters every day.
Despite this, writers of library cases have access to a wealth of information. In addition to stories from broadcast, print, and online news organizations, writers can obtain a variety of government documents, particularly for publicly held firms. Especially helpful are annual filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, such as Forms 10-Q and 10-K, as well as Form 8-K, a public disclosure of a material event. Other relevant documents may be in the public record if a company has declared an intention to acquire another, is sued in court, or seeks to launch an initial public offering or float a bond issue. Case writers can usually rely on the accuracy of such records, as the penalties for falsification can include heavy fines or imprisonment.
Armchair cases are fictional descriptions of nonexistent companies and events that resemble authentic cases, but without the wealth of detail and complexity of real events. They are useful for introducing basic concepts or stimulating a discussion about critical issues facing businesses. Writers create armchair cases when denied access to the employees and records of real businesses or when they want to reduce complex events to a series of simple decision opportunities. As the companies and personnel involved are fictional, armchair cases have the advantage of being easily modified and updated without seeking external permission.
Steps in the Case-Writing Process
A writer begins a case study by selecting a topic of interest both to the author and to the prospective audience. A case study—no matter how well researched, organized, and expressed—that interests only a few people is unlikely to reach a wide audience.
Selecting a Subject
Choosing a topic to write about requires understanding the audience and its interests; its level of intellectual and professional skills; its knowledge of the processes, structures, and organizations that may be discussed; and its understanding of the vocabulary of the relevant profession or industry. Defining important terms, explaining concepts, and giving examples can help the audience understand the issues discussed in a case.
The writer of the case study also needs to have a sense of the issues, the key players, and which sources would be most useful to consult. He or she must have access to accurate, reliable, and current information about the events to be described, and informed sources to interview. It also helps if the events are not more than five years old.
Beginning the Research Process
After choosing a topic, preliminary research is needed to ensure that the topic is viable. This can include reviewing online databases such as Dow Jones Interactive or NYTimes.com, broadcast websites such as CNN.com or MSNBC.com, or the sites of other news-gathering sources such as the Associated Press and Reuters. Talking to low-ranking personnel who have some knowledge of the topic may also be helpful.
The writer of the case study must determine the following:
- Who is making the key decisions in the case
- Whether the narrative should proceed chronologically or begin at a more recent point in time, with earlier events then described later in the narrative
- The type and level of detail to be included in the story and which details are necessary for readers to understand the issues at hand
The next step in the research process is making lists to be included in a teaching note, which details how an instructor can use the case study with students. These lists can include the following:
- A timeline identifying key events in chronological order, which can help the writer and readers keep track of the people, issues, and events involved
- The names and roles of key players in the story and details that will help readers understand who the players are, their background, and why they are important (an alphabetical list of names may be helpful early in the writing process)
- Critical issues in the case ordered by rank of importance to the primary decision maker (this can be useful in a teaching note, although the writer should not directly reveal these to the readers of the case study—the list can include issues the executive or manager had to consider, ranked from most to least important, with a brief explanation of why each was important)
Creating a Spreadsheet
A two-axis matrix or text-based spreadsheet can help in tracking the details of a case study. Key events as reported in the news media or documented in interviews can be listed along the x-axis (vertical) and the source for each of these along the y-axis (horizontal). This can help the writer keep track of where each item came from and how many sources reported it; facts reported by several sources are generally more reliable. If the writer does use information from a single source, he or she should specify this in the narrative and, if possible, identify the source in the text.
Division of Labor
When working with a team, the lead writer can assign responsibility for various tasks:
- Gathering financial data on the company or companies
- Researching the history of the companies and people involved
- Saving images useful for a presentation
- Saving videos from news programs if ongoing events or breaking news are involved
- Finding streaming videos of press conferences, interviews, ads, or other material useful in framing a discussion of the case
- Scheduling interviews with key figures
Beginning to Write the Case Study
The lead writer may delegate different tasks to different team members, but one person must be responsible for integrating and revising the final product so that the writing style is consistent. The lead author must ensure that for everything included in the case there is at least one reliable source. It is better to insert footnotes or endnotes as the writing proceeds to avoid the confusion and potential for error that result from inserting the source of information later in the process. Successful case writers scrupulously document everything: They make photocopies and keep detailed notes, copying down dates and times; page, volume, and edition numbers; and anything else that shows where the supporting information came from. They avoid ever creating confusion about who said what or about the source of a fact important to a case.
Preparing the First Draft
It is important to begin the case study with a way of bringing readers into the story, whether that is an anecdote, quote, or revealing fact. The first portion of the narrative should give an overview of the company and its industry, including the company’s history, the products or services it produces, the annual revenues it generates, and the size of the company’s employee base and market share. Then the key players in the case, along with various role players and decision makers, are introduced. The sequence of events should be clear, and readers should develop an understanding of who is responsible for the decisions they will be asked to think about at the end of the case study.
In producing the first draft, careful case writers do the following:
- Explain what happened, when, and how in plain English
- Identify all relevant assumptions
- Indicate their sources in the text
- Avoid discussing conclusions, causal factors, or solutions
- Be specific and quantify where possible
- Use direct quotes, clearly identifying those quoted
- Identify issues that are poorly understood and questions that the writer cannot answer (writers often save those issues for executive or managerial interviews they hope to schedule later)
Case studies should rely on multiple sources; a single source could have a political slant or a grudge that skews the source’s information, or simply be mistaken about the facts. It is important to consult as many sources as possible and to seek interviews not just with senior executives but with frontline supervisors and hourly workers. In the case of certain sources who are reluctant to talk otherwise, case writers may be able to obtain their cooperation by offering to let them review an early draft of the case study and suggest changes.
Case writers also should talk to a variety of stakeholders, including customers, suppliers, shareholders, community and civic officials, regulatory agency officials, and competitors. The people living in the neighborhood or others affected by the events of the case also can be useful sources of information for the case study.
If the case has been covered by the news media, it is important to check a variety of news sources. Journalists who covered a story can also be good sources of information and sometimes will make themselves available for interviews.
Preparing a Second Draft
Prior to preparing the final draft for publication, the case writer or writing team will develop a second draft and read it for storyline flow as well as for grammar and syntax, seeking to make it lively, tightly written, cogent, and, above all, accurate.
The team may consider diagrams, maps, or other visual materials to help explain the story to the reader. Permission may be required to use a graphic obtained from another source, such as a stock chart downloaded from Yahoo! Finance or CNN.com. News organizations often let case writers use their work for free if the source is acknowledged. Some publications, especially print magazines, will ask for royalties for the privilege of reprinting large portions of their work; writers must then decide whether they want to pay these fees.
Preparing a Teaching Note
The teaching note explains what the case is about, details the issues and options in the case, and gives a detailed plan for how an instructor might lead a discussion of the case. A comprehensive teaching note includes the purpose of the case study, a clear statement of the central business problem in the case, a forecast of the most desirable outcome, the critical issues in the case in rank order, and a list of stakeholders and what is at stake for each. In addition, it provides possible solutions, a plan for implementing and communicating the optimal solution, a timeline of events, discussion questions, and definitions for specialized or unusual terms as well as unfamiliar issues or concepts.
The teaching note may reveal what actually happened in the case, although this information would not be included in the case itself. In complex cases, the teaching note may include financial data, such as balance sheets, profit-and-loss statements, or cash statements. Permission is required to use these documents unless they are public records as part of annual reports or Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Preparing Visual Support
Case writers should think visually when preparing their ideas for the screen and include images that help convey their message, such as photos of key players or company officials and other images of visual interest. Presentation slide background templates should be clean and uncluttered. Animation is best kept to a minimum and sound effects avoided, except under unusual circumstances. Options include hyperlinks, streaming video, and television news clips. Writers may capture broadcast news programs in digital form for classroom use, as long as the use is brief and not for profit.
Since 2002, the Arthur W. Page Society has conducted the Case-Writing Competition in Corporate Communication annually for students enrolled in business schools and schools of journalism and communication. The competition provides an opportunity for communication professors to showcase their students’ writing talents in competition with case-writing teams from across the United States and more than a dozen other nations.
Several universities and publishers offer collections of business case studies, including those focusing on reputation management. These are available to instructors looking for authentic material suitable for classroom discussion as well as for student writing and speaking assignments. The oldest and most complete collection is managed by the Eugene D. Fanning Center for Business Communication at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. The online collection contains more than 250 case studies, all searchable by corporate name, communication issue (crisis management, employee communication, investor relations, image and identity, reputation management, public affairs, etc.), and date of publication.
The Fanning Center website offers a 50- to 75-word abstract for each case in the collection, as well as a sample “Do not copy” version of each case at no charge. Cases are available for purchase at a nominal charge per student. Teaching notes and presentation slide decks are available to qualified faculty at no charge.
Experts, practitioners, and students of corporate reputation management are in agreement that their discipline is organized by values and driven by the scientific principles of behavioral science and cognitive psychology. As such, mastery of reputation management is unlikely to be the product of training, checklists, and memorization but rather of critical thinking, active discussion, and thoughtful writing about business organizations and their leadership, management, processes, and stakeholders. Empirical evidence from the field indicates that important lessons for analyzing and solving future reputational challenges can be derived from careful study of the issues, problems, crises, and opportunities faced by businesses of all sorts.
Case studies can be an important tool in that process. Although history never repeats itself precisely, examining how one management team faced a business problem is often helpful. While it is possible for managers and students of business to misread the lessons of history, important parallels, conclusions, and cautionary lessons almost always arise from a case discussion. At the very least, such cases are the principal springboard for the development of rigorous critical thinking skills, essential to a manager’s success in business.
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