Preparing an Effective Case Analysis

Using The Case Method

The case method is based on a philosophy that combines knowledge acquisition with significant student involvement. In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, this philosophy "rejects the doctrine that students had first learned passively, and then, having learned should apply knowledge."1 The case method, instead, is based on principles elaborated by John Dewey:

Only by wrestling with the conditions of this problem at hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does [the student] think.... If he cannot devise his own solution (not, of course, in isolation, but in correspondence with the teacher and other pupils) and find his own way out he will not learn, not even if he can recite some correct answer with a hundred percent accuracy.3
The case method brings reality into the classroom. When developed and presented effectively, with rich and interesting detail, cases keep conceptual discussions grounded in reality. Experience shows that simple fictional accounts of situations and collections of actual organizational data and articles from public sources are not as effective for learning as are fully developed cases. A comprehensive case presents you with a partial clinical study of a real-life situation that faced practicing managers. A case presented in narrative form provides motivation for involvement with and analysis of a specific situation. By framing alternative strategic actions and by confronting the complexity and ambiguity of the practical world, case analysis provides extraordinary power for your involvement with a personal learning experience. Some of the potential consequences of using the case method are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1     Consequences of Student Involvement with the Case Method
1. Case analysis requires students to practice important managerial skills--diagnosing, making decisions, observing, listening, and persuading--while preparing for a case discussion.
2. Cases require students to relate analysis and action, to develop realistic and concrete actions despite the complexity and partial knowledge characterizing the situation being studied.
3. Students must confront the intractability of reality--complete with absence of needed information, an imbalance between needs and available resources, and conflicts among competing objectives.
4. Students develop a general managerial point of view--where responsibility is sensitive to action in a diverse environmental context.

Source: C.C. Lundberg and C. Enz, 1993, A framework for student case preperation, Case Research Journal 13 (summer): 134.

As Table 1 suggests, the case method can help you develop your analytical and judgment skills. Case analysis also helps you learn how to ask the right questions-that is, the questions that focus on the core strategic issues included within a case. Students aspiring to be managers can improve their ability to identify underlying problems, rather than focusing on superficial symptoms, through development of the skills required to ask probing, yet appropriate, questions. The particular set of cases your instructor chooses to assign the class can expose you to a wide variety of organizations and managerial situations. This approach vicariously broadens your experience base and provides insights into many types of managerial situations, tasks, and responsibilities. Such indirect experience can help you make a more informed career decision about the industry and managerial situation you believe will prove to be challenging and satisfying. Finally, experience in analyzing cases definitely enhances your problem-solving skills.

Furthermore, when your instructor requires oral and written presentations, your communication skills will be honed through use of the case method. Of course, these added skills depend on your preparation as well as your instructor's facilitation of learning. However, the primary responsibility for learning is yours. The quality of case discussion is generally acknowledged to require, at a minimum, a thorough mastery of case facts and some independent analysis of them. The case method therefore first requires that you read and think carefully about each case. Additional comments about the preparation you should complete to successfully discuss a case appear in the next section.


Student Preparation For Case Discussion

If you are inexperienced with the case method, you may need to alter your study habits. A lecture-oriented course may not require you to do intensive preparation for each class period. In such a course, you have the latitude to work through assigned readings and review lecture notes according to your own schedule. However, an assigned case requires significant and conscientious preparation before class. Without it, you will be unable to contribute meaningfully to in-class discussion. Therefore, careful reading and thinking about case facts, as well as reasoned analyses and the development of alternative solutions to case problems, are essential. Recommended alternatives should flow logically from core problems identified through study of the case. Table 2 shows a set of steps that can help you develop familiarity with a case, identify problems, and propose strategic actions that increase the probability that a firm will achieve strategic competitiveness and earn above-average returns.


Table 2     An Effective Case Analysis Process
Step 1: a. In general--determine who, what, how, where and when (the critical facts in a case).
Gaining Familiarity b. In detail--identify the places, persons, activities, and contexts of the situation.
c. Recognize the degree of certainty/uncertainty of acquired information.
Step 2: a. List all indicators (including stated "problems") that something is not as expected or as desired
Recognizing Symptoms b. Ensure that symptoms are not assumed to be the problem (symptoms should lead to identification of the problem).
Step 3 a. Identify critical statements by major parties (e.g., people, groups, the work unit, etc.).
Identifying goals b. List all goals of the major parties that exist or can be reasonably inferred.
Step 4 a. Decide which ideas, models, and theories seem useful.
Conducting the Analysis b. Apply these conceptual tools to the situation.
c. As new information is revealed, cycle back to substeps a and b.
Step 5 a. Identify predicaments (goal inconsistencies).
Making the Diagnosis b. Identify problems (descrepancies between goals and performance).
c. Prioritize predicaments/problems regarding timing, importance, etc.
Step 6 a. Specify and prioritize the criteria used to choose action alternatives.
Doing the Action Planning b. Discover or invent feasible action alternatives
c. Examine the probable consequences of action alternatives.
d. Select a course of action.
e. Design an implementation plan/schedule.
f. Create a plan for assessing the action to be implemented.

Source: C.C. Lundberg and C. Enz, 1993, A framework for student case preperation, Case Research Journal 13 (summer): 144.

Gaining Familiarity

The first step of an effective case analysis process calls for you to become familiar with the facts featured in the case and the focal firm's situation. Initially, you should become familiar with the focal firm's general situation (e.g., who, what, how, where, and when). Thorough familiarization demands appreciation of the nuances as well as the major issues in the case.

Gaining familiarity with a situation requires you to study several situational levels, including interactions between and among individuals within groups, business units, the corporate office, the local community, and the society at large. Recognizing relationships within and among levels facilitates a more thorough understanding of the specific case situation. It is also important that you evaluate information on a continuum of certainty. Information that is verifiable by several sources and judged along similar dimensions can be classified as a fact. Information representing someone's perceptual judgment of a particular situation is referred to as an inference. Information gleaned from a situation that is not verifiable is classified as speculation. Finally, information that is independent of verifiable sources and arises through individual or group discussion is an assumption. Obviously, case analysts and organizational decision makers prefer having access to facts over inferences, speculations, and assumptions.

Personal feelings, judgments, and opinions evolve when you are analyzing a case. It is important to be aware of your own feelings about the case and to evaluate the accuracy of perceived "facts" to ensure that the objectivity of your work is maximized.


Recognizing Symptoms

Recognition of symptoms is the second step of an effective case analysis process. A symptom is an indication that something is not as you or someone else thinks it should be. You may be tempted to correct the symptoms instead of searching for true problems. True problems are the conditions or situations requiring solution before an organization's, unit's, or individual's performance can improve. Identifying and listing symptoms early in the case analysis process tends to reduce the temptation to label symptoms as problems. The focus of your analysis should be on the actual causes of a problem, rather than on its symptoms. It is important therefore to remember that symptoms are indicators of problems; subsequent work facilitates discovery of critical causes of problems that your case recommendations must address.


Identifying Goals

The third step of effective case analysis calls for you to identify the goals of the major organizations, units, and/or individuals in a case. As appropriate, you should also identify each firm's strategic intent and strategic mission. Typically, these direction-setting statements (goals, strategic intents, and strategic missions) are derived from comments of the central characters in the organization, business unit, or top management team described in the case and/or from public documents (e.g., an annual report).

Completing this step successfully sometimes can be difficult. Nonetheless, the outcomes you attain from this step are essential to an effective case analysis because identifying goals, intent, and mission helps you to clarify the major problems featured in a case and to evaluate alternative solutions to those problems. Direction-setting statements are not always stated publicly or prepared in written format. When this occurs, you must infer goals from other available factual data and information.


Conducting the Analysis

The fourth step of effective case analysis is concerned with acquiring a systematic understanding of a situation. Occasionally cases are analyzed in a less-than-thorough manner. Such analyses may be a product of a busy schedule or the difficulty and complexity of the issues described in a particular case. Sometimes you will face pressures on your limited amounts of time and may believe that you can understand the situation described in a case with-out systematic analysis of all the facts. However, experience shows that familiarity with a case'sfacts is a necessary, but insufficient, step to the devel-opment of effective solutions-solutions that can enhance a firm's strategic competitiveness. In fact, a less-than-thorough analysis typically results in an emphasis on symptoms, rather than problems and their causes. To analyze a case effectively, you should be skeptical of quick or easy approaches and answers.

A systematic analysis helps you understand a situation and determine what can work and probably what will not work. Key linkages and underlying causal networks based on the history of the firm become apparent. In this way, you can separate causal networks from symptoms.

Also, because the quality of a case analysis depends on applying appropriate tools, it is important that you use the ideas, models, and theories that seem to be useful for evaluating and solving individual and unique situations. As you consider facts and symptoms, a useful theory may become apparent. Of course, having familiarity with conceptual models may be important in the effective analysis of a situation. Successful students and successful organizational strategists add to their intellectual tool kits on a continual basis.


Making the Diagnosis

The fifth step of effective case analysis-diagnosis-is the process of identifying and clarifying the roots of the problems by comparing goals to facts. In this step, it is useful to search for predicaments. Predicaments are situations in which goals do not fit with known facts. When you evaluate the actual performance of an organization, business unit, or individual, you may identify over- or under achievement (relative to established goals). Of course, single-problem situations are rare. Accordingly, you should recognize that the case situations you study probably will be complex in nature.

Effective diagnosis requires you to determine the problems affecting longer-term performance and those requiring immediate handling. Understanding these issues will aid your efforts to prioritize problems and predicaments, given available resources and existing constraints.


Doing the Action Planning

The final step of an effective case analysis process is called action planning. Action planning is the process of identifying appropriate alternative actions. Important in the action planning step is selection of the criteria you will use to evaluate the identified alternatives. You may derive these criteria from the analyses; typically, they are related to key strategic situations facing the focal organization. Furthermore, it is important that you prioritize these criteria to ensure a rational and effective evaluation of alternative courses of action.

Typically, managers "satisfice" when selecting courses of actions; that is, they find acceptable courses of action that meet most of the chosen evaluation criteria. A rule of thumb that has proved valuable to strategic decision makers is to select an alternative that leaves other plausible alternatives available if the one selected fails.

Once you have selected the best alternative, you must specify an implementation plan. Developing an implementation plan serves as a reality check on the feasibility of your alternatives. Thus, it is important that you give thoughtful consideration to all issues associated with the implementation of the selected alternatives.



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