The Harvard Business Case Study Methodology In Business

“Love and marriage,” says old blue eyes himself, Mr. Frank Sinatra, “Go together like a horse and carriage.”   This idealised pairing might be said to be relevant for Harvard Business School and the Case Study Method.

HBS was created in 1908 and established its case study method in the 1920s. Today, this teaching method is as close to business school orthodoxy as you can possible get. There are approximately 14 000 business schools in the world and you would be hard pressed to find one that did not uses cases to teach business. But why did HBS start teaching this way and how many cases does it sell each year? 

The Dashman Company case opens today’s classes.

9, 764, 000! That is how many cases Harvard Business School sold in 2011. Not quite 10 million but not bad all the same. Trends suggest that this has been increasing by about 7-8% per year which means that next year cases sold will go past the magic 10 million figure.

Harvard claims that 80% of the courses sold through out the world are written by Harvard faculty though contrary to popular belief Harvard Business School did not invent the case study method. In fact, it was borrowed from Harvard Law School that had been using the method for some time. In was in the 1920s that the business school’s second Dean, Wallace B. Donham realised how popular these could be and encouraged the production and the use of these for the students. This was one of the major factors that contributed to the popularity of HBS whose enrolment numbers quickly expanded to some 500 per year (from the original 57 in 1908.)

Dean Donham and the creation of the Case Method at Harvard Business School

Under Dean Donham leadership, 18 900 cases were written between 1920 and 1947. That’s a staggering 700 per year or 58 per month (assuming no time for vacation)! His idea behind the creation of case studies was to produce a database in HBS’s Baker Library where companies could come and consult previous cases to find solutions to their business problems. Even if it didn’t quite work out like that the idea was becoming hugely popular and was rapidly adopted by other business schools. Today, Harvard faculty still produce over 350 cases per year and it is clear that a major part of the school’s activity. Given that the average case costs about $5-6, Harvard Publishing would have a revenue of close to $50 million dollars just for the sale of its cases (some schools negotiate discount purchases). The vast majority of business schools across the world would be happy with such revenue for their entire business activity.

The Case Study Method

Click to access more AMP books.The Case Method

Most business students will be familiar with how it works. A situation in a company is described, students usually read alone and try to analyse the problem, then work in groups and then take to case to class for a general discussion. The professor will usually cold call someone from the class to describe the situation. The problems and the potential solution will then be discussed. The mistake often made by undergraduates is that they wish to have ‘one right answer.’ Business people with a little more experience understand that life is rarely that simple. In fact, everyone agrees that it is not really the answer as such that is important. Rather it is the methodology of confronting different ideas with a diverse group of people.

Any professor will tell you that teaching a case is far more difficult that a standard lecture. It involves a good deal of interaction with the class and the prudent scholar will be aware that he will have to know the case inside out because he is facing an entire group that has studied it in detail. Paul R. Lawrence suggested that good cases bring a “chunk” of reality into the classroom and gives students the possibility to express themselves about complex situations.

In 2006, William J. Bruns Jr. wrote an excellent case entitled “Why I Use the Case Study Method to Teach Accounting.” He concludes that the main reasons to use cases in class is that they allow different students to learn different things and that they link practice with real life.

AMP and the Case Method

Advanced Management Program participants are greeted with a present of about 100 cases when they arrive at the school. Just to get them started! This includes a case that was written in 1942 and coincidently written at the very same time that the Advanced Management Program was created under the name of the War Management Program. Despite the case’s age, the issues addressed are still highly relevant today.

On a typical day participants will work through three to five case. One professor suggested that during the 8 weeks of the program there were about 2500 pages of case study to read. (Which doesn’t include the books and supplementary articles.) The shortest cases are just a couple of pages long, the longest go to about 25. However, anyone who has done a few cases will tell you that the length of the case and the time needed to complete it are not necessarily correlated.

That is an awful lot of work. The good news of course is that is if you are studying at Harvard and don’t like the case you are working on, then no worries, you’ll doing another one this afternoon…and then another in the evening.

I am very fortunate to begin this academic year. I will start as a student once again. For the next two months I will be studying Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School. In other words I am going back to school and being a full time student again.

It is the silence that is probably the most enchanting. On a mid-Friday morning in the centre of Downing College not a sound is to be heard. And yet just a few more from the same spots, double decker buses, taxis, and whole variety of cars, fight gently with pedestrians and cyclists to get along the busy Regent Street. This is Cambridge where one of the world’s oldest universities meets the world of technical innovation.

From the incorporation of Harvard Business School (HBS) in 1908, its founders wrestled with questions regarding the School’s institutional mission and social responsibilities intrinsic to the study of business within the university setting. It soon became apparent that the School, which occupied parts of far-flung buildings on the Harvard grounds in Cambridge, would require a larger, integrated site to sustain its growing student population.


Chris Christensen described case method teaching as "the art of managing uncertainty"—a process in which the instructor serves as "planner, host, moderator, devil's advocate, fellow-student, and judge," all in search of solutions to real-world problems and challenges.

Unlike lectures, case method classes unfold without a detailed script. Successful instructors simultaneously manage content and process, and they must prepare rigorously for both. Case method teachers learn to balance planning and spontaneity. In practice, they pursue opportunities and "teachable moments" that emerge throughout the discussion, and deftly guide students toward discovery and learning on multiple levels. The principles and techniques are developed, Christensen says, "through collaboration and cooperation with friends and colleagues, and through self-observation and reflection."

This section of the Christensen Center website explores the Case Method in Practice along the following dimensions:

Each subsection provides perspectives and guidance through a written overview, supplemented by video commentary from experienced case method instructors. Where relevant, links are included to downloadable documents produced by the Christensen Center or Harvard Business School Publishing. References for further reading are provided as well.

An additional subsection, entitled Resources, appears at the end. It combines references from throughout the Case Method in Practice section with additional information on published materials and websites that may be of interest to prospective, new, and experienced case method instructors.

Note: We would like to thank Harvard Business School Publishing for permission to incorporate the video clips that appear in the Case Method in Practice section of our website. The clips are drawn from video excerpts included in Participant-Centered Learning and the Case Method: A DVD Case Teaching Tool (HBSP, 2003).


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