Bridging theory and practice in B-schools

The method of teaching through a case study approach began at Harvard Business School. Stock Photo

Management students sitting in a class for Business Communication are confronted by the dilemma of the American Brew Company – Coors. Known to contain water from the Rocky Mountains, does the “Rocky Mountain King” have the competency to become an internationally well-known brand? 

The discussion of this case runs for three hours with two professors facilitating the discussion. The communications professor has invited Dr Suresh Mony, a distinguished practitioner and academician. With his strong expertise in the area of Strategy and Finance, Dr Mony provides insights into the technique of ‘Case Reading’ and ‘Case Analysis’ during this session.

100 years of case teaching

“What was Adolf Coor’s strategy till the mid-70s?” “Critically examine the strategy post-1975 and its impact on their performance,” he asks participants of the postgraduate programme. The participants pour through their annotated writings as they go through the 21-page case, which was procured from the Harvard website and shared with participants two days before the session.   

The method of teaching through a case study approach began at Harvard Business School as Wallace B Donham, the second dean of the Harvard Business School, was instrumental in introducing and encouraging this form of pedagogy in management curriculum. In two years, we will be celebrating 100 years of case teaching in Business Schools across the world. The method of teaching through cases has spilt into secondary and high school curriculums too. Students study short cases that help them bridge the gap between theory and practice.

The case method of teaching is an interesting pedagogical tool that allows for participative learning. The students and the teacher have important roles to play in this method of learning. Dean Donham, who graduated from Harvard Law School, writes in 1922 in the first issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR), “Unless we admit that rules of thumb, the limited experience of the executives in each individual business, and the general sentiment of the street, are the sole possible guides for executive decisions of major importance, it is pertinent to inquire how the representative practises of businessmen generally may be made available as a broader foundation for such decisions, and how a proper theory of business is to be obtained.”

While commemorating 90 years of case teaching, the editor-in-chief of HBR writes in his editorial, “Best practices in business don’t arise anecdotally but are the product of critical research.”

While the law is taught primarily through real-world cases, Dean Donham encouraged business executives to embrace the art of strategy, to marry empirical rigour with creative thinking.

“Case studies are essential in business school education because they provide valuable lessons about what other organisations have done. Usually, cases have a lot of early material and information, the processes the organisations went through and the associated outcomes. When I teach cases in my classes, it connects with students more than when you teach it theoretically, because they have real examples, real-life way of bringing to life theories, concepts that they study in class and so these cases are powerful in that case, especially when they are done well,” explains Ariel Avgar, Associate Professor, ILR School, Cornell University.

If decision-making is a skill that is meant to be taught to executives, how can we train them to decide?

“It was with this understanding that we organised a case teaching workshop for our faculty recently,” says A Vinay Kumar, finance professor and director at a business school in Bengaluru.

“Textbooks give us scenarios, which may be unrealistic. When management students get influenced by textbooks, we will end up training executives who will be reluctant to decide and take risks in the real world. The case method of teaching involves critical thinking, dealing with ambiguity, data and dilemmas. In a classroom, the professor must challenge notions and students should know that the next 90 minutes are not going to be easy. They have to risk their opinions, judgements and walk out of the class with dissatisfaction or more thoughts brought on by a professor who will unseat their thinking. In this way, we must engage students through a perennial journey of discovery and seeking,” adds Vinay Kumar.

Understanding concepts

“There are times when I don’t teach the concepts and I have them emerge organically through the case study and I think that is powerful. The traditional process is to let the concepts develop organically. This is the norm most of the time. Often I like to give a theoretical overview and then use the case to demonstrate. So there are two ways to work. For the undergraduate level, the case allows them to live vicariously through that. Hence, it is more important for these students. Postgraduate students can connect significantly to the case as they come with work experience,” says Avgar. 

Meanwhile, in the class in session, Dr Mony illustrates the whiteboard with concepts students have learned and looks for relationships and linkages.

“Was it detrimental for Coors to keep their production unit in Colorado?” The students are engaged in a lively discussion. They are living in the shoes of the protagonist of the case. These sessions can be used as ice-breakers, for setting examples, to understand real-world challenges, while giving scope for localised learning and are meant to unravel complexities. Students are learning the ‘art of management’ on how to unravel the complexities and this is relevant in today’s volatility.

“Good cases have dilemma’s and urge the reader to make a decision. They may present contrarian views and have scope for comparing and contrasting,” explains Dr Mony.  

(The writer is an academic and practitioner of corporate communication)

 

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