Thinking Differently About Business School Cases

Bridgman, Cummings, and McLaughlin in their 2016 paper about the case method tell us that the conventional history of the development of business case teaching is missing some vital elements. I think it is probably fair to say, as they do, that cases nowadays tend to be written largely from the perspective of management. There exists a management objective that the students are trying to deliver. This focus on a managerial perspective, the authors argue, is somewhat driven by a revision of the history.

They argue that Wallace Donham, a Harvard Business School Dean in the 1920s, saw the case method as being for far more than just presenting students with managerial problems to solve. Donham, they suggest, was relatively sympathetic to a union viewpoint and saw the case as a method of helping the students to think more broadly about their role in society. The intention was not to produce a decision maker who made the best decisions for the firm narrowly defined but one who considered a wider set of aims, that involved social aims.

As the Great Depression hit Donham’s thinking apparently went farther. “Donham now realized business schools should aspire to greater sources of legitimacy and seek to have a more profound impact on shaping the world around them at this time of crisis.” (Bridgman, Cummings, and McLaughlin, 2016, page 732).

Post world War II, when the crisis of the Great Depression had passed, the authors argue that this larger vision was mostly forgotten and erased from the conventional history. The view of the case as being almost exclusively about students solving managerial problems took stage as the conventional view. Now “… unions rarely appear in HBS case studies…”(Bridgman, Cummings, and McLaughlin, 2016, page 734). The authors argue that a fresh understanding of the history can aid in allowing for a wider perspective in modern cases.

It is an interesting question how much revision/forgetting of the past impacts our current thinking. I would certainly agree that business education could benefit from having cases with more diversity of challenges which encourage bigger thinking about the world’s problems.

Read: Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings, and Colm McLaughlin (2016) “Restating the Case: How revisiting the development of the case method can help us think differently about the future of the business school.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 15 (4), 724-741.