Teaching With Cases: Lessons From a Harvard Business Professor

David Garvin, C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, explains why teaching the case method to business students has endured in business education for so many years.


September 2016

Dan LeClair: [00:06] Tell me more about the enduring strengths of cases. Why is it something that has stuck with Harvard Business School over the years?

David Garvin: [00:19] The new technologies lead to what is often called the flipped classroom; lectures and readings done outside the class. Inside the class, you have conversation and discussion. Harvard Business School has been practicing the flipped classroom for 90 to 100 years.

[00:41] That's what the case method really does. You provide technical background, you provide case readings, and then it's a conversation and discussion. Many of the new trends, the so called new trends, are actually embodied in the case method and have been since the time it was developed.

[01:03] Why is it so enduring? Because of what it teaches beyond subject matter. It teaches you to think, it teaches you to persuade, it teaches you to listen and respond, and it gives you vicarious experiences. Hard to get the reality in all cases, but this is awfully close.

[01:32] If you've never experienced an analytical culture, talking about the Google case, having the engineers in the room talk about what they value, really does give you a taste for the reality.

[01:49] It needs to be coupled with immersion experiences, field based experiences, which we've now done in our curriculum. It's a very good second place solution for getting that reality in front of students.

LeClair: [02:02] What does the future hold for cases? What's happening at the cutting edge of both case development and teaching with cases that you think characterizes the future of cases?

Garvin: [02:20] I'd say cases have a number of features that are emerging and changing as we speak. One feature is the use of technology and the ability of technology to create very, very different experiences.

[02:32] A concrete example, several of my colleagues have produced a rich multi media case on NASA and in particular on the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. What's extraordinary about the multi media aspect, is that there are six different roles or individuals who are really present during that time.

[02:56] The leader of the mission control team, an engineer in the bowels of the organization, a contractor. In the multi media preparation, people are given passwords representing their role and they get different information. Just like the real world.

[03:20] The low level engineer has one set of perspectives, one set of data. The high level manager has quite different information and data. Then we do a role play, in class and it comes out that people are having very, very different perspectives because they experienced very, very different information.

[03:41] That's something we can do with technology and it vastly enriches the classroom. That's one piece of where the future of cases lies. The second piece, which we're still trying to understand, is live cases. Cases where we have an unfolding story line and we capture it in real time.

[04:08] I'll give you one technological example and one non technological example. The technological example was I actually convinced a newly minted hospital CEO, who was trying to turn around a hospital that was losing $50 million a year, to do video tape interviews with me in real time, starting two weeks after he took the job.

[04:34] We did this for six months, and we met every two to four weeks where we did a two hour taping of what happened last, what are things today, how do they look in the future. We added memos, emails, certain public information from newspapers and then what you see is a live case. It wasn't retrospective; all the observations were done in real time.

[05:08] At a number of schools, people are experimenting with live cases, without the technology as an intermediary, where start ups for example, interact with students on a weekly basis. Here's what we're wrestling with today and then the instructor works with the students to get their reactions.

[05:30] There's an enormous potential there, for getting students immersed in the realities of organizational life.