Reimagining Cases for Digital Natives

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Tuesday, March 29, 2022
By Shreya Mishra, Ajoy Kumar Dey
Photo by iStock/Wavebreakmedia
The traditional case method has been an educational mainstay for 100 years. But it’s time to reimagine this pedagogical tool for the 21st century.
  • As digital natives, Generation Z students engage more fully with cases that are shorter, digitally enabled, and locally relevant.
  • To nurture responsible Gen Z leaders, educators should write and teach cases that address issues related to human sustainability, employee idiosyncrasies, and ethical decision making.
  • Educators can take advantage of Gen Z’s strengths in content creation by teaching them to write business cases themselves.

The year 2021 marked the centennial anniversary of the case method. It was 1921 when Harvard Business School, then the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, adopted this pedagogy, which has come to define business education.

Using the Socratic method to draw students into discussions, the case method simulates real-life business situations in the classroom. It enables students to explore business dilemmas, develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, understand theoretical concepts, and connect those concepts to business practice. The approach is still so effective today because it emphasizes participant-based learning and to some extent focuses on softer human elements of management. It teaches business as an art, not as pure science.

But since the turn of the 21st century, the world has changed dramatically—and so have learners. Today’s digital natives are not the same students that we had even ten years ago, let alone 100 years ago. We need to adopt a new kind of case method if we are to serve these learners and keep pace with the times.

Specifically, we need cases that take students beyond “knowing” and “doing,” to explore the idea of “being” in the world, as Srikant Datar, David Garvin, and Patrick Cullen noted more than a decade ago in their book Rethinking the MBA. We must develop and teach new kinds of cases that will help us develop the human-centric managers the world will need in the future.

The Changing Landscape for Cases

The need for a new type of case method is driven, in large part, by the attitudes of Generation Z. These young people are more mobile, self-reliant, digitally empowered, and committed to pursuing their dreams. They are aware of the catastrophic effects of climate change and political conflicts, and they want to make a difference.

Our Gen Z students don’t think twice about switching to different products or services or resigning from traditional jobs to start their own enterprises. They are not afraid of questioning their superiors about conventional codes of conduct, and they know their voices will be heard due to the reach of social media platforms.

In addition, those in Gen Z have spent their formative years in a world where COVID-19 has accelerated technological adoption for all. They have grown up during a time when the world has been irreversibly changing from a largely physical space to a hybrid reality. Moreover, they will be entering the workforce at a time when the world needs greater entrepreneurial innovation, expanded diversity of perspectives, and more sustainable business practices.

Gen Z has grown up during a time when the world has been irreversibly changing from a largely physical space to a hybrid reality.

It's no surprise that the outlook of Gen Z and the exponential changes happening globally are influencing the trajectory of the teaching and learning process. If these students are to develop the nuanced critical thinking and quick decision-making skills they need to become effective, responsible leaders, educators will need to adopt different pedagogical approaches.

Nine Elements for Relevant Cases

In the 21st century, people will need to cultivate skills in three primary areas:

  • Learning and innovation skills, which include the four C’s: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation.
  • Information, media, and technology skills, which encompass technological literacy.
  • Finally, life and career skills—such as flexibility, adaptability, initiative, self-direction, productivity, accountability, social and cross-cultural skills, and a sense of responsibility—which will equip students to navigate complex life and work environments.

As educators, we must write cases in ways that not only reflect students’ current attitudes, but also help them develop these critical skill sets. There are nine steps we can take to write and teach cases that will engage students and meet the future needs of business:

1. Consider local contexts. For too long, most cases have focused on businesses in the West and have featured largely white male protagonists. As a result, these cases often lack relevance to students in emerging economies. While it’s true that some topics—sustainability, governance, frugal innovation, social entrepreneurship, and mental health—might be of interest to business leaders worldwide, we must acknowledge that not all cases suit learners in all regions. Cases must highlight diverse protagonists and locally relevant strategies. The appropriateness of context is vital.

2. Bring ethics to the forefront. During the past decade, we have seen prominent incidents of ethical misconduct and corporate corruption. In many cases, the leaders committing these misdeeds had been trained at preeminent institutions using the traditional case method. For this reason, the cases we teach should ask students not only to explore answers to business dilemmas, but also to consider the ethics of the solutions, as well as their own values.

3. Address human sustainability. Educators have long ignored the aspect of mental health in business cases, even as incidents of anxiety, depression, and suicide rise among young people. Most cases taught today communicate the message that one needs to be brutally competitive to succeed; they leave negligible room for human emotions. But if we are to prepare students to manage challenging problems and build a more sustainable and inclusive world, we cannot ignore issues of mental health.

4. Include idiosyncrasies. As the workforce grows more diverse, students must learn how to tap the power of inclusivity to run and grow their businesses. In addition, more digital natives are opening up about their own idiosyncrasies and intersectional identities. We can use the case method to teach why it is important for leaders to accept their employees’ idiosyncrasies.

5. Choose appropriate formats. Faculty increasingly are finding that digital natives, who are used to short-form content online, might not have the patience to read 40-page cases. In response to this trend, we have seen a rise in shorter compact cases and “caselets” that succinctly explain the business problem at hand. In addition to engaging students with shorter cases, we also should consider presenting cases in comic and video formats. Such visual representations would not just capture the attention of students. They also would allow students to better visualize the protagonists, which could reduce any implicit biases students might have when only reading cases in print.

6. Adapt to digital pedagogy. Faculty today, many of whom belong to Generation X, can at best be called “digital immigrants teaching digital natives.” There is a gap between digital immigrants, who are sometimes leery of new technologies, and digital natives, who often learn new technological platforms with ease. It is imperative that business schools provide faculty with additional technological support and bring them up to speed using digital tools, from breakout rooms and online polling to virtual reality/augmented reality and adaptive learning.

7. Turn students into case writers. Many digital natives are talented networkers and content creators. Educators can tap these strengths by teaching young students to write cases themselves that have practical implications in the business world. Students will not only relate more easily to cases they create, but also develop in-depth knowledge about business problems—which in turn will help them become better leaders.

It is imperative that business schools provide faculty with additional technological support and bring them up to speed using digital tools, from breakout rooms to adaptive learning.

8. Remember that not all students are privileged. Educators should not forget that some students do not have the same access to technology as their privileged counterparts. For these students, conventionally delivered case methods are still relevant as long as they are set in local contexts and explore issues such as entrepreneurship, ethics, mental health, sustainability, and inclusivity.

9. Address the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As we cope with the changes brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we must reimagine cases with 21st-century cultural challenges in mind. Today’s cases should connect the wealthy with the poor; examine the impact of skill and labor immigration; highlight local solutions for the production and consumption of resources; present issues related to local governance; and explore the distribution of quality health and education services. They also should tackle challenges related to providing cost-effective sustainable energy, managing negative effects of the internet and the media, promoting democracy, mitigating climate change, ending inequality, ensuring privacy, embracing diversity, and managing population growth.

These issues all represent crises that are knocking at our door, demanding remedial or preventative solutions. For that reason, they should top the list of future case study topics.

Digitally Rich, Morally Relevant

We recently edited a book called Case Method for Digital Natives: Teaching and Research, which was published during the 100th anniversary year of the case method. As it addresses the issues raised above, the book also makes the point that while reimagining the case method is a challenge, it's not necessarily a bad challenge to have. Yes, we must cut the umbilical cord that connects us to the case method’s historical origins. But in doing so, we will open ourselves to new ways of teaching.

If we reorient our case content to reflect current attitudes and global challenges, we might prolong the relevance of traditional cases for a few more years. But to truly engage digital natives, our cases will also need to incorporate more dynamic and digitally enriched content; and they will need to emphasize the empathy, compassion, ethical behavior, and moral values of strong leaders.  

In their 2005 book The Jobs Revolution, Steve Gunderson, Roberts Jones, and Kathryn Scanland quote Richard Riley, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President Bill Clinton. According to the authors, in the late 1990s, Riley said, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist … using technologies that haven’t been invented … in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

That statement is even truer today than it was two decades ago. By adopting a new and improved case method, we will be able to teach a new generation of decision makers who are responsible, ethical, future agile, and ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

Shreya Mishra
Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources, Birla Institute of Management Technology
Ajoy Kumar Dey
Professor and Chairperson of the Center for Management Case Development, Birla Institute of Management Technology
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