Empowering Management Faculty With the Case Method

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Wednesday, October 5, 2022
By Ajoy Kumar Dey, Shreya Mishra
Photo by iStock/Makhbubakhon Ismatova
By adopting the case method process, faculty can discover new, more compelling research questions and amplify their theoretical contributions.
  • When choosing research questions to study, management faculty too often collect data to support the same conclusions as past studies and produce scholarship that adds little to the existing knowledge base.
  • Case studies provide an alternative approach, in which researchers must choose bounded contexts that allow them to refine or reject previously held assumptions, study relevant issues in new ways, and suggest immediate solutions.
  • By training faculty to adopt a case-based research process, business schools can help them overcome deeply ingrained research habits and improve the impact of their scholarship.

 

What is one of the biggest reasons that reviewers and editors of ranked research journals reject articles for publication? The articles fail to add to existing knowledge or make a clear theoretical contribution to the field. But scholars might enhance the power of their research if they narrowed their focus to study phenomena within the boundaries of a real-world context.

We have found that one way management faculty can ensure that their research contributes to existing knowledge is by adopting a case study approach, which forces them to select the context and boundaries of their research carefully. Once they take a deep dive into a bounded context—as any case study requires—they will find it easier to identify the current theoretical limits of their research focus. Then, they can push beyond those limits to generate new insights on any given topic, even topics that already have been extensively studied.

When faculty adopt the case study method in their research, they gain a deeper understanding of the phenomena they choose to explore. They not only increase their chances of publication, but also further enhance the contributions of their research. More important, they inspire other scholars to take their work further, which can potentially make an even greater impact on business practice.

Cases for Comparison

There are many examples that can illustrate how the case method can help faculty improve their research.

Let’s say, for instance, that a faculty member wants to study workplace bullying. This is an intensely studied topic, making it difficult for researchers to write studies that generate new knowledge. And if a study does not generate new knowledge, it will not qualify for publication.

Using the case study method, however, researchers must first select a boundary for study, such as neurodiversity. Next, they would choose a context in which to study the bullying of neurodiverse employees. Within this context, they are in the position to discover new coping strategies, updated definitions of bullying, and deeper insights into workplace bullying than what past research has highlighted. Their resulting study becomes far more interesting—and far more publishable.

Imagine, then, if other researchers conducted similar studies in different countries. How much new knowledge could be generated that policymakers and consultants could use to improve the experience of workers around the world?

Or perhaps researchers want to study another well-researched topic: women’s empowerment. They might choose a bounded context of study by focusing on the empowerment of women within a marginalized part of society, such as women who work as scavengers. Next, they could contextualize the topic by looking specifically at how these women are empowered when they gain employment in a firm engaged in the circular economy.

Now, the researcher has a topic that has been subject to fewer studies. Such a study is of greater interest to journals because it provides a deeper understanding of women’s empowerment.

Small and Solution-Focused

Researchers can reap other benefits when they use the case method as a framework for their intellectual contributions. First, because of a case’s bounded context, researchers do not require large data sets to produce valuable knowledge.

Next, a case’s boundaries allow researchers to study contextually relevant local issues and suggest immediate strategies to solve them. Even a single case can provide valuable, wide-reaching solutions.

Famous and classic studies such as Adam Smith’s Pin Factory, Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne Experiments, and C.K. Prahalad’s Bottom of the Pyramid were all done with case study design. These findings directly led, respectively, to the creation of the assembly line, methods to increase employees’ job satisfaction, and ways to improve the lives of the world’s poorest populations. The new knowledge generated by these three researchers influenced the thinking of their eras and changed the conversation in their fields.

When researchers choose a bounded context to study, they are likely to generate scholarship of greater interest to journals and increase the impact of their theoretical contributions.

As these examples show, the case method allows researchers to paint a more compelling picture of why their research is important and how it can improve or enlighten business practice. However, just as Smith, Mayo, and Prahalad did, today’s researchers must choose the context of their research carefully if they wish to push beyond existing theoretical limits.

For example, to study benevolent leadership, a researcher might choose to focus on Nand Kishore Chaudhary, the founder of Jaipur Rugs. Jaipur Rugs works with 40,000 artisans across six Indian villages to create handmade rugs distributed to 40 countries—the company’s size and reach might make it seem like the obvious choice for a compelling study. But although Chaudhary displays a benevolent leadership style, many studies are already available. Moreover, any study set in the context of Jaipur Rugs’ traditional business model might not unveil exciting insights about benevolent leadership.

As an alternative, a researcher could instead choose to interview Amrita Chengappa, a co-founder of the very small, lesser-known SOS Organics. Her natural cosmetics and health food company, which she runs with her partner, is located in Uttarakhand, India, at the base of the Himalayas. She and her partner have adopted a unique business model in which they strive to keep the company small; support local entrepreneurs; adopt sustainable practices; and ensure that their company gives back more resources than it takes.

A study of this company is more likely to unveil a different understanding of benevolent leadership. And the researcher is more likely to increase the impact of his or her theoretical contribution.

A Need to Upskill

Most management researchers are adept at conducting quantitative studies. But to adopt the case method as a research strategy, many will need to “upskill” their research methods in the following ways:

  • They will need to understand how to formulate the “what” and “how” research questions that are critical to qualitative inquiry.
  • They must become experts at collecting data by conducting in-depth interviews and scanning secondary sources.
  • They should familiarize themselves with Gioia's method of data visualization, which they can use to draw out themes from data.
  • They must learn to build a theory through single case or multi-case studies, as well as to conceptualize a process model to explain how phenomena emerge, develop, change, and terminate over time.

As case evangelists from the Birla Institute of Management Technology (BIMTECH) in Uttar Pradesh, India, we strive to help faculty of management around the world better understand how they can develop their qualitative research skills and improve the quality of their scholarship by adopting the case approach. Our motivation is driven by the need to obtain quality publications for our case research journal, the South Asian Journal of Business and Management Cases (SAJBMC).

We have held online webinars and one-on-one online discussions, in which participants learn that qualitative research is an inductive process, how to choose an appropriate context for their work, and how to identify themes in data. In addition, we make available resources that explore different facets of the case method. For example, we have created a research canvas, a reference document that outlines the entire process of qualitative case study research (QCSR).

We also circulate many sample cases published in the SAJBMC, as well as  share an article in which the two of us compare the different approaches of four thought leaders: Robert Yin, Kathy Eisenhardt, Sharon Merriam, and Robert Stake. 

We have found that virtual workshops are not enough to impart the understanding of QCSR. Hands-on experience is also a key part of the process. With that in mind, we have conducted one full-day in-person workshop, for which we selected participants based on abstracts they submitted. We covered topics such as the distinction between inductive and deductive processes, as well as methods for framing questions for interviews, extracting themes, and building data structure tables. During the session, participants developed and refined their abstracts and worked on their research canvases. Afterward, they have continued to collect and analyze data, and we have offered feedback on their process.

Encouraged by feedback from past participants, we plan to conduct a similar workshop once every two months. We will invite potential participants from the community of scholars whom we nurture.

Conceptual Challenges

Training faculty in this approach can be difficult, primarily because it requires them to break many deeply ingrained habits. First, researchers often blur the boundaries between phenomenon and context, which can make it impossible for them to identify the theoretical limits of that phenomenon. Second, before faculty adopt qualitative research methods, their ability to spot valid research themes in their transcribed interviews is often poor.  

Third, many faculty can be impatient. They start extracting themes from the data before they have fully transcribed their interviews. 

Finally, the biggest challenge we face is explaining the distinction between a literature review and theoretical anchoring. Faculty know that a literature review, which happens before a research question is formulated or any data is collected, refers to exploring existing research to seek out an area of study. When researchers conduct literature reviews, they often assume that past studies already have decided a phenomenon’s theoretical limits.

While literature reviews often lead researchers to prove the conclusions of past research, theoretical anchoring will help them identify what cannot be explained with current theories.

As a result, they look for evidence of the same conclusions in the data. Although this approach seems reasonable, they overlook that it will not take their research in new directions or help them discover new themes.

By contrast, theoretical anchoring is a way to identify what cannot be explained with current theories. It is finalized after the data analysis. Theoretical anchoring leads researchers to ask broader questions; capture in-depth naturalistic data from multiple sources; and include a focus on past, present, and future.

Many participants view theoretical anchoring as a form of literature review, when it is a different method altogether. Literature review is a deductive process, while theoretical anchoring is an inductive process. Although this idea might seem clear on its face, communicating this distinction to faculty, in real-world terms, can be more difficult than it seems.

When faculty use the case method, they are required only to find a unique context in which the phenomenon in question has not yet been studied. It’s that context that will help the researcher identify theoretical limitations. It can take much discussion and a great deal of practice for faculty to adopt a truly data-driven inductive approach.

Showing the Way

After conducting workshops and discussions on this topic, we have found that while faculty truly understand the benefits of using the case method as a research strategy, many cannot implement it without proper guidance. That’s why we are working to reach out to the faculty community at large to provide resources that explain and clarify how to apply the case study framework to formal research.

The more such resources we can provide, the more we can empower management faculty to ask deeper questions and seek out new solutions. By asking deeper questions, faculty will generate more new theoretical contributions in their field.

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