Recasing the Case Method, with Sharon Ann Murphy
Having spent time teaching MBAs via the case method, I have a fairly entrenched view of what I, as a teacher, am trying to achieve through a case discussion. To set up a ‘real life’ business situation, which has a problem that students can apply their ‘tool kit’ of analytical frameworks to, and produce a recommendation that solves the case. However, an interesting discussion with Sharon Ann Murphy, Professor of History at Providence College, helped me to think about adapting the methodology and its objectives for undergraduates from a range of majors. -- Michael Aldous
Who are you teaching and how does this affect reactions to the case method?
I have been teaching with cases for years in my US Business History course. Recently, I split the course up into 3 separate classes: Corporations and Entrepreneurs in US History (which contains the main topics from the original course), Marketing Campaigns in US History c. 1850-present, and Panics and Depressions in US History 1789-present. All three of these courses attract a wide swath of students: the majority are history, finance, and marketing majors (mostly juniors and seniors), but there are often also students from across other disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and business. This makes for a very interesting and diverse mix in the classroom. While the history students have a much deeper understanding of the historical context and an easier ability to relate the businesses and entrepreneurs to that context, the marketing students are more skilled at analyzing the main components of a marketing campaign, and the finance students are more comfortable with the quantitative aspects of the economy.
What outcomes do you look for when using the case method?
Although the business students are often familiar with using case studies, the historical case studies tend to be structured differently from the more modern cases, which leads to different learning objectives. There is less emphasis on setting up a problem and brainstorming possible solutions in these cases, since the solution has presumably already occurred. Instead, the emphasis tends to be on understanding the importance of the historical context for the situation at hand. What was the environment in which they were operating? How did they capitalize on new opportunities? Respond to threats? Exploit strengths and compensate for weaknesses? Whereas the business students are familiar with the case model, these force them to historicize the process. For the non-business students, the historical cases provide a less-intense introduction to the case method.
Which cases do you teach and which do you find work the best?
I have taught numerous different cases over the years. The business school presses publish many historical cases, yet some of the most successful case studies are instead journal articles focusing on a particular case.
The ones that have been most successful (and that I therefore use repeatedly) are the ones that historicize a modern product, person, or issue, such as Heinz or Starbucks. Students have a much harder time relating to cases about little-known historical figures, products that have no modern equivalent, or companies lacking name recognition. At the same time, I have tried several cases that fit these latter characteristics yet they still failed because the historical situation was not sufficiently interesting. In this vein, cases about companies who find themselves in particularly controversial situations often do well, such as Nike’s labor problems in the 1980s, or Aunt Jemima’s modern attempts to deal with its racial past.
How do you actually teach the cases in the classroom?
While I inject an occasional case study during the first half to two-thirds of the course, I reserve the majority of the cases for the last third, when the students are leading discussion themselves. I divide the students into groups of 3-4 and assign them each a case and a course day. The groups often end up being a mix of students from different disciplines with different potential approaches to the assignment. Their job is to read the assigned case (which the remainder of the class also reads for that day), choose the most important aspects of the case, and decide how to lead a 75-minute class discussion of the case which explores these core points. I encourage the students to be as creative as possible with these discussions; I lay out no formal rules. The most successful groups take me at my word and devise imaginative ways to examine the material. For example, to highlight the difficulties of Aunt Jemima, one group found 4 recent marketing campaigns that were sexist and/or racist in some way. They then divided up the class, assigned a campaign to each group, and had a competition to see which group could best revise their ad to remove the problematic aspects while maintaining the core message. They then transitioned back to the issue of Aunt Jemima, where the racial component was at the very core of the brand. The class debated the pros and cons of different strategies for remedying this issue, including scrapping the brand altogether. The students came away with a deeper understanding of how marketers actively employed racial and gender stereotypes in the past, and the lingering legacies of these choices.
[End of Interview]
Reflecting on this discussion I think the adaptation of the aims and outcomes of the case method towards contextualisation of decisions rather than problem solving, is a neat solution to link interests between business and non-business majors. I particularly like the encouragement of understanding of the effects of institutions for both those looking to understand the historical environment and those looking to make better decisions in the present. Similarly, stimulating students to read history forwards, by seeing the environment from the perspective of the participants, deepens understanding of the parameters in which they made decisions, and subsequently allows analysis of how those decisions have implications for current actions is really interesting. It should have come as no surprise, but I was struck by the amount of great cases we can draw on as business historians. As a key research methodology there is no end of illustrative and informative cases to pick from. The trick as Sharon points out, is to identify those that resonate.
Sharon kindly provided links to some of her most successful cases: