A shortcut to writing a great case: use case teaching for case writing

One of the things I love about participant-centered learning is that the instructor learns while teaching. I teach mostly executives and it is exciting to collect their experience and insights during a case discussion. In fact: I quite often use case discussions also for my own case writing. In text books and seminars on case teaching and case writing these two topics are treated as completely separate/independent. But I believe that the power of case teaching is getting particularly evident when using case teaching for case writing and vice versa.

Whenever I’m thinking about writing a new case study, I’m waiting for an opportunity to try the case a few times in class in order to
(a) fine-tune the case itself, and
(b) get insights for the teaching note.


Re (a): Fine tuning of case

I often use the basic situation of a case way before having a traditional text case. Frequently I will just prepare a set of slides, present this to my students/participants and then open the discussion. Then I make a few modifications and try it again. This approach has several benefits:

1) You start with only a few slides (you will only be able to show a few slides as introduction to the session, so it cannot be hundreds of slides) – and this will help you to write a short and concise case (which is in line with the current trend of using rather shorter case studies).

2) During the discussion you will get a good feedback about which elements of the case work well and which aspects need to be worked on. This is particularly true for:

  • Protagonist/perspective: Sometimes you can write a case from the perspectives of different people (e.g. headquarter versus business unit perspective; marketing versus finance perspective; company versus stakeholder perspective; more senior versus less senior protagonist). Try different perspectives in different courses and you will get a good feeling which perspective is leading to the most fruitful discussions.
    (E.g. in a case about “Vodafone in Egypt” during the revolution in 2011 (forthcoming in 2013), we had to decide between the perspective of the local management in Egypt and the perspective of the Vodafone group headquarter. Using the case in class, I realized that the local perspective was much more engaging and controversial.)
  • Content: Quite frequently individual case situations can be discussed from different conceptual angles. Dependent upon your specific interest you might want to try different variants in order to find the one that resonates best.
    (E.g. I co-authored a case on the German football club “Borussia Dortmund GmbH & Co. KGaA”. All kinds of topics seemed to be interesting, e.g. the accounting specialty of recognizing players in the balance sheet, the strategic question of how to run a football club as business, the purpose question of which stakeholder should define the purpose of the organization (and the potential principal agent problems in this specific situation), the governance question of how to involve the different stakeholders in the formal organization, the question of executive remuneration, the ethical challenges connected with treating players as assets (incl. buying and selling them), etc. – It did take quite a bit of testing to identify which topics worked best in which contexts for this particular case study.)
  • Timing/hook: Quite often the stories that you want to use for your case writing would allow for different cuts in time (using different hooks, e.g. opening of business, first consideration to move into new country, financial issues etc.). Trying different hooks/timings in different sessions will again help you to see which discussions are better in stimulating learning and development.
    (E.g. I wanted to write a case study about a Berlin based snack bar called “Konnopke’s Imbiß”, but for a long time I was missing a hook that would stimulate an interesting discussion. Then I quickly had two alternative hooks: The company was asked to move its location and the son of the owner was opening a competing business. But which hook offered the more interesting discussion? Which hook would lead the discussion closer to the intended use of the case in class? Only use in class would help to clarify these questions.)
  • Structure: Especially when developing cases about events that unfold over longer periods of time, it is often difficult to slice the content well. Cases like these are often transformed into case series. But sometimes it is a bit difficult to decide about the specific split of content. Similar to the question of timing/hook, you might want to experiment with different cuts and then finally pick the one that was the most logical and resulted in the most intense discussions.
    (E.g. I wrote a case series about some corruption issues of “IKEA in Russia” (forthcoming in 2014). Starting with an individual event, the story is getting more and more complex over time. Only after several usages in class, I was able to come up with the final split of the story into four case parts: case A (single and rather external corruption event), case B (rather internal aspect of corruption), case C (corporate responsibility vis-à-vis corruption) and case D (outlook).)

Now given all these possible variations, I believe that summarizing/telling the cases with the support of a few slides, will make your life much easier: If you were to test all these variants on basis of somewhat polished text cases, you would have to do a whole lot of editing, writing and re-writing. But just changing a few slides usually requires significantly less work. And in many situations you would have had to prepare quite some of these slides anyway for your regular teaching.

Of course you need to make sure that this testing of a new case takes place in the right environment (e.g. seniority of students/participants, position of case in course etc.). Pick a few situations with limited exposure for your testing.(E.g. at my institution [ESMT European School of Management and Technology] we do host events for the general public (such as the “Long night of science”) and for the last few years I used material for new cases in these open lectures. After that I had a pretty good feeling if it was worth turning the lead into a full case study or not.)

Once I have used the case in class successfully a few times, I will produce the formal text case study – but frequently I would still wait a bit longer with the production of the teaching note.


Re (b): Getting insights for Teaching Note

While using a new case in the classroom I pay particular attention to documenting the contribution of the participants on a blackboard. After the class I take pictures of the blackboards and immediately make notes about what went well during the discussion, which subjects/aspects should rather be skipped during the discussions and what should be added. Over time – i.e. when using the case in different sessions – I make small variations to the sequence.


How about you? Can you share tips and tricks how to use case teaching for case writing?