Case studies are one of the most popular methods used today for teaching students and industry professionals about how to deal with a wide variety of issues. However, research indicates that most of the case studies we use for training may be doing us more harm than good. This is because professional judgment capabilities, also known as “soft skills”, are frequently neglected in the process. Since professional judgment is being increasingly recognized as one of the most critical skills to acquire, these findings are of great concern.
In a poll done by GRC of more than thirty continuing professional education and university business programs around America, the common technique for addressing case studies is to focus almost solely on logical approaches to problem solving. However, the real world doesn’t occur in a logical framework. Nor does this approach recognize the importance of problem recognition, which must occur prior to developing a solution. The overwhelming majority of case studies do not integrate useful contextual information.
Case studies automatically prioritize the important facts for the reader by virtue of the facts the authors choose to disclose. This does not allow people to build skills of recognition and prioritization—how to sort out what matters and what doesn’t. In the real world, events unfold over weeks, months, or even years, with many other attractors competing for your attention. Personal interactions occur that mold your beliefs and assumptions just beneath your conscious awareness—so the process ignores the information that frequently drives judgment and decisions.
One more thing about case studies—and those that consume them—we are heavily outcome oriented. When we review a case study, we are diligent in a way that we wouldn’t be in real life, because we already know there is something for us to find.
Research shows that:
- Context is critical to judgment and decision making[i]
- Most case studies do not present data in a realistic fashion that is transferrable to real world events[ii]
- People have difficulty applying decision-making skills learned in a non-contextual environment to different real-world contexts[iii]
So, in the end, with the majority of case studies we are left with the inability to consistently apply what we have learned or to understand how elements of our environment are influencing the assumptions on which our decisions are built.
It would be beneficial to examine cases as longer term projects, viewing the information from a wide variety of perspectives, and considering contradictory points of view. Cases should include a wide variety of real world data that may not be important to the facts of the case. It may also be helpful if instructors do not know the outcome of the case, so they won’t unwittingly direct students towards to the solution. Some business schools are now cooperating with law enforcement agencies on actual cases, giving them invaluable experience. This is a move in a positive direction, but still, more attention must be given to problem recognition, and situational issues that play a critical role in our thinking processes.
[i] Johns, G. (2006). The essential impact of context on organizational behavior. The Academy of Management Review. 31(2)
[ii] Bazerman, M. & Tenbrunsel, A. (2011). Blind Spots: Why we fail to do what’s right and what to do about it. Princton University Press.
[iii] Fleming, D., Romanus, R., & Lightner, S. (2009). The effect of professional context on accounting students’ moral reasoning. Issues in accounting education 24(1) 13-30.