The Problem with Harvard Business School Case Studies

Even if you didn’t go to business school, you’ve probably heard of Harvard case studies and the Harvard case method, the pedagogical system of choice at one of the world’s most elite business schools. The case method, as a style of learning, asks students to imagine themselves in the role of the “protagonist” (typically the CEO) leading the firm profiled in the case. They’re required to come to class prepared to make a solid argument for one course of direction, and then convince their peers of it, with rhetorical flair. Rather than lecture, the professor facilitates a class-wide debate, cold calling on students to answer tough questions. Arguably, because the method has been so widely adopted by other schools, which tend to combine it with traditional lecture formats (at Harvard, it’s used almost exclusively), it’s come to be synonymous with business education itself.

But the authors of a recent paper argue that Wallace Donham, the man credited with establishing the case method as a force at HBS in the 1920s, had evolving views of business education that have never been surfaced, and that contradict the sense that management lessons should be viewed through the narrow lens of the case study.

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