16 Nov 2019 15:22 IST

Teaching cases: Vision, realisation and impact

Excerpts from 8th Yasaswy Memorial lecture at The ICFAI Foundation, Hyderabad on Nov 8

I believe that the case method is one of the most impactful approaches to teaching, sharing and interrogating management theory and practice. It is a bridge between research, teaching and practice. It draws much of its impact from its origins in storytelling.

We are a storytelling species. We all tell stories. From the wisdom of the great religions, the myths and legends in our national folk tales, to family stories in which we tell our own children and grandchildren the same stories our parents and grandparents told us, storytelling is how we grow to know the world, who we are and our place in the world. We tell stories to share knowledge and traditions, develop understanding and explore the new. Storytelling is about vision and investigating the unknown, speaking the unspeakable, as well as defining what is understood.

 

Stories follow conventions and often start in a similar way. One of my favourite beginnings has been repeated time after time and has been throughout history. I still use it today when inventing stories for my grandchildren.

In the 14th century, Anglo-Saxon Britain the Venerable Bede wrote about birth, life and death in a story about a Lord and his retainers sheltering in the mead-hall during a great storm. They ate and drank and felt safe in the warmth of the great fire. Suddenly a huge gust of wind blew open one of the shutters that was closed tightly against the storm, and a tiny bird flew in. It warmed itself by the fire, ate some crumbs that had fallen from the tables where the retainers were feasting, drank from puddles where drinks had spilled. Then, recovered, it flew out into the storm. It is like us. We are born, and do not know where we come from. We live a little in enjoying shelter on this earth. Then we die and go we know not where.

And this story, more than 1500-year-old, begins like this.

“It was a dark and stormy night."

It is my favourite of all beginnings.

And I heard it again last night when I visited Golconda Fort to see a sound and light show of a thousand years of the fort. One story told of a prince who, defying his father, rode through a storm to be with the woman he loved, of whom his father disapproved. The story told of the power of love. It started like this, “It was a dark and stormy night."

And when my granddaughter, who is eight, climbs on my knee and asks me to make up a story, the one she likes best, the one that makes her spine tingle with anticipation, is the one that begins, “It was a dark and stormy night."

So you see, whatever point in history, on whichever continent, a good story captures the imagination in ways that we all share.

Businesses and corporations, and universities too, also have their tales to tell.

Today, we are marking the vision, birth and growth of the ICFAI Foundation for Higher Education and central to that celebration, as we have heard, is the story of your founder N J Yasaswy, by whose wisdom was founded the case publishing centre at this campus.

The case method

Around 100 years ago, the then recently formed Harvard Business School began to adopt and adapt the Socratic approach (learning by questioning) which was in use at the Harvard Law School. This adaptation became the case method, a powerful combination of research into real business practice, written in story form; and deep, interrogative classroom discussion facilitated and directed by the academic. It creates a powerful link between academic research and theory, practitioner experience, and immersive student engagement, with learning in the classroom.

It has since been adopted by business schools around the world and is recognised as one of the most impactful and engaging approaches to sharing hard-won knowledge, both of theory and practice, and understanding of business and, in particular, decision-making.

The faculty and students of ICFAI Business School will have spent many, many hours unpicking, understanding, challenging the stories contained in the cases that are taught and written in the classrooms, and case publishing centre here in Hyderabad.

The case method is based upon storytelling, but with crucial additional elements.

Firstly, audience participation is not just encouraged but essential. The case method brings the audience and the students into the centre of the story to become the storyteller and own the narrative.

Secondly, it recognises that stories cannot be trusted. If they are to be more than entertainment in an academic setting, cases must be tested against both theory and practitioner experience. They must be questioned. Which is why the case method is not built on cases alone but in a combination of case and class discussion. Students must reach a conclusion through question and answer, debate and imagination, and a shared respect for others in a truly participative experience.

Uniqueness of the method

When someone asks me what is the value of the case method? How does it differ from ‘real research’ papers published in academic journals? My answer is that research has many outputs. Publishing a paper in an academic journal is a legitimate and highly regarded output, but other outputs are available and the impact of cases taught in the classroom brings great value in aligning teaching and research. The difference, to me, is in the audience. Research papers are published for a peer, academic audience. To students, they can seem like specimens displayed in a glass case. The students may look but may not touch.

The case method is different. With its focus on learning, it invites students inside the glass, and encourages them to take up the specimen, examine it from all angles, touch it, question it, become it.

The methodology of the case method as captured in teaching cases is more than simple storytelling. Cases do not provide an ending, do not illustrate good or bad practice, success or failure.

By withholding the conclusion of the story (if there is one), students are forced to confront situations and take decisions. Cases do not ask what are the constraints or difficulties. They ask, instead, “How are you going to deal with them?”, “What is your decision to be?” What theory, what experience, what techniques have you used in reaching a decision?” These are what students must justify it to their teachers and peers and, sometimes, to the real protagonists who are attending the session.

In this, it reflects our passage through life. Our personal stories have many paths with forks at each step. For each that we follow, we leave others unexplored. We each continually write and refresh our own stories. Businesses are no different. If students are to be effective in business, they must be practiced in taking decisions.

So, I am delighted to see the case method flourish with such strength and diversity at IBS Hyderabad.

The story of the case method here at IBS is one of vision, realisation and impact.

Vision

The vision of your founder N J Yasaswy in 1999 was extraordinarily ambitious in bringing into being the very first case publishing centre in India.

Where he, and you, led, others have followed. Many similar case centres have sprung up in the last five years but IBS was ahead of its time and has stayed there in its approach of constant renewal — constantly rewriting its own story.

In those early days, people may have written cases as individuals, but the quality was variable and the approach inconsistent.

Yasaswy saw the case centre as key to establishing a culture in which the case method could thrive, producing students with the right worldview to become well-rounded global managers.

Realisation

Of course, vision require realisation.

The realisation of the IBS vision came through the ambition of the case centre under its directors S S George, GV Muralidhara and Prof Debapratim Purkayastha, to provide cases against quality standards that refreshed and improved over time.

In 2006, the centre introduced another first — the introduction of case writing templates, especially with regard to teaching notes, the means of sharing with faculty worldwide the author’s insights into how best to teach the case. This was a real breakthrough and a means of ensuring consistently high levels of quality as well as supporting the induction of staff in the case team and faculty across all IBS campuses in the art of case writing.

Introducing and refreshing quality standards is challenging. It may have seemed too formal to some and challenging to existing concepts of academic writing. So, it was a real achievement and I pay tribute to the work of your directors and their teams, as around the world, IBS became a marker for good teaching cases. IBS cases became extremely popular and were recognised in the most difficult form of peer review — peer faculty choosing to select your cases to teach their students in their classrooms. Peer faculty around the world were teaching with cases originating from IBS Hyderabad.

The statistics speak for themselves — since 2011, the case centre has distributed over half a million cases to impact on the education of students in classrooms around the world. Each year, since 2011, IBS cases have been taught in between 650 and 700 schools around the world, and in over 70 countries.

And the tradition of vision and realisation continues as the case centre at IBS continues to challenge accepted norms and introduce innovative methodologies in case writing. The now director of the case centre, Debapratim Purkayastha is one of the most celebrated and widely distributed case authors. He has won many of our annual case awards and is regularly Number 1 in our top 40 case authors. He speaks widely on the case method at leading conferences such as the Academy of Management, and shares his insight in professional development workshops in case writing and teaching with business school faculty.

Another previous case centre director, GV Muralidhara also features in the list.

The latest innovation, ground breaking and widely admired, is a case written in the style of a superhero graphic novel. This graphic format case Turbulence on the Tarmac won our 2019 competition for best compact case, and I know from speaking to faculty at conferences around the world that it has gathered enormous respect for its engaging format with real, insightful and impactful learning in the classroom.

Impact

So we have vision and realisation, but what about the impact?

The impact of case writing as a research output is a virtuous circle that begins with building contacts with business in writing the case. This keeps research alive and relevant, and based on real, current business experience.

In writing the case, the academic must align research and teaching in the classroom. And in delivering the case in the classroom, the author delivers an impactful learning experience to students. But they also establish a different dynamic in the classroom. One in which the students gain from and respect a teacher who has written the case they are studying.

And if the case, having been taught in the classroom, is distributed to other schools, it carries the brand — and isn’t a brand just another way of telling a story? — to classrooms, schools around the world. As I have said before, the brand of ICFAI, IBS Hyderabad, has been carried successfully into thousands of classrooms in the most highly ranking schools in the world.

That isn’t just limited to formal, business school classrooms. Many, many companies participating in the case also adopt the case in recruiting newly graduated students, or inducting them into the company culture, or in examining and improving their own behaviours and practices as captured in the case.

This industry-adoption improves the management skills within industry, creates new or stronger links between the school and industry (often in the form of placement opportunities for students, or sponsorship), and deepens the trust between the author and the company — leading to further research opportunities at a deeper level. Many leading case authors find that their career trajectory is supported by focusing on researching into a particular company at ever deeper levels through case writing.

And so the circle continues. And so the story, the storytelling, continues, because like case studies and case discussions, like life, this story is still to reach its ending. It comes without one. It is the responsibility of faculty and other staff, and students, to generate the next twist in the tale. The ICFAI story is a tapestry being woven with new threads. Add your strands.

IBS Case Research Centre’s story as celebrated here at Founders Memorial Day is a remarkable one. One of vision, realisation and impact. Long may it continue.

(The author is Director, The Case Centre, United Kingdom.)

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