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A small number of case studies can be found in Harvard Business Review via our Business Source Complete subscription (1922-present) or in print at Pardee Library (1990-present). To limit your search results in Business Source Complete to case studies, select "Case Study" for the Document Type. Another source for business cases is Harvard Business Review Digital Articles (2007-present). You should also select "Case Study" for the Document Type to limit search results to case studies.
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How to Write a Great Business Case
- Case Teaching
C ase studies are powerful teaching tools. “When you have a good case, and students who are well prepared to learn and to teach each other, you get some magical moments that students will never forget,” says James L. Heskett, UPS Foundation Professor of Business Logistics, emeritus, at Harvard Business School (HBS). “They will remember the lessons they learn in that class discussion and apply them 20 years later.”
Yet, for many educators who want to pen their own case, the act of writing a great business case seldom comes easily or naturally. For starters, it’s time consuming. Case writers can spend substantial time visiting companies, securing a willing site, conducting interviews, observing operations, collecting data, reviewing notes, writing the case, revising the narrative, ensuring that teaching points come through, and then getting executives to approve the finished product.
The question, then, becomes: Where do you begin? How do you approach case writing? How do you decide which company to use as the subject of the case? And what distinguishes a well-written case from a mediocre one?
We asked three expert HBS case writers—who collectively have written and supported hundreds of cases—to share their insights on how to write a great business case study that will inspire passionate classroom discussion and transmit key educational concepts.
Insights from James L. Heskett
UPS Foundation Professor of Business Logistics, Emeritus, Harvard Business School
Keep your eyes open for a great business issue.
“I’m always on the prowl for new case material. Whenever I’m reading or consulting, I look for interesting people doing interesting things and facing interesting challenges. For instance, I was reading a magazine and came across a story about how Shouldice Hospital treated patients undergoing surgery to fix inguinal hernias—how patients would get up from the operating table and walk away on the arm of the surgeon.
6 QUALITIES OF GREAT CASE WRITERS
Comfort with ambiguity, since cases may have more than one “right” answer
Command of the topic or subject at hand
Ability to relate to the case protagonists
Enthusiasm for the case teaching method
Capacity for finding the drama in a business situation and making it feel personal to students
Build relationships with executives.
“When writing a case, it’s helpful to start as high in the organization as possible. It helps assure mid-level managers that they can share the information you need with an outsider. It also helps when it comes to getting the case cleared for use. Serving on corporate boards can help in building relationships with senior executives, but there are other ways to make those connections. For instance, you can approach speakers at business conferences if you think their presentations could form the basis for a good business case. If you want to write about a company where you don’t have any personal connections, you can always check with your colleagues to see if any of them have a personal relationship with the CEO or sit on a board where they could introduce you to the right person who would be able to facilitate the case. My colleagues and I make a lot of these introductions for each other.”
“If you make the case into a crossword puzzle that takes five hours to solve, it’s not really fair to the students and will most likely cause them to lose focus.” James L. Heskett
Skip the curveballs and focus on key issues.
“Cases don’t have to be obvious. As a pedagogical objective, you might want students to look beyond a superficial issue to say this is the underlying topic that we need to address, and these are the questions we need to pose. Still, I think it’s unhelpful if cases contain real curveballs where ‘unlocking’ the case depends on finding some small piece of information hidden in an exhibit. Give students a break! They may have to read and digest three cases per day, so they probably won’t be able to devote more than a couple of hours to each one. If you make the case into a crossword puzzle that takes five hours to solve, it’s not really fair to the students and will most likely cause them to lose focus.”
Build a discussion plan while writing the case.
“In case method teaching, the teacher is not in complete control. Students teach each other and learn from each other. On any given day, there will likely be somebody in the room who knows more about the company featured in the case than the professor does. So a professor can’t walk into the classroom and expect to impose a lesson plan that goes in a strict linear way from A to B to C to D. The case ought to be written to allow students to jump from A to D and then come back later to B if that’s how the discussion plays out. At the same time, the case should be structured so that the instructor can collect student comments on a board, organizing them as a coherent set of related ideas, and then deliver a 5-to-10-minute summary that communicates whatever essential concepts the case has covered. This summation can be a very powerful teaching and learning experience.”
Focus on quality over quantity.
“Cases don’t have to be too long. Some good cases are only two or three pages. Students may give more scrutiny to these brief cases than they would a 20-page case.”
Advice from Benson P. Shapiro
Malcolm P. McNair Professor of Marketing, Emeritus, Harvard Business School
Take out the chaff in advance.
“You don’t want students to spend too much time separating the wheat from the chaff. If a case has 12 pages of text and 10 pages of exhibits, even the smartest MBA students will likely lose interest. Writers who try to capture a situation from every angle and in every detail end up with sprawling narratives that usually do not make a good case. When writing cases, you need to set good, strong boundaries. Avoid superfluous, flowery, or poetic material that may contain interesting anecdotes or factoids, but that could distract readers from the case’s core topics. Include only those important and useful details that can help students make decisions and understand key issues that the case explores.”
Work in layers and metaphors—subtly.
“The best cases work on multiple levels. A case should focus on a specific situation—for example, whether or not to introduce a certain product. But it should also serve as a metaphor for broader issues in the background: How do we think about introducing new products? Are we introducing enough products? Are new product introductions a source of competitive advantage in our industry? How should we organize and manage new product development? You want the case to encourage students to think broadly about the various cultural, financial, and strategic impacts that managerial decisions have on a company.”
“Writers who try to capture a situation from every angle and in every detail end up with sprawling narratives that usually do not make a good case.” Benson P. Shapiro
Encourage emotional engagement.
“Case writing is an interesting literary form—it needs to be very engaging, but also educational. Great cases revolve around points of contention on which intelligent people can hold different points of view: What should you do? Why? How do you get it done? Ideally, students should have to choose between two very attractive alternatives or two terrible alternatives. The best cases involve questions that get students emotionally engaged so that they really care about choices and outcomes. When you see students physically leaning forward and following what their peers are saying, you know that they have a visceral feel for the importance of the subject. When you hear them debating after class— You were out in left field! You missed what was really important here! —that’s how you can tell you succeeded in developing a great case.”
Lessons from Carin-Isabel Knoop
Executive Director of the Case Research & Writing Group, Harvard Business School
Don’t forget the classroom component.
“Cases are deliberately incomplete documents. What a case writer leaves out of a case is often just as important as what he or she puts into it. Cases are designed to be completed through classroom instruction and discussion. While drafting the case, try to develop the classroom process in parallel. Work on the assignment questions and classroom content. Keep in mind that the case should be able to adapt to your classroom and course needs.”
Hone your elevator pitch.
“Before getting started, always have clear, succinct learning objectives in mind. Don’t start developing the case until you are able to summarize these objectives in less than five minutes.”
Case writing is a relationship, not a transaction.
When choosing a case site, be clear with executives that you are developing a teaching tool and that you will require their time and candor—and eventually their data. Put them at ease, and manage the authorization process, right from the start. Indicate that quotes will be cleared before publication and there will be time for individual review. During the creation process, ask their advice. This creates a process of engagement and helps bring home that this is a pedagogical tool, not gotcha journalism. At HBS, we oftentimes invite someone from the company to attend class. Finally, once the case is done, stay in touch with your case protagonists. They will move to other organizations and spread the good word about their experience with case writing.
Invite disagreement in case discussions.
“The case study method is based on participant-centered learning. The students all start from the same base of 11 (or however many) pages in the case, but they bring different knowledge and experiences into the classroom. So they can take the same facts and disagree about what course of action to pursue. We want students to behave like decision makers, and it can be painful to make decisions. Some critics deride the case teaching method as being unrealistic, but someone who just lectures about marketing doesn’t help students realize how difficult it is to choose between two plausible options to meet the same marketing objectives. For students, a big part of the education process is learning from discussions with classmates who think differently and advocate for different solutions. Witnessing a robust case discussion reminds us of the potential for collective learning to emerge from contrasting views.”
“Faculty don’t just write cases for teaching purposes, they write them to learn.” Carin-Isabel Knoop
The Case Writing Process Is a Worthy Effort
Researching, writing, and publishing cases is well worth the time and effort. “The case research and writing process is important for faculty development,” Knoop adds. “While developing field cases, faculty go to site visits and meet with decision makers. The case writing process helps connect scholars to practitioners and practitioners to the academic world. Faculty case writers get to explore and test how their academic theories work in practice. So faculty don’t just write cases for teaching purposes, they write them to learn. The case method is an integral part of faculty development.”
There’s another big bonus to becoming a case writer, especially for younger educators. “Young business instructors face a credibility gap with their students,” says Heskett. “It’s not uncommon to have MBA students in a class who have more experience than the instructor on a particular subject. Once you go into the field and write a case, you will know more about that subject than anyone else in the class. A primary way for professors to establish their credibility on a topic is to have written the case the class is discussing that day.”
James L. Heskett is UPS Foundation Professor of Business Logistics, emeritus, at Harvard Business School. He completed his Ph.D. at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and has been a faculty member at The Ohio State University as well as president of Logistics Systems, Inc. Since 2000, he has authored a blog on Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge website .
Benson P. Shapiro is the Malcolm P. McNair Professor of Marketing, emeritus, at Harvard Business School where he taught full time from 1970 to 1997. Since 1997, Shapiro has concentrated his professional time on consulting, giving speeches, serving on boards, and writing. He continues to teach at Harvard and has taught in many executive programs and has chaired the Sustainable Marketing Leadership for Mid-Sized Firms Program.
Carin-Isabel Knoop is the executive director of the Case Research & Writing Group at Harvard Business School. She is also coauthor of Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace .
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- The Parlor Room
Mike Wheeler on the Jazz of Negotiation
In this episode of The Parlor Room, Harvard Business School Professor Mike Wheeler speaks with host Chris Linnane about how negotiation's improvisational nature makes it much like jazz. He also shares stories about a former president's photo and the acquisition of a television system to illustrate strategies for succeeding at the bargaining table.
How Framebridge Founder Susan Tynan Managed Risk While Making an Impact
Great business leaders are problem solvers. That’s what sparked Susan Tynan (Harvard Business School MBA 2003) to found Framebridge, a custom framing company. When Tynan couldn’t find a reasonably priced place to frame her beloved posters, she launched a business, which took off after years of hard work – and hard decisions. Tynan reflects on her learning journey, discussing how she managed the risks of entrepreneurship while aiming to make a lasting impact.
- 25 Oct 2023
How Sian Flowers Aims to Create a Low-Carbon Rose
This bonus episode of Climate Rising features Harvard Business Review’s Cold Cast podcast with Brian Kenny interviewing HBS professors Willy Shih and Mike Toffel about their teaching case about Kenya-based Sian Flowers. They discuss the company’s efforts to create a “low-carbon rose” by shipping them to their clients around the world by sea instead of by air without eroding their quality, and the effects this has on its production process. For transcripts and other resources, visit climaterising.org Guest/Host: ● Brian Kenny, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Harvard Business School and host of Cold Call ● Willy Shih, Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Management Practice in Business Administration ● Mike Toffel, Senator John Heinz Professor of Environmental Management
- 24 Oct 2023
How the United States Air Force Accelerated AI Adoption
In August 2022, the Pentagon tasked U.S. Air Force Captain Victor Lopez with launching a new Air Force innovation unit that leveraged commercial developers and military talent to acquire advanced technologies. Having been granted flexibility in the setup of the office, Lopez pondered the complexities of his assignment and the decisions around organizational design he would have to make. It’s often believed that only small start-up organizations can innovate, but a lot of innovation happens in big organizations, including government. Harvard Business School assistant professor Maria Roche is joined by Major Lopez to discuss the challenges of digital transformation in a large bureaucratic organization and the specific choices the U.S. Air Force needed to make when launching its AI Accelerator in her case, "Accelerating AI Adoption in the United States Air Force."
From P.T. Barnum to Mary Kay: Lessons From 5 Leaders Who Changed the World
What do Steve Jobs and Sarah Breedlove have in common? Through a series of case studies, Robert Simons explores the unique qualities of visionary leaders and what today's managers can learn from their journeys.
When Tech Platforms Identify Black-Owned Businesses, White Customers Buy
Demand for Black-owned restaurants rises when they're easier to find on Yelp. Research by Michael Luca shows how companies can mobilize their own technology to advance racial equity.
- 23 Oct 2023
Saving BlackBerry: CEO John Chen Explains How to Make the Hard Calls
John Chen was hired to save an iconic smartphone company that ran out of juice. BlackBerry had gone from being a corporate world must-have to a global has-been. Chen says the key to turning Blackberry around was being prepared to make hard calls, even in midst of uncertainty. He says that, in business, the journey can be more important than the destination.
- 18 Oct 2023
Defining experience: How micro internships build skills and boost productivity
Can short knowledge-work gigs improve the college-to-career transition? Jeffrey Moss, founder and CEO of intermediary Parker Dewey explains.
- 17 Oct 2023
With Subscription Fatigue Setting In, Companies Need to Think Hard About Fees
Subscriptions are available for everything from dental floss to dog toys, but are consumers tiring of monthly fees? Elie Ofek says that subscription revenue can provide stability, but companies need to tread carefully or risk alienating customers.
- 16 Oct 2023
Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman on Business as a Force for Social Change
Paul Polman is the legendary former CEO of Unilever and a global leader in combating climate change and promoting corporate responsibility. Reflecting on his career during and after Unilever, Polman explains how a company can achieve robust financial performance while playing an active role in solving the most pressing challenges facing society today.
Mihir Desai on Apple's Powerful Financial Model
In this debut episode of The Parlor Room, host and Harvard Business School Online Creative Director Chris Linnane sits down with HBS Professor Mihir Desai to discuss how Apple's financial model contributes to its success and illustrates a critical lesson about risk management.
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- Case Development →
Case writing is a vital force behind research at HBS. Nearly 80 percent of cases used at business schools worldwide are developed by HBS faculty. HBS case studies have helped refine the skills and business judgment of tens of thousands of students, practitioners, and academics across the world. The School is continually expanding and refreshing course content as HBS faculty write new cases that span the globe, industries, disciplines, and organizational forms in the public, private for profit, and non-profit spaces. As its faculty continues to develop case studies, the School is shaping business learning and educating future leaders in a positive way for years to come.
What is a case study?
The HBS case study is a teaching vehicle that presents students with a critical management issue and serves as a springboard to lively classroom debate in which participants present and defend their analysis and prescriptions. The average case is 15 to 20 pages long (about 7 to 12 pages of prose and 5 to 7 pages of tables and figures). The two main types of cases at the School are field cases based on onsite research, and library cases written solely from public sources. HBS also writes "armchair" cases based entirely on faculty’s general knowledge and experience. Moreover, in 1995, the School’s Educational Technology Services began producing multimedia cases that provide a rich learning experience by bringing together video, audio, graphics, animation, and other mediums.
Case research and writing
At HBS, academic research and case development are connected and mutually reinforcing. Cases provide the opportunity for faculty to assess and develop ideas, spark insights on nascent research questions early in a project, illustrate theory in practice, and get feedback in the classroom on those very concepts. In addition, case writing provides faculty a means to collaborate and to develop research ideas both across disciplines and across institutions.
Field case development is a dynamic and collaborative process in which faculty engage business or governmental leaders, sometimes working together with a colleague at HBS or at other academic institutions. The Case Studies for Harvard Business School brochure is a helpful resource to organizations interested in working with the School on a case. Case leads are identified based on a faculty’s teaching purpose and may arise as the result of a past relationship with an executive, a former student, or from a professor’s interest in exploring with a company’s management team a situation that would provide a meaningful learning experience. HBS works closely with host organizations to guarantee confidentiality.
Field cases typically take two months to complete - from obtaining a host organization’s approval to move forward on a case, to conducting onsite interviews, and drafting a case that paints a picture of the management issue and provides a mix of real-world uncertainty and information required for decision-making analysis.
A vast array of case-writing support is available to HBS faculty. Support is provided by case writers who work as individual research associates or are available on a project by project basis through our on-campus Case Research and Writing Group and eight regional research centers ( Asia-Pacific , California , Europe , India , Japan , Latin America , Harvard Center Shanghai , and Istanbul). Baker Library’s extensive business collection and specialist librarians comprise another invaluable research and case-writing resource.