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A Primer on HBS Case Studies

September 21st, 2008 · 3 Comments · Uncategorized

I’m sitting here on Sunday morning reading through some cases, and I thought it might be a good idea to offer a “primer” for my parents (and others) who aren’t that familiar with this fundamental element of the MBA program here.  I have three classes tomorrow:

  1. FRC: Financial Reporting and Control (ie. Accounting)
  2. TOM: Technology and Operations Management
  3. LEAD: Leadership and Organizational Behavior

LEAD is unique for tomorrow (we’re following up on a special activity from Friday), but for most days you have one case study per class.  The FRC case tomorrow is on Depreciation at Delta and the TOM case is about one of Toshiba’s plants:

FRC and TOM Cases

(You can click on the image for a larger version.)  Cases vary significantly in length, but they average about 7 pages of text and 7 pages of exhibits.  Exhibits are typically quantitative reports, diagrams, financial statements, and even sometimes (as shown here) plant layouts and photos of operations:

Exhibits from a Case Study

Exhibits from a Case Study

There are also supplemental documents / readings of various sorts that are found on the “course platform” on-line… videos of operations in TOM, 10k statements for FRC, and financial models for FIN.

The cases essentially boil down into real-life business stories, written with the narrative flow of a novel.  The protagonist is introduced at the beginning, followed by a bit of background on the industry and market, then the case may state the decision to be made or the problem to be solved… but often it’s just a description of the situation and you have to figure out what the core issue is.  It’s rare to have a single “correct” answer to the case.  What?  No right answers?  It’s not really about learning what worked for Toshiba at a particular factory in a particular place at a particular time… what would that really teach you?  You’re never going to be in that exact same situation again.  I think the learning comes more from weighing the pros / cons of the fundamental principles and practicing the analysis process.

We typically prepare 13-15 cases per week.  That’s a lot of business scenarios!  All of the cases are based on real situations, and all the professors at HBS are expected to develop a few a year.  The development process is pretty involved — lots of interviews with the industry participants, etc.  As such, while we do have some “classic” cases, many of them are based on business issues that have occured within the last few years.

Basically, it’s all about learning via “stories” with limited information.  I think it’s pretty effective, and seems to be particularly enhanced by the debate and discussion that occurs in the classroom (which I’ll have to describe in greater detail later).  It’s also very different than what most people are used to.  It’s not an “Answer Problems #1-30” type assignment.  I’ve read cases through 2-3 times before and still though “Huh?”!  You can spend hours preparing arguments, reading for nuances, etc… and still not have anything insightful to add to the discussion during class.  It’s a tricky business, this case process…

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Karthik

    Terrific first hand information. I am really impressed by your blog. Continue your posting!

    My good wishes to you for your MBA program.


  • cs@hbs

    7 pages ha? wait till you get to second semester!

    just kidding. good luck and keep up the good job with the blog.

  • admin

    cs@hbs: thanks! i loved reading through your blog when i was applying last year, so it’s the least i can do to offer the same in return.

    and as i sit here staring blankly at a short TOM case tonight, i’m starting to realize that difficulty isn’t always directly proportional to length. 🙂

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