An Approach to Case Analysis Winter 2006
What is a Case Study?
A case study is a description of an actual administrative situation involving a decision to be made or a problem to be solved. It can a real situation that actually happened just as described, or portions have been disguised for reasons of privacy. Most case studies are written in such a way that the reader takes the place of the manager whose responsibility is to make decisions to help solve the problem. In almost all case studies, a decision must be made, although that decision might be to leave the situation as it is and do nothing.
The Case Method as a Learning Tool
The case method of analysis is a learning tool in which students and Instructors participate in direct discussion of case studies, as opposed to the lecture method, where the Instructor speaks and students listen and take notes. In the case method, students teach themselves, with the Instructor being an active guide, rather than just a talking head delivering content. The focus is on students learning through their joint, co-operative effort.
Assigned cases are first prepared by students, and this preparation forms the basis for class discussion under the direction of the Instructor. Students learn, often unconsciously, how to evaluate a problem, how to make decisions, and how to orally argue a point of view. Using this method, they also learn how to think in terms of the problems faced by an administrator. In courses that use the case method extensively, a significant part of the student's evaluation may rest with classroom participation in case discussions, with another substantial portion resting on written case analyses. For these reasons, using the case method tends to be very intensive for both students and Instructor.
Case studies are used extensively thoughout most business programs at the university level, and The F.C. Manning School of Business Administration is no exception. As you will be using case studies in many of the courses over the next four years, it is important that you get off to a good start by learning the proper way to approach and complete them.
How to do a Case Study
While there is no one definitive "Case Method" or approach, there are common steps that most approaches recommend be followed in tackling a case study. It is inevitable that different Instructors will tell you to do things differently, this is part of life and will also be part of working for others. This variety is beneficial since it will show you different ways of approaching decision making. What follows is intended to be a rather general approach, portions of which have been taken from an excellent book entitled, Learning with Cases, by Erskine, Leenders, & Mauffette-Leenders, published by the Richard Ivey School of Business, The University of Western Ontario, 1997.
Beforehand (usually a week before), you will get:
- the case study,
- (often) some guiding questions that will need to be answered, and
- (sometimes) some reading assignments that have some relevance to the case subject.
- what you do to prepare before the class discussion,
- what takes place in the class discussion of the case, and
- anything required after the class discussion has taken place.
- Before the class discussion:
- Read the reading assignments (if any)
- Use the Short Cycle Process to familiarize yourself with the case.
- Use the Long Cycle Process to analyze the case
- Usually there will be group meetings to discuss your ideas.
- Write up the case (if required)
- In the class discussion:
- Someone will start the discussion, usually at the prompting of the Instructor.
- Listen carefully and take notes. Pay close attention to assumptions. Insist that they are clearly stated.
- Take part in the discussion. Your contribution is important, and is likely a part of your evaluation for the course.
- After the class discussion:
- Review ASAP after the class. Note what the key concept was and how the case fits into the course.
Preparing A Case Study
It helps to have a system when sitting down to prepare a case study as the amount of information and issues to be resolved can initially seem quite overwhelming. The following is a good way to start.
Step 1: The Short Cycle Process
- Quickly read the case. If it is a long case, at this stage you may want to read only the first few and last paragraphs. You should then be able to
- Answer the following questions:
- Who is the decision maker in this case, and what is their position and responsibilities?
- What appears to be the issue (of concern, problem, challenge, or opportunity) and its significance for the organization?
- Why has the issue arisen and why is the decision maker involved now?
- When does the decision maker have to decide, resolve, act or dispose of the issue? What is the urgency to the situation?
- Take a look at the Exhibits to see what numbers have been provided.
- Review the case subtitles to see what areas are covered in more depth.
- Review the case questions if they have been provided. This may give you some clues are what the main issues are to be resolved.
Step 2: The Long Cycle Process
At this point, the task consists of two parts:
- A detailed reading of the case, and then
- Analyzing the case.
- Opening paragraph: introduces the situation.
- Background information: industry, organization, products, history, competition, financial information, and anything else of significance.
- Specific (functional) area of interest: marketing, finance, operations, human resources, or integrated.
- The specific problem or decision(s) to be made.
- Alternatives open to the decision maker, which may or may not be stated in the case.
- Conclusion: sets up the task, any constraints or limitations, and the urgency of the situation.
Analyzing the case should take the following steps:
- Defining the issue(s)
- Analyzing the case data
- Generating alternatives
- Selecting decision criteria
- Analyzing and evaluating alternatives
- Selecting the preferred alternative
- Developing an action/implementation plan
Defining the issue(s)/Problem Statement
The problem statement should be a clear, concise statement of exactly what needs to be addressed. This is not easy to write! The work that you did in the short cycle process answered the basic questions. Now it is time to decide what the main issues to be addressed are going to be in much more detail. Asking yourself the following questions may help:
- What appears to be the problem(s) here?
- How do I know that this is a problem? Note that by asking this question, you will be helping to differentiate the symptoms of the problem from the problem itself. Example: while declining sales or unhappy employees are a problem to most companies, they are in fact, symptoms of underlying problems which need to addressed.
- What are the immediate issues that need to be addressed? This helps to differentiate between issues that can be resolved within the context of the case, and those that are bigger issues that needed to addressed at a another time (preferably by someone else!).
- Differentiate between importance and urgency for the issues identified. Some issues may appear to be urgent, but upon closer examination are relatively unimportant, while others may be far more important (relative to solving our problem) than urgent. You want to deal with important issues in order of urgency to keep focussed on your objective. Important issues are those that have a significant effect on:
- strategic direction of the company,
- source of competitive advantage,
- morale of the company's employees, and/or
- customer satisfaction.
Analyzing Case Data
In analyzing the case data, you are trying to answer the following:
- Why or how did these issues arise? You are trying to determine cause and effect for the problems identified. You cannot solve a problem that you cannot determine the cause of! It may be helpful to think of the organization in question as consisting of the following components:
- resources, such as materials, equipment, or supplies, and
- people who transform these resources using
- processes, which creates something of greater value.
- Who is affected most by this issues? You are trying to identify who are the relevant stakeholders to the situation, and who will be affected by the decisions to be made.
- What are the constraints and opportunities implicit to this situation? It is very rare that resources are not a constraint, and allocations must be made on the assumption that not enough will be available to please everyone.
- What do the numbers tell you? You need to take a look at the numbers given in the case study and make a judgement as to their relevance to the problem identified. Not all numbers will be immediately useful or relevant, but you need to be careful not to overlook anything. When deciding to analyze numbers, keep in mind why you are doing it, and what you intend to do with the result. Use common sense and comparisons to industry standards when making judgements as to the meaning of your answers to avoid jumping to conclusions.
This section deals with different ways in which the problem can be resolved. Typically, there are many (the joke is at least three), and being creative at this stage helps. Things to remember at this stage are:
- Be realistic! While you might be able to find a dozen alternatives, keep in mind that they should be realistic and fit within the constraints of the situation.
- The alternatives should be mutually exclusive, that is, they cannot happen at the same time.
- Not making a decision pending further investigation is not an acceptable decision for any case study that you will analyze. A manager can always delay making a decision to gather more information, which is not managing at all! The whole point to this exercise is to learn how to make good decisions, and having imperfect information is normal for most business decisions, not the exception.
- Doing nothing as in not changing your strategy can be a viable alternative, provided it is being recommended for the correct reasons, as will be discussed below.
- Avoid the meat sandwich method of providing only two other clearly undesirable alternatives to make one reasonable alternative look better by comparison. This will be painfully obvious to the reader, and just shows laziness on your part in not being able to come up with more than one decent alternative.
- Keep in mind that any alternative chosen will need to be implemented at some point, and if serious obstacles exist to successfully doing this, then you are the one who will look bad for suggesting it.
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Key Decision Criteria
A very important concept to understand, they answer the question of how you are going to decide which alternative is the best one to choose. Other than choosing randomly, we will always employ some criteria in making any decision. Think about the last time that you make a purchase decision for an article of clothing. Why did you choose the article that you did? The criteria that you may have used could have been:
- approval of friend/family
Key decision criteria should be:
- Brief, preferably in point form, such as
- improve (or at least maintain) profitability,
- increase sales, market share, or return on investment,
- maintain customer satisfaction, corporate image,
- be consistent with the corporate mission or strategy,
- within our present (or future) resources and capabilities,
- within acceptable risk parameters,
- ease or speed of implementation,
- employee morale, safety, or turnover,
- retain flexibility, and/or
- minimize environmental impact.
- Measurable, at least to the point of comparison, such as alternative A will improve profitability more that alternative B.
- Be related to your problem statement, and alternatives. If you find that you are talking about something else, that is a sign of a missing alternative or key decision criteria, or a poorly formed problem statement.
Evaluation of Alternatives
If you have done the above properly, this should be straightforward. You measure the alternatives against each key decision criteria. Often you can set up a simple table with key decision criteria as columns and alternatives as rows, and write this section based on the table. Each alternative must be compared to each criteria and its suitability ranked in some way, such as met/not met, or in relation to the other alternatives, such as better than, or highest. This will be important to selecting an alternative. Another method that can be used is to list the advantages and disadvantages (pros/cons) of each alternative, and then discussing the short and long term implications of choosing each. Note that this implies that you have already predicted the most likely outcome of each of the alternatives. Some students find it helpful to consider three different levels of outcome, such as best, worst, and most likely, as another way of evaluating alternatives.
You must have one! Business people are decision-makers; this is your opportunity to practice making decisions. Give a justification for your decision (use the KDC's). Check to make sure that it is one (and only one) of your Alternatives and that it does resolve what you defined as the Problem.
Structure of the Written Report
Different Instructors will require different formats for case reports, but they should all have roughly the same general content. For this course, the report should have the following sections in this order:
- Title page
- Table of contents
- Executive summary
- Problem (Issue) statement
- Data analysis
- Key Decision Criteria
- Alternatives analysis
- Action and Implementation Plan
Notes on Written Reports:
Always remember that you will be judged by the quality of your work, which includes your written work such as case study reports. Sloppy, dis-organized, poor quality work will say more about you than you probably want said! To ensure the quality of your written work, keep the following in mind when writing your report:
- Proof-read your work! Not just on the screen while you write it, but the hard copy after it is printed. Fix the errors before submitting.
- Use spell checker to eliminate spelling errors
- Use grammar checking to avoid common grammatical errors such as run on sentences.
- Note that restating of case facts is not included in the format of the case report, nor is it considered part of analysis. Anyone reading your report will be familiar with the case, and you need only to mention facts that are relevant to (and support) your analysis or recommendation as you need them.
- If you are going to include exhibits (particularly numbers) in your report, you will need to refer to them within the body of your report, not just tack them on at the end! This reference should be in the form of supporting conclusions that you are making in your analysis. The reader should not have to guess why particular exhibits have been included, nor what they mean. If you do not plan to refer to them, then leave them out.
- Write in a formal manner suitable for scholarly work, rather than a letter to a friend.
- Common sense and logical thinking can do wonders for your evaluation!
- You should expect that the computer lab's printer will not be functioning in the twelve hours prior to your deadline for submission. Plan for it!
- Proof-read your work! Have someone else read it too! (particularly if english is not your first language) This second pair of eyes will give you an objective opinion of how well your report holds together.
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The purpose of a paper in the social sciences designed around a case study is to thoroughly investigate a subject of analysis in order to reveal a new understanding about the research problem and, in so doing, contributing new knowledge to what is already known from previous studies. In general, the structure of a case study research paper is not all that different from a standard college-level research paper. However, there are subtle differences you should be aware of. Here are the key elements to organizing and writing a case study research paper.
As with any research paper, your introduction should serve as a roadmap for your readers to ascertain the scope and purpose of your study. The introduction to a case study research paper, however, should not only describe the research problem and its significance, but you should also succinctly describe why the case is being used and how it relates to addressing the problem. The two elements should be linked. With this in mind, a good introduction answers these four questions:
- What was I studying? Describe the research problem and describe the subject of analysis you have chosen to address the problem. Explain how they are linked and what elements of the case will help to expand knowledge and understanding about the problem.
- Why was this topic important to investigate? Describe the significance of the research problem and state why a case study design and the subject of analysis that the paper is designed around is appropriate in addressing the problem.
- What did we know about this topic before I did this study? Provide background that helps lead the reader into the more in-depth literature review to follow. If applicable, summarize prior case study research applied to the research problem and why it fails to adequately address the research problem. Describe why your case will be useful. If no prior case studies have been used to address the research problem, explain why you have selected this subject of analysis.
- How will this study advance new knowledge or new ways of understanding? Explain why your case study will be suitable in helping to expand knowledge and understanding about the research problem.
Each of these questions should be addressed in no more than a few paragraphs. Exceptions to this can be when you are addressing a complex research problem or subject of analysis that requires more in-depth background information.
II. Literature Review
The literature review for a case study research paper is generally structured the same as it is for any college-level research paper. The difference, however, is that the literature review is focused on providing background information and enabling historical interpretation of the subject of analysis in relation to the research problem the case is intended to address. This includes synthesizing studies that help to:
- Place relevant works in the context of their contribution to understanding the case study being investigated. This would include summarizing studies that have used a similar subject of analysis to investigate the research problem. If there is literature using the same or a very similar case to study, you need to explain why duplicating past research is important [e.g., conditions have changed; prior studies were conducted long ago, etc.].
- Describe the relationship each work has to the others under consideration that informs the reader why this case is applicable. Your literature review should include a description of any works that support using the case to study the research problem and the underlying research questions.
- Identify new ways to interpret prior research using the case study. If applicable, review any research that has examined the research problem using a different research design. Explain how your case study design may reveal new knowledge or a new perspective or that can redirect research in an important new direction.
- Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies. This refers to synthesizing any literature that points to unresolved issues of concern about the research problem and describing how the subject of analysis that forms the case study can help resolve these existing contradictions.
- Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research. Your review should examine any literature that lays a foundation for understanding why your case study design and the subject of analysis around which you have designed your study may reveal a new way of approaching the research problem or offer a perspective that points to the need for additional research.
- Expose any gaps that exist in the literature that the case study could help to fill. Summarize any literature that not only shows how your subject of analysis contributes to understanding the research problem, but how your case contributes to a new way of understanding the problem that prior research has failed to do.
- Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important!]. Collectively, your literature review should always place your case study within the larger domain of prior research about the problem. The overarching purpose of reviewing pertinent literature in a case study paper is to demonstrate that you have thoroughly identified and synthesized prior studies in the context of explaining the relevance of the case in addressing the research problem.
In this section, you explain why you selected a particular subject of analysis to study and the strategy you used to identify and ultimately decide that your case was appropriate in addressing the research problem. The way you describe the methods used varies depending on the type of subject of analysis that frames your case study.
If your subject of analysis is an incident or event. In the social and behavioral sciences, the event or incident that represents the case to be studied is usually bounded by time and place, with a clear beginning and end and with an identifiable location or position relative to its surroundings. The subject of analysis can be of a rare or critical event or focus on a typical or regular event. The purpose of studying a rare event is to illuminate new ways of thinking about the broader research problem or to test a hypothesis. Critical incident case studies must describe the method by which you identified the event and explain the process by which you determined the validity of this case to inform broader perspectives about the research problem or to reveal new findings. However, the event does not have to be a rare or uniquely significant to support new thinking about the research problem or to challenge an existing hypothesis. For example, Walo, Bull, and Breen conducted a case study to identify and evaluate the direct and indirect economic benefits and costs of a local sports event in the City of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia. The purpose of their study was to provide new insights from measuring the impact of a typical local sports event that prior studies could not measure well because they focused on large "mega-events." Whether the event is rare or not, the methods section should include an explanation of the following characteristics of the event: when did it take place; what were the underlying circumstances leading to the event; what were the consequences of the event
If your subject of analysis is a person. Explain why you selected this particular individual to be studied and describe what experience he or she has had that provides an opportunity to advance new understandings about the research problem. Mention any background about this person which might help the reader understand the significance of his/her experiences that make them worthy of study. This includes describing the relationships this person has had with other people, institutions, and/or events that support using him or her as the subject for a case study research paper. It is particularly important to differentiate the person as the subject of analysis from others and to succinctly explain how the person relates to examining the research problem.
If your subject of analysis is a place. In general, a case study that investigates a place suggests a subject of analysis that is unique or special in some way and that this uniqueness can be used to build new understanding or knowledge about the research problem. A case study of a place must not only describe its various attributes relevant to the research problem [e.g., physical, social, cultural, economic, political, etc.], but you must state the method by which you determined that this place will illuminate new understandings about the research problem. It is also important to articulate why a particular place as the case for study is being used if similar places also exist [i.e., if you are studying patterns of homeless encampments of veterans in open spaces, why study Echo Park in Los Angeles rather than Griffith Park?] and, if applicable, what type of human activity involving this place makes it a good choice to study [prior research reveals Echo Park has more homeless veterans].
If your subject of analysis is a phenomenon. A phenomenon refers to a fact, occurrence, or circumstance that can be studied or observed but with the cause or explanation to be in question. In this sense, a phenomenon that forms your subject of analysis can encompass anything that can be observed or presumed to exist but is not fully understood. In the social and behavioral sciences, the case usually focuses on human interaction within a complex physical, social, economic, cultural, or political system. For example, the phenomenon could be the observation that many vehicles used by ISIS fighters are small trucks with English language advertisements on them. The research problem could be that ISIS fighters are difficult to combat because they are highly mobile. The research questions could be how and by what means are these vehicles used by ISIS being supplied to the militants and how might supply lines to these vehicles be cut? How might knowing the suppliers of these trucks from overseas reveal larger networks of collaborators and financial support? A case study of a phenomenon most often encompasses an in-depth analysis of a cause and effect that is grounded in an interactive relationship between people and their environment in some way.
NOTE: Evidence that supports the method by which you identified and chose your subject of analysis should be linked to the findings from the literature review. Be sure to cite any prior studies that helped you determine that the case you chose was appropriate for investigating the research problem.
The main elements of your discussion section are generally the same as any research paper, but centered around interpreting and drawing conclusions about the key findings from your case study. Note that a general social sciences research paper may contain a separate section to report findings. However, in a paper designed around a case study, it is more common to combine a description of the findings with the discussion about their implications. The objectives of your discussion section should include the following:
Reiterate the Research Problem/State the Major Findings
Briefly reiterate the research problem you are investigating and explain why the subject of analysis around which you designed the case study were used. You should then describe the findings revealed from your study of the case using direct, declarative, and succinct proclamation of the study results. Highlight any findings that were unexpected or especially profound.
Explain the Meaning of the Findings and Why They are Important
Systematically explain the meaning of your case study findings and why you believe they are important. Begin this part of the section by repeating what you consider to be your most important or surprising finding first, then systematically review each finding. Be sure to thoroughly extrapolate what your analysis of the case can tell the reader about situations or conditions beyond the actual case that was studied while, at the same time, being careful not to misconstrue or conflate a finding that undermines the external validity of your conclusions.
Relate the Findings to Similar Studies
No study in the social sciences is so novel or possesses such a restricted focus that it has absolutely no relation to previously published research. The discussion section should relate your case study results to those found in other studies, particularly if questions raised from prior studies served as the motivation for choosing your subject of analysis. This is important because comparing and contrasting the findings of other studies helps to support the overall importance of your results and it highlights how and in what ways your case study design and the subject of analysis differs from prior research about the topic.
Consider Alternative Explanations of the Findings
It is important to remember that the purpose of social science research is to discover and not to prove. When writing the discussion section, you should carefully consider all possible explanations for the case study results, rather than just those that fit your hypothesis or prior assumptions and biases. Be alert to what the in-depth analysis of the case may reveal about the research problem, including offering a contrarian perspective to what scholars have stated in prior research.
Acknowledge the Study's Limitations
You can state the study's limitations in the conclusion section of your paper but describing the limitations of your subject of analysis in the discussion section provides an opportunity to identify the limitations and explain why they are not significant. This part of the discussion section should also note any unanswered questions or issues your case study could not address. More detailed information about how to document any limitations to your research can be found here.
Suggest Areas for Further Research
Although your case study may offer important insights about the research problem, there are likely additional questions related to the problem that remain unanswered or findings that unexpectedly revealed themselves as a result of your in-depth analysis of the case. Be sure that the recommendations for further research are linked to the research problem and that you explain why your recommendations are valid in other contexts and based on the original assumptions of your study.
As with any research paper, you should summarize your conclusion in clear, simple language; emphasize how the findings from your case study differs from or supports prior research and why. Do not simply reiterate the discussion section. Provide a synthesis of key findings presented in the paper to show how these converge to address the research problem. If you haven't already done so in the discussion section, be sure to document the limitations of your case study and needs for further research.
The function of your paper's conclusion is to: 1) restate the main argument supported by the findings from the analysis of your case; 2) clearly state the context, background, and necessity of pursuing the research problem using a case study design in relation to an issue, controversy, or a gap found from reviewing the literature; and, 3) provide a place for you to persuasively and succinctly restate the significance of your research problem, given that the reader has now been presented with in-depth information about the topic.
Consider the following points to help ensure your conclusion is appropriate:
- If the argument or purpose of your paper is complex, you may need to summarize these points for your reader.
- If prior to your conclusion, you have not yet explained the significance of your findings or if you are proceeding inductively, use the conclusion of your paper to describe your main points and explain their significance.
- Move from a detailed to a general level of consideration of the case study's findings that returns the topic to the context provided by the introduction or within a new context that emerges from your case study findings.
Note that, depending on the discipline you are writing in and your professor's preferences, the concluding paragraph may contain your final reflections on the evidence presented applied to practice or on the essay's central research problem. However, the nature of being introspective about the subject of analysis you have investigated will depend on whether you are explicitly asked to express your observations in this way.
Problems to Avoid
One of the goals of a case study is to lay a foundation for understanding broader trends and issues applied to similar circumstances. However, be careful when drawing conclusions from your case study. They must be evidence-based and grounded in the results of the study; otherwise, it is merely speculation. Looking at a prior example, it would be incorrect to state that a factor in improving girls access to education in Azerbaijan and the policy implications this may have for improving access in other Muslim nations is due to girls access to social media if there is no documentary evidence from your case study to indicate this. There may be anecdotal evidence that retention rates were better for girls who were on social media, but this observation would only point to the need for further research and would not be a definitive finding if this was not a part of your original research agenda.
Failure to Document Limitations
No case is going to reveal all that needs to be understood about a research problem. Therefore, just as you have to clearly state the limitations of a general research study, you must describe the specific limitations inherent in the subject of analysis. For example, the case of studying how women conceptualize the need for water conservation in a village in Uganda could have limited application in other cultural contexts or in areas where fresh water from rivers or lakes is plentiful and, therefore, conservation is understood differently than preserving access to a scarce resource.
Failure to Extrapolate All Possible Implications
Just as you don't want to over-generalize from your case study findings, you also have to be thorough in the consideration of all possible outcomes or recommendations derived from your findings. If you do not, your reader may question the validity of your entire analysis, particularly if you failed to document an obvious outcome from your case study research. For example, in the case of studying the accident at the railroad crossing to evaluate where and what types of warning signals should be located, you failed to take into consideration speed limit signage as well as warning signals. When designing your case study, be sure you have thoroughly addressed all aspects of the problem and do not leave gaps in your analysis.
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