Is There Value to Using Case Studies in Business?



Books (Photo credit: Rodrigo Galindez)

Harvard first developed case studies as a way to engage students in their executive training programs. Complex or difficult cases were presented to students and they were asked to familiarize themselves with the materials as well as gather additional information. They would then be tasked with suggesting reasons for the problem outlined in the case and possible solutions. The cases allowed students to take a very practical look at real world challenges. They were not geared to have one “right” outcome, but allowed for many different solutions.

The case study in the social sciences is more of an analysis of an individual, project or organization and is used to showcase exceptions or standard behaviour. A case study in this context is really a research approach, a real life examination.

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) frequently shares case studies with its members. These studies are useful tools that work in a different way from either the business or social science approach. In this instance the purpose of the case study is to show how a problem or challenge can be successfully resolved. These documents are usually a few pages long and provide details around the challenge and resolution. They are a great way to explore possible solutions for your own challenges and the ideas showcased can often be modified for alternate use.

When I was in school case studies were interesting things. They brought life to the phenomenon that was described in my sociology textbooks. Where the text was often dry and uninteresting, the case studies made the subjects compelling. They brought the issues to life. As a communicator, case studies are often what I use to explain why I think a certain direction should be taken or why we should avoid another. Yet when I look around at business sites, the case studies there rarely resemble those illuminating stories I recall.

Although case studies are meant to illustrate how the firm works and supposedly thinks, too often those objectives are forgotten in the rush to showcase big name clients or big money projects. The challenges illustrated in the studies are not complex, unusual, difficult or in any way challenging. In fact, many of the case studies I’ve read recently made me think that the company involved would have to be staffed by idiots not to resolve the challenges with ease. More concerning, the way problems were resolved not only lacked imagination but did not seem particularly geared towards the client.

I was so disheartened by what I was seeing that I was tempted to tell my own clients to avoid these stories on their websites, but that was not the right answer. This takes me back to Harvard and my own recollections. The case studies there were compelling. They were written to intrigue, to provoke conversation and engage thought. Here is an example of a case study presented by Harvard:

It was five minutes before show time, and only 15 people had wandered into the conference room to hear Lancaster-Webb CEO Will Somerset introduce the company’s latest line of surgical gloves. More important, sales prospect Samuel Taylor, medical director of the Houston Clinic, had failed to show. Will walked out of the ballroom to steady his nerves and noticed a spillover crowd down the hall. He made a “What’s up?” gesture to Judy Chen, Lancaster-Webb’s communications chief. She came over to him. “It’s Glove Girl. You know, the blogger,” Judy said, as if this explained anything. “I think she may have stolen your crowd.” “Who is she?” Will asked. Glove Girl was a factory worker at Lancaster-Webb, whose always outspoken, often informative postings on her web log had developed quite a following. Will was new to the world of blogging, but he quickly learned about its power in a briefing with his staff. After Glove Girl had raved about Lancaster-Webb’s older SteriTouch disposable gloves, orders had surged. More recently, though, Glove Girl had questioned the Houston Clinic’s business practices, posting damaging information at her site about its rate of cesarean deliveries–to Sam Taylor’s consternation. This fictional case study considers the question of whether a highly credible, but sometimes inaccurate and often indiscreet, online diarist is more of a liability than an asset to her employer. What, if anything, should Will do about Glove Girl?

Although the story was not about life and death, it does capture your interest. It also doesn’t go on for pages. A solution should be equally short and be as interesting as the problem. Case studies are a great way to engage current and future clients. They showcase how you think as effectively as a blog, but they show the practical side of your skills. There are a few considerations to keep in mind if you use case studies.

Tips For Case Studies

  1. Write as though you are telling a story. Provide a setting and context for your characters and choose your hero (here’s a hint: the client is the hero).
  2. Keep the story short, 250 words is plenty to set the scene. The next 250 should resolve the issue.
  3. If you prefer shorter stories, then state the problem in a couple of short descriptive sentences and the solution should be equally briefly. This approach works well for people who are looking around your site and just want a taste of what you are about. For an example of doing this well, check out, Jeanette Paladino does an excellent job of briefly profiling the challenge and how she resolved it.
  4. No matter your approach, make sure you get the client’s permission to tell their story.

Have you ever used a case study to make your point or sell a skill? Has a story of someone else’s experience ever helped you to decide on using a service or maybe avoiding one? Do you look at case studies or testimonials when you go to a site? If so, what do you think? If not, how come?



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0 responses to “Is There Value to Using Case Studies in Business?

  • Another great post, Debra. Thx for getting us thinking about case studies. I really like the short example you gave. It proves that case studies don’t have to long drawn out rhetoric. I think we all need to learn from example, and that testimonials are invaluable. If the case study takes that into account and doesn’t drown us in detail, it is a worthwhile endeavour.

  • Though I never did any case study to sell any skill but i do look for testimonials before trusting a person. We were encouraged to do case studies on environmental resources during engineering days. But Since small mistakes during data collection can result in changing the output of the case study, so I try to find out how these studies are done before trusting it fully.

    • Your comment on the impact of the data collection on the outcome of the case study is an interesting one for me. The case studies I had in mine are not the more rigorous scientific ones, but I think you make a good point about the accuracy of the data being important. If you were talking about a marketing campaign in a case study then it should take into consideration any external factors that would influence the success of the campaign. For instance, if the South Korean tourism board launched a push to visit at the same time that Psy’s Gangnam style was popular on YouTube it would be hard to say if their promotion worked.

  • I’ve read lots of case studies, but mainly in the field of rhetoric and composition. I can’t recall reading a business case study, though I can imagine they must tend to be pretty dry. The story aspect seems a given, but it’s not surprising that often goes by the wayside.

    • Story telling seems so central to effective communications that I’m amazed how often it’s abandoned in business where communications sits at the heart of productivity. I may have a bias however, I’ve always thought sociologists, writers and psychologists were a better fit for business than most MBAs. No doubt someone will send me a nasty message for saying so. 🙂

  • Before I read your blog, my answer was Yes! Case studies, or in my case, client stories, are the backbone of my topics when I speak. Because I can use a real-life example to demonstrate the challenge, how it was solved (with my help, of course!) and how the problem could have been avoided. They keep the audience engaged and I can see by the look on their faces that many can identify with my subject matter. When I was in college, my favorite professors were the ones who could teach by using everyday examples to which I could relate. I say, bring on more case studies; I find them fascinating and useful.

    • It’s so true, we learn from stories. They allow us to make sense of amorphous ideas. Through stories we can imagine ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist and get to see how problems are approached, assessed and resolved.

  • Debra — first, thanks for the shout-out! I must say the Harvard fictional case study had me by the hairs. It’s difficult to write a compelling case study. I think the reason you may have liked mine is that they are projects I’m quite proud of. The results really made a difference to the client. That’s the key in any case study: did the solution solve a real problem and make demonstrable difference?

  • I can’t remember how many group papers I ended up writing dealing with different case studies when I was in business school. I think at least one for every class. Kinda strange that since I have been out of schhol I hadn’t even thought of them.

  • I used case studies myself as a teaching tool for my sales people…I made them up from experiences. Maybe this was my first foray into writing, come to think of it. But I have to agree with Alison above…I always ended the talk with there is no one solution 🙂 But I also found, surprisingly. that reviewing history often sparked a new idea for the future. Great post Deb!

    • I agree Jacqueline that a case study shouldn’t limit ideas by suggesting there is only one right answer, instead they should open the reader up to how to approach solving a problem. In many respects, the way to the solution is by far more interesting to me than the solution itself.

  • As a former Behavior Therapist, I would meet with other counselors in order to discuss certain behaviors, displayed by our clients. As Alison indicated, we did not use the term , “case studies,” but targeted the problem itself. Problematic individuals do differ, therefore, using case studies would not be relevant to our intervention methods. I did, however, use case studies in my other businesses. Some worked, others were a complete disaster. What might work for some one else, might not work for you. Thank you. Good read. Blessings.

    • Very true about case studies not presenting the “correct” answer. They simply show how one answer was achieved. I find them useful for illustrating problem solving techniques and demonstrating how people think when tasked with solving a challenge.

  • Boring case studies are common, not just at Harvard but most universities. Personally believe it’s much better to tell a good story that captivates people.

  • Hi Debra. Case studies certainly have their place but like you I started out a little sceptical. My Exec MBA courses at Western used Harvard case studies but at the time many were either facile or based on premises that had become outdated. In business I found that good ones were useful for helping line managers to think outside of their usual discipline and this helped both with cooperation and with rounding out their capability for promotion. Prior to your article I had not connected the idea to blogging so …..Thanks !

    • It’s funny how we come at things. One of the appealing aspects of blogging to me is that it gives me a chance to explore ideas and get feedback from different perspectives. From a business standpoint a blog let’s your customers know how you think and can illustrate how you work. In many respects a blog can be like a series of case studies, particularly if the stories told are about events that have happened.

  • As you mentioned, many times case studies on a particular business website are dry and not very inspiring. They certainly don’t reach out a grab your attention. On the contrary, they put you to sleep. I agree that anytime you can tell an engaging story instead about a study in such a way that entertains, will gain interest and keep us reading. Just my thoughts. 🙂

    • Susan you have mastered the art of story telling and use it to communicate what are often very complex, emotional and psychological ideas. If all case studies operated in the same way they would be immensely useful.

  • Years ago I took a night course at Harvard Business School that involved case studies. It was the least valuable course I have ever taken. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating, but it didn’t warm me over to case studies. I prefer learning programming or art – business I seem to learn from successful business people! I do like the idea of using storytelling, however. Jeanette Paladino does do this well.

    • Hahahahahahahha… I think people do have very different reactions to case studies and they are definitely not all created equal. I don’t always read them myself, but I have been struck by how effective they can when done well.

  • Meaty subject! When I worked as a counselor, my favorite hour of the work-week was clinical supervision, when a group of us discussed case studies (though we didn’t use that exact term). As you describe, it was all about delving into problems and solutions. My favorite quote from those years: “There is nothing that ALWAYS works.” — Which keeps you humble, nimble, and alert to the complexity of human beings.

    You could say I used myself and a couple of friends as case studies in my latest blog post on how to get through the death of a loved one. Deaths and the grief they trigger are problems we will all face. Coping techniques are the solution. Like you, Debra, I’m fond of problem-solving :).

    • When I worked as a lobbyist one of the the things I liked best was being able to share the challenges I had with my fellow consultants. It wasn’t just the camaraderie, it was a chance to hear different perspectives being brought to bear on the same problem. I’m amazed by how innovative people are and pleased see to see there are always numerous ways of getting things done.

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