It was 2018 and Dr. Caren Scheepers was assessing her stock-in-trade: the business school case study. As an academic, a practitioner, a teacher and a writer, she knew that the human imagination was sparked by storytelling, by immersing oneself in another’s reality. What makes a good case study, she pondered? She gazed out of her window at the central campus quadrangle, watching it come to life as

GIBS students will know this protagonist-driven case study format all too well. They’ll have eked out lessons from the likes of the Unjani Clinics in a Container case study on social franchising, pored over the story of Soweto Gold’s iconic craft beer brand, or drilled down into the management and strategic issues which led to MTN’s US$5.2 billion fine in Nigeria. In each instance, exposure to this storytelling form of learning allows the author to lead the student on a journey of exploration, and impart important philosophical, theoretical and practical insights along the way.

Such has been the success of the case study approach to learning that Harvard Business School, which first used the method in 1912, exposes its full-time MBA students to over 200 case studies. Explains Professor Margie Sutherland: “They (Harvard) say by doing 200 cases these students learn about the dry cleaning industry, they learn about mining and healthcare, they are getting a vicarious experience by doing these case studies.”

GIBS has a long and proud history of using case studies, dating back to the early days of the business school. GIBS Senior Lecturer and prolific case study writer Dr. Caren Scheepers remembers only too well how, 12 years ago, she attended a course on teaching the practice of management in Kenya. “The Association of African Business Schools arranged it and GIBS was very involved, even back then. That’s when I fell in love with cases. Nick Binedell was teaching the case and it was like magic,” she recalls. It’s only in the last four years that Scheepers has become, what she calls, a “converted academic” and in that time, she has published 20 case studies, winning GIBS’ most prolific case writer award in 2017.

But she still sees room for improvement. “Of my 20 cases, I’m the first one to admit, not one is a woman protagonist nor of colour,” says Scheepers. “It was quite a shock when I realised that. We say these things easily but we don’t always practice what we preach.” This is not unusual: in 2017, The Washington Post reported that “less than 1% of the 10 000 case studies published by Harvard Business School feature black business leaders”.  

But, stresses Scheepers: “Case studies are perfect for Africa, because telling stories around the braai or campfire is part of us being a storytelling continent. So it fits very well with Africa.”

Sunderland agrees: “There are a zillion American cases and a couple of European cases and one or two good ones coming out of China, but we need to develop African knowledge of great African leadership… and there are very few cases written with black protagonists. I would like us to do many more with black leaders so that our black students, who are the majority, can identify with better role models. We always need to be looking for great African stories.”

GIBS’ output of 12 published case studies in 2017 (2016: 8; 2015: 7; 2014: 6) is a far cry from Harvard Business School’s dominance of the global case study output (about 80% of cases used in business schools originate from this institution), but Danie Petzer, Director of Research at GIBS, stresses that case studies “are an exciting element of what we do”. Already, in 2018, GIBS has published seven cases, with more in the pipeline, adding to a growing knowledge base which speaks to local (and African) general management, and focuses on areas including diversity and inclusion, ethics and governance, business in Africa and entrepreneurship.

Given GIBS’ emerging market focus, Petzer says a number of cases are published through the Emerald Emerging Market Case Collection, which is edited by former GIBS lecturer Michael Goldman. The other outlet is Canada-based Ivey Publishing. From a format and procedure perspective both follow a similar peer-review focus and both offer the opportunity to share insights on the world stage. But getting a case published is an art in itself and it begins with a compelling story.

What makes a good case study?

A good case study allows the students to put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist, says Scheepers. “The case will have a clear dilemma around decision-making… That starts a debate or raises an ethical dilemma and that brings out different perspectives in the classroom and creates energy.”

It should never be too long, or too complex, badly written or lacking in a model or theory underpinning the message, says Sutherland. Plus there must always a degree of tension to a good case study: It’s almost like writing a murder mystery, you should only find out at the end ‘who did it’.

How do you write a case study?

There are a number of ways of tackling the creative process, and Scheepers’ preference is to collaborate. “I love that because I’m learning from other people. We usually do the interviews together … so it depends on how many interviews you do [although five is recommended if you want to publish the case].”

How important is the teaching note?

“To get our cases published internationally we have to write a teaching note, which is often longer than the case study,” says Sunderland. “There I would highlight the questions [the lecturer] can ask the class, how you’d time the class using the case … and give model answers to questions. So another lecturer is getting all your thinking, but the students are never exposed to the teaching note.”

Where do the ideas come from?

Petzer and his team are constantly on the lookout for good case study material. Sunderland notes, however, that many of her cases came about due to synchronicity. She highlights beauty salon Sorbet as an example. She tried out the service after receiving a voucher and was so impressed she contacted Ian Fuhr about writing a case study. “He gave us fantastic access. I think it’s been GIBS’ most used case,” she says. “I’ve taught it to engineering companies who might wonder what they can learn from a beauty salon, but at the end of the session they really get it.”

How involved should the company be?

Scheepers explains that access to the organisation is crucial: “If they [the company] buy into it and want to tell the story then it goes fairly quickly. I do the interview, I get my transcription and I write the story.” But that does not mean that a case study cannot be written based solely on research, such as the MTN and the Nigerian fine case by Prof. Albert Wöcke and Paul Beamish.

Who writes case studies?

Petzer explains that, at GIBS, it’s usually faculty members who write case studies and receive a research reward for doing so. These academics often choose to work together with other individuals, such as research associates. “Currently two research associates are working with NetFlorist CEO Ryan Bacher on a case study,” he notes.

While GIBS doesn’t have a dedicated case writing centre, this approach of encouraging submissions is producing quality results. One example is the 2017 Building the BrightRock Brand Through Change case study, authored by lecturers Michael Goldman, Mignon Reyneke and Tendai Mhizha and published by Emerald. This publication has been downloaded 812 times in past 12 months making it the third-most downloaded case during this time period.

Can MBA students write case studies?

In 2018 a new pilot was unveiled which gives full-time MBAs the option to write a case study rather than the traditional monograph, says Petzer. Successful applicants will be partnered with a supervisor to write a case study and a teaching note, which could also go on to be published. Furthermore, GIBS recently launched a case study writing competition, which is open to faculty, research associates, professional associates, staff members and students.

How do you get a case study published?

Once written, the case study goes into a review process ahead of publication. In Scheepers’ experience, it takes about a year to get published, depending on the publishing house and the reviewer. 

RECOMMENDED READING

Dr. Freddie R. Acosta, How and Why Do We Write Cases? Strathmore Business School, Kenya

Lluís R. Cava, What is a Good Case? Universidad de Navarra, IESE Business School, Spain

William Ellet, The Case Study Handbook: How to Read, Discuss, and Write Persuasively About Cases, Harvard Business Review Press, USA

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