The Case Study Handbook - William Elliot

Don't tell anyone, but I've been doing an online non-accredited executive MBA. I like MOOCs, and when someone offers the chance to bundle up a whole pile of "how business works" topics into a convenient format, I'm going to take it.

One element of this course is doing case studies. Unlike an HBS degree or whatever, the course is not heavy on case studies, but a few are thrown in as graded exercises. The issue with this is that without practice or explanation, it's not clear what the case study method is about and how to best answer case studies.

Reading around the topic, it seems the aim of the case study method is to be a bit more like business - rather than be handed ideas on a plate, you're loaded up with a pile of information, some of which may be irrelevant or distracting, and you're expected to sort it into a structured format and pull out the ideas yourself.

I must admit, I don't fully buy it, at least as far as it being more "realistic" than more usual methods of teaching. Maybe there are jobs where you're handed a pile of docs and asked to analyse them, but my career has involved a lot more analysis through iteration and talking to people.

Having said that, business people seem to love them, and I guess they're the equivalent of a big pile of exercises to work through on, say, a maths course. So how do you approach them?

That's what this book is about. The short version is "Don't read the full case study text, with all the irrelevancies and distractions. Think about the questions you're asked, build decision criteria needed to decide the answer to those questions, and then pull apart the text looking for evidence for those criteria." The long version is this book.

It's painfully formulaic. It's the kind of book that carefully tells you what it's going to tell you, tells you it, and then tells you it's told you it. Perhaps this is thoroughness, but... nah, it's just spun out. The book is illustrated with three case studies that pretty much take up a quarter of the book, and represent some of the best content of the book. They do make the whole idea of case studies much clearer.

Is the book worth it? Probably not. It's long-winded and overpriced for the amount of content it provides, even if the core content is good. I think it's slightly leaning on the "HBR Press" publisher. Maybe this level of structure is good for a young business school student, but it didn't really work for me.

Posted 2020-02-08.