While accumulated knowledge based upon experience is readily communicated through education and learning, its practical application to the solution of specific problems calls for the exercise of skills and judgement. Although such skills and judgement may be developed through a process of trial and error i.e. personal experimentation, the potential dangers are such that novices or apprentices are encouraged to work with skilled practitioners under supervision before being qualified to practice in their own right. Case methods are among the oldest means employed by humankind in describing, exploring, and explaining various phenomena.
The earliest usage of the case study technique is attributed to Hippocrates who presented 14 classic case studies of disease some 2300 years ago. In the field of sociology the case research approach is closely associated with the members of the Frederik lePlay School of France and the Chicago School, and the method was used extensively by Malinowski in founding the modern anthropological tradition.
Noting that the training of medical practitioners involved considerable 'book learning' based upon the analysis of written cases before being exposed to actual patients for diagnosis and prescription the world renowned Harvard Business School adopted the case method as a medium for preparing postgraduate students for careers in business. Under this method groups of students (around 120 in each 'section') are required to read the description of some kind of business problem which is then discussed in a classroom session of approximately one hour and 20 minutes, moderated by an instructor. While this approach is sometimes referred to as the ‘democracy of the classroom’ in that all attending can express their views on the problem and its solution, obviously, the instructors (in the first year there are probably eight sections working in parallel on the same cases) will have an agreed view on the nature of the problem and the courses of action available for its solution. Accordingly, when summarising the classroom discussion they will tend to emphasise contributions that conform with the more extensive analysis agreed on by the experienced instructors.
In the course of their two-year study Harvard MBAs will discuss over 1000 case studies and the School invests considerable resources into the preparation and writing of cases as a medium for instruction. As the majority of these cases describe real-world events and experiences it is understandable that they often resonate more with practitioners than purely theoretical explanations. It is for this reason that SB wishes to attract the submission of such case studies for publication.
The essence of the case study is that it is a detailed account of an issue or event, the actions taken by an organisation and/or individuals in response to this event and of the perceived outcomes arising from this action. On the website of Colorado State University, case studies are described as follows:
"Case studies typically examine the interplay of all variables in order to provide as complete an understanding of an event or situation as possible. This type of comprehensive understanding is arrived at through a process known as thick description, which involves an in-depth description of the entity being evaluated, the circumstances under which it is used, the characteristics of the people involved, and the nature of the community in which it is located. Thick description also involves interpreting the meaning of demographic and descriptive data such as cultural norms and mores, community values, ingrained attitudes, and motives."
Case studies are particularly appropriate for addressing questions about how or why something has occurred or taken place. Their intent is to come up with a "holistic understanding of the event or situation in question using inductive logic". In other words, seeking to generalise from the particular. As a research method the development of case studies is regarded as a qualitative approach which may be termed grounded theory, ethnography, a field study or participant observation. (http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/research/casestudy/ (accessed 20/5/2010).
The best-known and most widely cited text on case study research is by Robert K Yin Case Study Research: Design and Methods, (Fourth edition, 2009, Sage Publications Inc.). This book is a useful reference for persons considering using case studies as a research methodology. However, while there are a number of different approaches to the writing of case studies SB is primarily interested in those which describe and illustrate instances or events that exemplify the application of social business concepts in a particular situation or context. In their guide "How to… write a Case study" Emerald observe:
"A Case study involves focusing on a set of issues in some contemporary setting, usually but not exclusively an organisation, or perhaps a department or sector of an organisation. It may use just one case or number of cases linked together by a theme. Among its uses are:
• To describe a particularly interesting set of circumstances, from which lessons can be drawn for other organisations….
• To illustrate the particular theory or conceptual framework by reference to a specific example, or to test how a particular set of circumstances may give rise to certain outcomes by reference to a particular case.
• To describe a rare phenomenon or very unusual organisation, e.g. a library service for commuters.”
(http://www.emeraldinsight.com/authors/guides/case.htm?PHPSESSId=gk7o8kni3562vd accessed 21 May 2010)
These are the kinds of cases in which SB is primarily interested as they provide the basis for discussion and action learning.