Christopher Columbus Langdell is considered the founder of the case method. History of case study starts when he becomes a dean in Harvard University. Langdell practically opened a new field in teaching, much like his famous namesake discovered America in his time. In the same way, at first he had to face difficulties, distrust and resistance of supporters of traditional education. Langdell served as dean of the law school at Harvard University. He himself was a graduate of this school, having studied there twice the allotted time and spent the extra time working at the Harvard Library. Langdell carefully studied numerous court cases and had a truly encyclopedic knowledge in this area.
At that time, students at law schools were studying by listening to lectures and studying textbooks, in which interpretations of normative acts were collected, and best practices of applying laws were described. Students memorized the material and then reproduced it in front of the teacher in class. They got this experience much later when they started practicing real practice. Langdell suggested the opposite approach, interrupting the tradition of constant cramming. Having become a dean in 1870, he immediately began to implement the case-study method — a method of analyzing real situations, inviting students to familiarize themselves with the original materials of the case and draw their own conclusion. To facilitate this work, he prepared a special collection of training materials — cases, providing each case with a small two-page introduction. In the classroom, students with the help of Langdell discussed the facts, revealed controversial points, studied the arguments of the parties, talked about the doctrines and principles underlying the case, and compared them with other legal cases.
Innovation = Conflict
At first, the innovation met sharp resistance and outrage from the students. Speaking on a given topic turned out to be much more difficult than simply reproducing a learned text. Many of the students “voted with their feet” — during the first three years of the introduction of the new method, the number of applicants decreased from 165 to 117.
Nevertheless, Langdell retained his post, and by 1895 the case study method was firmly
established in the Harvard Law School, and with it in six elite law universities (in Columbia, Yale, Chicago, and others). By the 1920s, the method of handling cases from real court practice became fundamental in legal education and remains so to this day.
First business cases
In the business environment cases also came from Harvard. In 1908, the Harvard Business School (HBS) was founded, which began to award Master’s degrees in business (Master of Business Administration). At first, things were not going very smoothly – “we had to deal with sponsors from the business community, not at all enthusiastic, loud and skeptical students, jealous and cynical university colleagues, and trustees, not to mention financial problems.” Only eight of the thirty-three students of the first set reached the second year of study.
The idea to build training around the discussion of problems related to business management arose from the first dean of the school, Edwin Gay, and the first trial course entitled The Art of Doing Business was read in 1912.
Professors Were Smart… But not Enough
The difficulty was that the majority of teachers were scientists and did not have practical business experience. Therefore, at first, managing managers and directors of large firms, owners of their own companies, who shared real situations with their audiences, were invited to the Harvard Business School. Students analyzed what they heard and two days later submitted written reports with recommendations for solving the problem, and then discussed them in the audience.
However, the case-based method was finally established in HBS only half a century after its invention by Langdell — in the 1920s, when a graduate of the Harvard Law School, corporate finance specialist Wallace Donham was appointed dean. Donham spoke of his work this way: “I did not have theoretical knowledge in business, and my teachers, as I found out, had little practical experience in this field. To get used to each other was very problematic.”
Donham himself was an ardent supporter of the use of the case method. The only obstacle was the lack of ready-made materials like published collections of court decisions. Donham convinced his colleague, marketing professor Melvin Copeland, to remake his training program as a pilot project and include a description of several real business problems. Published in September 1920, this program is considered the first collection of business cases. Students discussed the situation in the audience, analyzed it from different sides and offered solutions. Unlike legal cases, business cases often did not have a ready answer, and students learned to act in the face of uncertainty, tight deadlines and a lack of information.
After the introduction of the new teaching method, the Harvard Business School immediately sensed an influx of students: their number increased from 30–50 annually accepted applicants to 500 in 1932.
Top-9 Facts about Case Studies
- The teachers of the Harvard Business School (HBS) wrote about 80% of the cases used for training around the world.
- Each year, HBS teachers create about 350 cases on the basis of real business situations. It takes from one to four months to write a case.
- The main characters of the cases are mostly men (91%); in the next five years, HBS plans to increase the number of female characters in cases up to 20%
- At the height of the Second World War, HBS teachers wrote 600 custom case studies for military personnel.
- On average, in two years, every MBA student at HBS studies 500-600 cases and spends 80-90% of his time doing it.
- In HBS, there is a common practice when a real prototype of the main character of a case is present during the analysis (personally or in video mode), answers students’ questions, comments on their decision and explains how and why he acted in a real situation.
- In May 2008, HBS decided to diversify the format of cases, make them more elegant, literary, with a bright cover and sell them as books near cash desks in stores. Similar cases can be targeted, for example, for housewives. For this, HBS has already signed a contract with a famous American novelist Danielle Steel.
- It is believed that most of the heroes of the cases are top managers. However, there are also cases dedicated to athletes, cultural figures, community leaders and government officials. So, some famous cases are devoted to the former head coach of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, tennis player Maria Sharapova, and even Lady Gaga.
- HBS has Kids Case Discussions — a special children’s class for children of graduates. University professors teach classes, and children discuss real, un-adapted Harvard cases with them.
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