A case is a text that refuses to explain itself. How do you construct a meaning for it? Start by recognizing some contextual factors that help limit and narrow the analysis. Cases are usually studied in a course. A marketing case requires you to think as a marketer, not a strategist or manufacturing manager. Courses are often divided into different modules or themes de? ned by certain types of situations and, often, concepts, theories, and practices appropriate for these situations.
You can expect to encounter the themes in the cases that are part of the modules and opportunities to put to work the analytical tools and best practices you have learned. Past case discussions provide a foundation for thinking about a new case, and study questions can call attention to important issues. You should make use of all these contextual factors, but they don’t amount to a method for analyzing a case. STARTING POINT FOR UNDERSTANDING The case method is heuristic—a term for self-guided learning that employs analysis to help draw conclusions about a situation.
Analysis is derived from a Greek word meaning, “a dissolving. ” In English, analysis has two closely related de? nitions: to break something up into its constituent parts; and to study the relationships of the parts to the whole. To analyze a case, you therefore need ways of identifying and understanding important aspects of a situation and what they mean in relation to the overall situation. Each business discipline has its own theories, frameworks, processes and practices, and quantitative tools. All of them are adapted to help understand speci? c types of situations.
Michael Porter’s concepts are productive when investigating competitive advantage—but they aren’t very helpful for deciding whether to launch a product at a particular price or choosing the best method to ? nance the growth of a business. Porter’s ? ve forces can describe and explain the industry context in which a ? rm operates. 1 No one would expect Porter’s framework to guide a product launch decision. Specialized methods are fruitful because they’re tailored to ? t well-de? ned purposes. They’re often complex, though, and hard to apply, especially for people who are just learning how to use them. 1 2
ANALYSIS This book teaches an approach to cases that complements business concepts and theories. Its purpose is to provide a starting point for analysis that aids the use of theories and frameworks and quantitative formulas, all of which are indispensable for reaching conclusions about a case and building an argument for those conclusions. The case situation approach identi? es features of a case that can be helpful to its analysis and encourages active reading. THINKING, NOT RE ADING, IS KEY Students new to the case method usually believe the most reliable way to understand a case is to read it from start to ? ish and then reread it as many times as necessary. (That’s why many business school students think speed reading courses can help them. ) They rush into a case, highlighter in hand, reading as if the case were a textbook chapter. For case analysis you need to know when to read fast and when t read slowly. You should also spend more time thinking about a case than reading it. When you begin work on a new case, you don’t know what to look for. That is the major dilemma that confronts everyone who reads a case. In an active approach to a case, you start thinking before you read the case.
And as you start reading it, you ask questions about the content. Then you seek answers in the case itself. As you ? nd partial or full answers, you think about how they relate to each other and to the big picture of the case. You don’t make knowledge by reading. Reading is never the primary resource of case analysis. Reading is simply an instrument directed by the thought process that makes meaning from the text. TYPES OF C A SE SITUATIONS Four types of situations occur repeatedly in cases: • Problems • Decisions • Evaluations • Rules People sometimes react indignantly to this classi? ation. They insist that there are a multitude of situations portrayed in cases, and it’s misleading to say they’re reducible to four. The four are not the only situations found in cases, but many case situations do belong in one of the four categories, and when they do, an awareness of which one can help organize analysis. This approach isn’t the only correct way—it is one way. Try it and see if it helps. HOW TO ANALYZE A CASE 3 Feel free to integrate pieces of it with your own way of dealing with cases.
The greatest value of the case situation approach may be that it causes you to think about how you think about case studies. Problems The word problem has many meanings. The meaning can be vague, referring to something that’s dif? cult or troubling. The de? nition of problem as a case situation, however, is quite speci? c. It is a situation in which (1) there is a signi? cant outcome or performance, and (2) there is no explicit explanation of the outcome or performance. To put it simply, a problem is a situation in which something important has happened, but we don’t know why it did.
Cases provide many examples of problems de? ned this way. In one, a well-trained, well-intentioned manager has tried to introduce a worthwhile change in the sales strategy of an organization—a change supported by a detailed, data-driven analysis everyone admits is a breakthrough—and has failed to get any of the sales staff to go along. In another, an accounting manager of a manufacturer notices that two good retail customers suddenly have accounts payable that are large and overdue enough to be worrisome. He has no idea why the two ? rms would fall so far behind in their payments.
Both of these cases describe situations that involve negative outcomes. The causes of these sorts of outcomes are important to know for a practical reason: the knowledge can help improve the situation. The change effort may be self-destructive because it has weaknesses that are not apparent, or the manager may be good at many things but is a poor change agent. The manufacturer’s retail customers may have large accounts payable because they have sloppy internal controls—or they may both be on the verge of bankruptcy. These possibilities illustrate why accurate causal analysis is vital.
A conceptually ? awed change is addressed very differently from an individual who isn’t well suited to lead change. If both situations exist, the corrective action is that much more complex. Retail operations that need to clean up their accounting processes might require the manufacturer to engage in negotiations over a period of time, but two ? rms with bad debts that might go bankrupt require the supplier’s immediate attention. Success can also be a problem in the special meaning used here. Take the case of a company that specializes in outdoor advertising.
It operates in three different market segments, but the case doesn’t tell you which is the most pro? table, much less why. Another case describes the development of a country over a period of thirty years or so; after severe political and social upheaval, the country slowly recovers and exceeds the performance of most countries in the region. But the case doesn’t state how much more successful the country has been relative to its neighbors, and while it provides a great deal of data, both economic and demographic, it doesn’t enumerate the reasons for the country’s revival.
Problem analysis begins with a de? nition of the problem. That seems obvious, yet many cases don’t state a problem. So ? rst, you need to realize a problem exists and then de? ne it for yourself. Next, you work out an explanation of the problem by linking the outcome or performance to its root causes—this is the main work of problem analysis. To carry it out, you’ll need relevant tools, the specialized methods of business disciplines such as organizational behavior or operations management.