The Case Against Case Studies

Businessweek has a short piece about the changes in case studies at Columbia Business School.

Shortly after R. Glenn Hubbard took over as dean of Columbia Business School in 2004, he began hearing rumblings from executives about the quality of MBA graduates. They were undoubtedly smart but often unprepared to handle the most crucial of managerial responsibilities: quickly solving problems with less than perfect information. Among those wanting more from new hires is Henry Kravis, co-founder of the private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. "I want to see MBAs who can jump in and make decisions, not jump in and learn to make decisions," he says.

Hubbard made his own executive decision. He devised a new twist on the case study-the teaching format invented by Harvard Business School almost a century ago and used by most B-schools. Hubbard's so-called decision brief offers less information about a situation than the case study, and it doesn't present the solution until students have grappled with the issues on their own. "We want our students to be used to dealing with incomplete data," Hubbard says. "They should be able to make decisions out of uncertainty.

My experience with business school was that we focused more on learning to justify our decisions instead of on how to make good decisions. As a result, I had to learn about cognitive biases, risk-reward tradeoffs, how incentives affect perception of information for different parties, how to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, and all the other things that go into good decision making, after I graduated. I'm glad to see b-schools moving in this new direction.

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  • COD

    My B-school experience was very quantitative. The answers to the case studies were always in the balance sheet, income statement, or cash flow statement.

    Looking back on it, we weren’t learning to make good decisions. We were learning to make defensible decisions.