Writing a Great Case

John K. Visich

Professor of Operations Management and Global Supply Chain Management at Bryant University.

Dr. Chris Roethlein

Professor at Bryant University where he teaches courses in operations and supply chain management.

Michael J. Gravier

Professor of Marketing and Global Supply Chain Management at Bryant University.

Pedro M. Reyes

Associate Professor of Operations & Supply Chain Management at Baylor University.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While writing a great case has some similarities with empirical research that is based on case study methodology, there is a major difference between them.  Case based empirical research is focused on understanding why a business condition exists, while a case is used as a learning tool.  In this article we discuss the issues that need to be considered when writing a great case, which is comprised of the case and a teaching note to complement the case.  The case and the note should connect classroom concepts and tools to the analysis of the case.

Initial Case Development

Ideas for cases can come from a variety of sources such as work you have done with a company, student projects and public information.  Student projects include requirements for a course, a directed study or an internship you are supervising, or from an honors thesis.  Cases based on company work and student projects typically need approval (often in writing) from the company being written about.  Public information about a company is readily available through news reports, annual reports and company web sites.  However, a major issue with using publically available information is that students can access the same sources as the case writer, and this can diminish the learning experience.  The case topic should be interesting and current, and have a finite problem – a problem that students should be able to identify and develop a recommended solution or plan of action to resolve.

After an idea has been formulated you now have to justify the relevance of the case topic to your course.  This is the step where you determine the initial learning objectives of the case.  We use the plural objectives because we feel a case has a higher pedagogical value if it has multiple learning objectives.  These are initial learning objectives because as you collect more data about the case and the issues facing the company, the learning objectives can change.  For example, the case “Narragansett Brewing Company: The Rebirth of a Brand” (Roethlein & Visich, 2010) started out as a forecasting project.  The scope then changed to a supply chain strategy case as information became available about possible options for production and logistics that would be provided by other companies.

Once you have determined the initial case learning objectives you need to think about the structural characteristics of the case that would make the case applicable to the course(s) you are teaching.  Structural characteristics include:

  • Rigor (core or elective class, undergraduate or graduate students)
  • Length
  • Quantitative and or qualitative analysis
  • Appendix items (data, charts, graphics)

While undergraduate students often have limited work experience, graduate classes can be mixed.  For example, at Bryant University we have a part-time evening MBA program comprised primarily of working adults with varying degrees and types of work experience, and different educational backgrounds including engineering, medical and liberal arts.  We also have a full-time day MBA program where the vast majority of the students recently received their undergraduate degree and after a summer off started on their MBA degree.  These 5th year students have limited work experience and though they usually have business degrees, they have difficulty in seeing business problems from a big picture or systems perspective.

Writing the Case

The case needs to tell a story – a good story – and to have a focus.  Focus results from clear learning objectives creatively reinforced by one or more tactics for student engagement (see sidebar for “Tactics for Student Engagement”).  The case should flow well, provide some background information on the company and its business operations, identify problems and issues, and provide relevant and sufficient information so students can develop logical recommendations that address the problems and issues.  Avoid cheerleading for the company or any of the characters in the case as this tends to diminish the pedagogical value of the case.  Appendix items can help students develop a better understanding of the company’s history and processes and provide information that students can use to either support their recommendations or to drop a possible solution from further consideration.  Appendix items that are not directly connected to the case and the learning objectives should not be included in the case.

For undergraduate classes where the students have limited work experience, focus the case on concepts and tools the students are familiar with from the course and possibly other courses they have already taken.  For a graduate course case, keep the level of the case to the work experience or near-term work level of the students.  It is better to have learning objectives the students can apply to their current mid-level to entry level managerial positions rather than the 35,000 foot view from the C-suite.

It is okay to lead the students down the wrong path or make one of the options very attractive but the wrong choice – taking the bait.  However, you need to make sure that students who do a thorough analysis will be able to identify the real issues and data in the case, and therefore present a correct recommendation.  You can also construct the case such that there is no clear-cut solution such as when missing data forces students to make assumptions which can alter the solutions.  The key here is that students need to make realistic assumptions that should be based on class material or outside research.  Another situation of an unclear solution can occur when the quantitative analysis supports one decision while the qualitative information points to a different solution.  This highlights the importance of qualitative data in decision making, requires students to conduct a complete analysis, and sets the stage for a robust class discussion as the students attempt to support their decision or position.

The conclusion of the case can include a summary paragraph that reiterates the main issues of the case, or you can list a series of questions that guide the students through the analysis of the case.  Either approach sets the expectation for the scope of the answer and the problem-solving approach. Setting proper expectations keeps students focused on the case’s learning objectives, which makes for easier grading and a more coherent classroom experience.

Tactics for Student Engagement

  • Teach a Problem-Solving Process: Teach and approach or technique to be applied. There are no answer keys in real life, so teaching a process or approach to solving complex, systems problems inculcates good career thinking habits. Cases work best when they reinforce class structures and philosophies, whether team-based learning, problem-based learning, or experiential learning.
  • Team-work: Cases can be particularly effective at teaching the importance of team-work and multiple perspectives. Cases solved by teams should not be solvable by just one expert; cross-functional collaboration and diverse perspectives result in more effective and complete solutions to real-world problems. In some contexts, student reflections or evaluations of team-work can reinforce its importance.
  • Connect Academia and Industry: Have an emphasis on showing how classroom techniques and topics manifest in real life. For example, the EOQ model and forecasting demand often come across as abstract mathematics to students. Incorporating financials into a case to show business impacts of improved inventory and forecasting.
  • Role-playing: Have characters in the case each with different areas of responsibility and different professional obligations. Encourage “role-play” with regard to thinking like the characters in order to reinforce how to anticipate and reconcile conflicting goals.
  • Show the Numbers: It’s a good idea to have a few questions to guide student analysis. This also makes discussion and teaching notes easier to prepare. Students should learn to back up every answer with analysis.
  • Use Props: Although not absolutely necessary, use of props can reinforce basic concepts and prompt more pragmatic solutions. For example, if the case revolves around assembling a simple product’s components, give each team an example product (e.g., a dollar calculator) to handle and disassemble in order to see that even simple products can have many suppliers. In one international logistics case involving how to load cargo in shipping containers, Lego’s and small boxes were brought in to show how packaging dimensions can result in empty space, and how relying on cubic feet measurements does not provide a realistic solution.
  • Bring in a Guest Speaker:  Bringing in a professional to introduce or reinforce the topic or issues in a case can be a powerful lesson for the practical importance of the case’s learning objectives.  In one case regarding international tariff engineering, a local expert gave a presentation with several examples of real-life dollar savings from deeper understanding of import tariff duties, which rendered a dry subject into a popular assignment. Additionally, students gained an understanding of the important relationships between Customs, importing companies, end customers, and customs brokers.
  • Arrange a Field Trip: Take students to see a company or port or other location that does work similar to the events in a case. This can give life to otherwise unfamiliar and abstract concepts.
  • Require Interviews or White Papers: Asking students to interview practitioners who are experts in the case’s industry or topics can broaden student horizons and deepen learning. Asking students to get a professional’s opinion on their proposed case solutions or having local professional grade case presentations are effective methods of motivating students and demonstrating the practical relevance of the case learning objectives. Alumni networks, local chapters of professional associations, and LinkedIn groups provide pools of supportive professionals willing to engage with students. Another option: ask students to write a professional or consultant style white paper on a topic developed based on an interview with a local professional can extend learning beyond the case.

Writing the Teaching Note

Though the case needs to be written first, as you write the case you need to think about the content of the teaching note that supports the case.  Once the initial note has been written the case writing process becomes iterative where you need to review the case to make sure the content supports the note, and that the note teaches what is in the case.  One of the most important aspects of the teaching note is its usefulness in helping other instructors teach the case.  While the case writer knows all of the material, faculty who wish to use the case are not as versed in the nuances of the case.  Therefore, it is imperative that the teaching note is well written so that other instructors can easily teach the case with a minimal of preparation.

We typically organize the note by starting with a Synopsis the case that highlights the key issues within the case and possible courses of action.  Next comes the Intended Courses and Audience, which gives the instructor an idea on how appropriate the case is for their course. Following this are the Learning Objectives which defines the main topic areas the case will cover, but at a high level.  For example in Container Returns at Pasadena Water Solutions (Visich et al, 2015) our Learning Objectives were: “The first learning objective is the development of a strategic plan to support a value recovery option.  This strategic plan must include a cost benefit analysis of the reuse decision as well as a process to enable the reuse of the containers.  This is the profit part of the triple bottom line  The second learning objective is to understand how factors that are difficult to impossible to quantify can be used to help guide the decision maker to a realistic strategic plan that meets the requirements of multiple diverse parties.  These are the people and planet components of the triple bottom line,” (p. 16).

Then comes the Teaching Plan which is more specific regarding the content areas covered by the case.  The Teaching Plan should identify the specific topics the instructor should cover in class before assigning the case and include sources for associated material such as web sites, videos and articles.  The Teaching Plan should give the instructor several options to teach the case and a time to teach the case should be given with those options.  Teaching options include a formal write-up with or without any guidance from the instructor, answer a set of instructor supplied questions or the case can be used only for class discussion.  For a discussion only case it is good practice to require a non-graded SWOT analysis to be submitted at the end of class.  This helps to ensure (but does not guarantee) that the students have actually read the case.

Writing a Case

To actually teach the case we like to include a series of general questions that are used as a warmup to get the discussion started and to make sure everyone has a good understanding of the core issues and data within the case.  In the factor rating method for facility location case “Narragansett Brewing Company: Build a Brewery” (Visich et al., 2013), we start the discussion with the pros and cons of operating a keg brewery in Rhode Island.  We then identify which facility location factors are quantitative and which are qualitative, and then how important each factor is to the facility location decision so that weights can be assigned to each factor.  This sets the stage for the analysis of the location options as scores are assigned to each factor and then the weighted scores are calculated for each location-factor in order to determine the best location for the brewery.

Pre-analysis discussion questions can also be used to meet learning objectives of the case.  In Container Returns at Pasadena Water Solutions (Visich et al, 2015), we initiate a discussion on how the return of the used containers to Pasadena’s facility can be viewed from a triple bottom line perspective.  Students learn that people and planet aspects need to be considered in addition to the usual financial numbers when the alternatives are analyzed.

The teaching note should conclude with a brief section on What Happened.  This should not only include the recommended solution that was just identified in the class discussion, but also any additional insightful information that might not have been included in the case.  This would include information that was not connected to the primary learning objectives of the case or information that might have deliberately lead students to the wrong solution.  Some extras that can be added to the teaching note are a grading rubric and assurance of learning goals for accreditation.

Teaching Your Case

Now that you have written a great case and teaching note you can now use the case in your own classroom.  After teaching the case the first couple of times you need to verify that the case and the note are correlated.  You should identify and fix those parts of the case that were not clear to the students.  This could be due to the words used and the sentence structure or there could be a lack of information for complete analysis.  You can collect student feedback, take a picture of your blackboard / whiteboard, jot down notes as you teach the case or look at student written work very carefully.  The objective is to improve the quality of the case and the note so they are ready for publication and competitions. 

Beyond the Classroom

After the case has been perfected, it’s time to disseminate your work to a wider audience through publication, presentation or in a case competition.  Publication can occur in text books and specialty case books, and case clearing houses such as the Case Centre and Harvard Business Publishing.  There are numerous journals that also publish cases:

Business Case Journal {http://www.sfcr.org/bcj/}

The Case Journal {http://www.caseweb.org/index.php}

Case Research Journal {https://www.nacra.net/case-research-journal/}

International Journal of Case Method Research & Application {http://www.wacra.org/}

Journal of Business Cases and Applications {http://www.jbcaonline.org/}

Journal of the International Academy for Case Studies {https://www.abacademies.org/journals/journal-of-the-international-academy-for-case-studies-home.html}

Operations Management Education Review {http://www.neilsonjournals.com/OMER/}

You can also submit your case to the case competition at annual meetings of academic organizations such as the Decision Sciences Institute or the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS).  The Case Centre also has an annual competition.  Prior to submitting your case to a competition you should attend a finals to get an idea of how they are held.  If your case makes it to the finals of a case competition we suggest you bring your own laptop and avoid using a lot of technology dependent delivery techniques.  Before leaving for the conference make a presentation to your colleagues for constructive feedback and then practice a few more times before the competition session.  These practice runs should match up with the time you will be allocated for your actual presentation.  During your competition presentation briefly introduce the case and then allocate the majority of your time to how you teach the case.  You want to convey to the judges and the audience that they too can teach your case.

Conclusion

Though writing a great case can be time consuming, we have found that writing a great case can be a highly rewarding experience.  The case is a learning tool that we can bring into our classroom to reinforce student knowledge and through class discussion provide them with a forum to support their analysis of the case.  Through our own cases we can create an interesting and interactive learning experience for everyone in our classroom.

References

Roethlein, Christopher J. and John K. Visich, 2010. “Narragansett Brewing Company: The Rebirth of a Brand,” Operations Management Education Review, Vol. 4, pp. 41-68.

Visich, John K., Christopher J. Roethlein and Pedro M. Reyes, “Container Returns at Pasadena Water Solutions,” case and teaching note. Advances in Business, Operations, and Product Analytics: Cutting Edge Cases from Finance to Manufacturing to Health Care, Matthew Drake, ed., Pearson / Financial Times Press, September, pp.15-26, 2015.

Visich, John K., Christopher J. Roethlein, Angela M. Wicks, “Narragansett Brewing Company: Build a Brewery” case and teaching note.  The Applied Business Analytics Casebook: Applications in Supply Chain Management, Operations Management, and Operations Research, Matthew Drake, ed., Financial Times Press, November, pp. 101-106, 2013. 

 

John K. Visich

John K. Visich is a Professor of Operations Management and Global Supply Chain Management at Bryant University. He has a Ph.D. in Operations Management from the University of Houston. He is a four-time finalist in the DSI Best Teaching Case Award Competition, winning in 2011 and 2014. He has received the Outstanding MBA Professor Award 6 times from Bryant University MBA students and an Honorable Mention Award in 2014 for the Page Prize for Environmental Sustainability Curriculum. 

 

Dr. Chris Roethlein

Dr. Chris Roethlein is a Professor at Bryant University where he teaches courses in operations and supply chain management. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Rhode Island. His research interests include quality and communication within a supply chain, additive manufacturing, and teaching pedagogy. He has published in Interfaces, Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, Quality Management Journal, and others. He has won the DSI Best Teaching Case Award Competition twice (2011 and 2014). 

 

Michael J. Gravier

Michael J. Gravier is Professor of Marketing and Global Supply Chain Management at Bryant University. He has over 25 years of logistics experience both in industry and as an academic. He earned a Ph.D. in Marketing and Logistics from the University of North Texas and an M.S. in Logistics Management from the Air Force Institute of Technology. Michael’s research focuses on public procurement, supply chain pedagogy, and supply chain technology. In 2017 he won the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals international case competition. 

 

Pedro M. ReyesPedro M. Reyes is an Associate Professor of Operations & Supply Chain Management at Baylor University. He is recognized by UTA as a Lawrence Schkade Research Fellow and is an associate editor for the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education. Reyes is the faculty mentor for the National Undergraduate Supply Chain Case Competition Team. He is also the author of Global Supply Chain Management (Hercher Publishing Inc.) and RFID in the Supply Chain (McGraw-Hill).

Updated: April 25, 2020 — 10:50 am

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