Decision Brief vs. Case Study

Posted on March 3, 2008 | Filed in MBA

The claim among certain individuals that business school produces graduates well-equipped to succeed in the classroom but ill-prepared to think outside it deserves greater attention. In the classroom, students learn tools of data analysis that are extremely useful in business, but are removed from real life business dilemmas.

The Crux of MBA Education

This critique of business management education calls into question the fundamental curriculum choices made by MBA programs. For example, the case method developed at Harvard Business School (HBS) may be partly to blame for lingering sentiments among those that hire MBAs that they lack in the practical experience essential to decision making in the corporate world.

The case method used not only at HBS but throughout the world incorporates the world of real business decisions to the extent that actual cases are discussed and analyzed in the classroom. In a case method analysis, students have the complete picture; they know the beginning, middle and, very often, outcome of each case. Yet, a classroom discussion or debate on an actual case seen in hindsight is not the same as business decision in which some pieces of the puzzle may not be so apparent.

Columbia’s Innovation

It is with this in mind that Columbia Business School veered from the case method in its fall curriculum, employing a new approach to management education known as decision brief. Dean Glen Hubbard developed the decision brief method in reaction to some of the weaknesses of the case method. It approaches a case with less information and does not reveal the solution to the problem until after a full discussion. In an effort to make discussion more like the real business world, the decision brief seeks to a more plausible real world simulation, a view from the ground rather than from the air in a certain sense.

The Case Study vs. Decision Brief debate may be just part of the larger issue of MBA curricula and the changes needed to make the degree up to date with the current needs of businesses. The ability to solve problems from many different business perspectives, be it finance, operations or marketing, is necessary for a future business leader. Many schools, including Yale, Stanford, and UCLA, are addressing their curricula to keep an MBA from their school in high demand.

Too Much Information, Shortcuts, and other Criticisms

The criticism of the case method includes other aspects: There is too much information in a case study – much of the information is irrelevant or unimportant to the main points. In some cases, a large portion of the 10 page single-spaced document may be “skimable” by the student. Also, there is no macro-level recap of the information in the study; the key facts and issues are often times not salient.

Revising the Classroom Experience

Ultimately, much can be learned in the classroom, but not everything. Thus, Columbia and many other business schools around the world are seeking to stretch what the classroom can do by incorporating a revision of the case method into its curriculum. In many cases, schools are requiring students to work with companies, often abroad, on problems those companies are currently dealing with. It will be interesting to see the reaction of students and the corporate world to this adjustment in their management curriculum.

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