Case studies are an import element of almost every business school course and programme. They have been a key teaching method since the start of formal business education in the 1910s. Pioneered at Harvard Business School, they rapidly spread to more or less every other school, in almost every subject of the business curriculum, and have continued to maintain a prominent position ever since.
But so many of them are dreadful! As narratives, as pieces of writing, they are formulaic, stylistically awkward, oblique, lacking direction, pedestrian, and often worse. They’re badly written, in every way.
The standard case begins like this:
Mr White Male gazed out of the window in his Manhattan corner office, absent-mindedly clicking his biro, and wondering how he was going to make pay-roll this month. His star employees were indispensable, but also expensive. At 30, and Senior VP for Human Resources for Enormous Global Consulting, he was a bit of a star himself. And he’d worked hard to get where he was, just as he knew everyone else in the company had done too. But times were tough, margins were tight, and something had to change if the ship was going to keep sailing. But what could be changed? Salaries? Benefits? Overheads? Perks? There was a lot to consider. White turned over the problem in his mind, considering it from several angles. For example….
Then, after a parade of figures and charts and bullet points, the end looks this:
Clicking his biro one last time, White turned back to his computer screen. He’d be late for dinner yet again, but his wife would understand. And there was too much at stake for the company. It was all hands on deck. He set to work….
Ugh. Tedious in so many ways:
But case writing is big business. Harvard—fons et origine—pumps out a steady stream, thousands every year, and makes a fortune: revenues of $194 million in 2014 according to the business school’s annual report, and a recent Businessweek article (Levy, 2015). Other players compete with different niches or thematised topics: Wharton’s cases are more often about finance, INSEAD and LBS add a European angle, Stanford is good with multi-media formats. Schools in the developing world produce zillions of cheaper, shorter, lower quality imitations, generally adding only the nuance of different context: New Delhi instead of New York. Most cases are good for only a few years, perhaps because the story becomes too widely known, or the lessons are no longer relevant, or teachers’ and students’ interests have shifted. There is a steady supply and a constant demand, facilitated by increasingly well-lubricated sales and distribution channels. Moreover, the basis of competition is not the quality of the writing. Generally, there is little if any competitive pressure on the quality of cases, because other factors drive selection and sales: relevance to current business issues and trends, freshness of data, institutional credibility or brand, etc. Teachers choose cases mainly without reading them, and anyway students aren’t in business school to pursue literary critical activities. So it’s not a problem. It might be a tad annoying, but it’s not a problem.
Except it is. It is a problem especially for the part of the business school curriculum that concerns leadership. Leadership is about communication. It’s about stories. It’s about connecting with individuals directly and with groups indirectly, through stories. It’s about narrative. And it’s a problem that the principal teaching tool for leadership exceptionally bad examples of narrative. It’s a problem because students who learn how to tell bad stories are less likely to become good leaders.
Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has written lucidly on leadership for thirty years. His most recent book, Leading Minds, tells stories about story-tellers. It’s a compendium of case studies, far superior both in style and in substance—and in their power to teach—than most business school case studies. His method is to present individuals that embody and exemplify the effectiveness of narrative as an instrument of leadership: Margaret Mead and Margaret Thatcher, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Alfred P Sloan and Pope John XXIII, and many more. His argument is simple: “Leaders fashion stories—principally stories of identities. It is important that a leader be a good story teller but equally crucial that the leader embody that story in his or her life” (Gardner, 2011, p. xiii).
Gardener makes a case for writing yet another book in the already massively over-crowded and diffuse field of leadership studies, by making a claim about the overall leadership studies narrative: most of what is already out there is badly written, so it is no wonder that the field has failed to cohere into a set of clear principles and lessons, or truly to influence the development of leaders. “Truthiness, twaddle and Twitter” dominate the public consciousness as much as the academic, in any field, and in leadership studies especially: claiming something is true more or less makes it true in an age of mass social media, most of the ubiquitous information we are exposed to confuses opinion with reason or evidence, and the pressure toward concision is now so great, and attention spans so short, that messages easily lose nuance and power (because it’s hard to tell complex or innovative stories in 140 characters). Gardner’s aim in this book is “to obtain a better understanding of the features of effective leadership.” It not meant to be a guide-book or a recipe book, but it is meant to provide a fresh perspective on the nature leadership: “the leader as storyteller whose newly fashioned stories must wrestle with those that are already operative in the minds of an audience,” which is as close as Gardner comes to defining “the work of a leader”:
It is important for leaders to know their stories; to get them straight; to communicate them effectively, particularly to those who are in the thrall of rival stories: and, above all, to embody in their lives the stories that they can tell. (Gardner, 2011, pp. xviii-xix)
In a word, Gardner expects leaders to learn leadership from stories about leadership. His book both tells stories and explains how they work, as an inspiration to aspiring leaders and ordinary citizens alike. And he has written this book, precisely because a more common narrative form and leadership learning method, case studies (as they are generally written) are not effective.
What does he offer in stead of case studies? Are not his narratives of specific cases useful as “studies”? What makes them superior? Is it just a matter of style? Yes, that matters; he writes well, so his arguments come across more strongly. But what matters more is his critical penetration: he goes more deeply into ideas and data and implications than most case studies can do. Of course, he is writing a full-length book instead of a 15-20 page study, but there is a sense in his writing that even his tweets would be more penetrating than a long and detailed monograph by the average case-study writer. What is this quality? And where does it come from?
Gardner’s writing has what one literary critic has called aura. Walter Benjamin was a critic of the German “Frankfurt” School, and wrote in the early years of the 20th century. In one of his most important works, “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) (1936) he explores this idea of aura, which is akin to authenticity: “the sphere of authenticity is outside the technical”, meaning that the originality of a created work is lost when that work is reproduced: the copy is different from the real.
Benjamin’s essay was massively influential in the cultural theory of the 20th century, especially among writers with a Marxist inflection: Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and others. The sustained critique of capitalism that they and others mounted over some 60 years, from the inter-wars right through into the 1980s, still persists in many ways in the work of sociologists, political theorists, literary and cultural critics, and even in cultural productions across the globe. Across this key period, though, the Frankfurt School critique of capitalism coincides with the development of many modern theories of economics, strategy, organisational behaviour, operations management, even finance. In other words, it coincides with the development of the conventional business school curriculum. Frankfurt School social theory critiques the underlying ideologies of the MBA curriculum. Or, rather, it would do were it given more voice. But the dominating presence of other types of theory, implicit in the social science ontologies that have come to dominate business school intellectual environments, do not readily enter into debate with such critiques. Social scientists, in short, don’t talk to cultural theorists. As influential as Benjamin might have been to his comrades, he was preaching to the choir—and the more rigorous social scientists throughout much of the mid-20th century chose not to listen.
Why was this? It is a massively complex question—but can perhaps be approached simply by looking this notion of aura. Is there anything less scientific sounding than that? Honestly: aura! Is that a real explanation for what makes one thing art and another thing not-art? It sounds like such a fudge—quite apart for the yogic hippiness of it. There’s no way to explain objectively, scientifically, why one painting is better than another, so introducing an intangible element like aura into the discussion empowers one type of judgement over another, and hands authority to artists over scientists. The idea of aura is alien to scientific enquiry. It certainly not going to convince a mind trained in and reliant on empiricism—as more or less any mid-20th century social scientist would be—that it has a valid place in scientific reasoning. No one says: “I don’t know why this observable phenomenon is happening; it just is”—because to do so would be to repudiate any claim to scientific or even investigative authority. Who would replace a proof process with an aesthetic, essentially mystical judgment? Not a scientist, not a social scientist, and certainly not someone wanting to get a job with other social scientists. So the idea of aura is easily discountable by one world-view, as much as it might have been massively influential to another.
But Benjamin says more. He does not stop at the idea that art has aura. His real point is that most of what surrounds people in early 20th European civilisations is not art precisely because we have lost much of our ability to perceive aura, and have become content to surround ourselves with cheap reproductions, mass-produced, taking up space on our walls and throughout our environments and in our minds that should normally be occupied by actual art. Everything is a copy, we are inured to originality, or rather to its absence, and we do not know what we are missing. What is dehumanising about human life is that we have done this to ourselves, and do not even realise it. It is a consequence of our skill, furthermore; our sophistication in manufacturing, imitating, reproducing is so high that we can make anything, copy anything, copy it endlessly—all at such a high-level of refinement that even we ourselves cannot tell the copy from the original. Such skill is widely spread and easily taught, and almost necessary in the economic, social and cultural life we have fashioned for ourselves. We have turned ourselves into robots, without even knowing it. The consequences of such ignorance are that we keep making it worse. We re-produce the lifeless reproduction, and call it creativity. We have lost the ability to distinguish real from copy, life from death, valuable from valueless.
Benjamin died of fear—general fear of how the Nazis were dehumanising Europe, and specific fear of being caught sneaking over the border from France to Spain during an exhausting night-time crossing of the Pyrenees in 1940; he never made it over the top. But his critical insights survived him, and for a reason: they are not unrelentingly negative. Pushing beyond the rather despairing over-simplification I offered above, Benjamin has yet more to say—and it is this that is most strongly relevant to the context of business, and the importance of narrative, with which I began.
What would Benjamin make of the case study? It is a perfect example of all that he decried about art (in this case narrative) being mechanically reproduced: “ mechanical” in the sense of “formulaic”, and “reproduced” in the sense of “commoditised” or reified into a product for sale. What is wrong with case studies, as much as anything, is that they are designed less for learning and more for selling—or at least many of them are. There are, after all, good case studies, quite good ones, and these can be known by their narrative drive. They tell a good story. They have that aura that marks them out as superior in their class. They lead students to learn, and lead other cases by example. They do what Gardner wants leadership to do: “to communicate … effectively, particularly to those who are in the thrall of rival stories: and, above all, to embody” the lessons they are trying to convey. (Gardner, 2011, pp. xviii-xix). As literary critic, Benjamin would applaud a fine case study when he encountered one, I have no doubt. As a teacher, he and Gardner might well agree on what constituted an effective case narrative. And as the high priest of aura, he would agree that teaching leadership isn’t something that can be done mechanically, or formulaically—but instead must be done through more mysterious means, such as those represented in stories of effective leaders to be pondered and studied and emulated.
This post is too long now; it’s narrative drive is dying. The dramatic element of Benjamin’s death is hard to follow, so I shall stop. But I hope there is value in thinking about what insights can be had from thinking about an early 20th century critic and a mode of communication and learning so commonly and mechanically reproduced in business schools as to have lost its original power to teach. From this intersection of business and the humanities, perhaps will come some fresh insight.
Benjamin, W. (1936). Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Frankfurt: Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung.
Gardner, H. (2011). Leading Minds: an anatomy of leadership. New York: Basic Books.
Levy, F. (2015, April 29). Harvard Business School Has the Market Cornered on Case Studies. Bloomberg Businessweek.
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