Case studies: bridging the gap between business education and the corporate world

Professor Iain Stewart in the Allam Lecture Theatre at the University of Hull. Courtesy of the University of Hull.

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In a fast-moving, post-pandemic world where today’s insights will already be outdated for tomorrow’s challenges, the imperative for business academics to hone their knowledge into solution-driven models, and refrain from jargon-stuffed analysis that faces difficulty finding its way into non-academic settings, becomes all the more important.

Case studies, which combine theoretical knowledge with practice, are less appreciated by editors of academic publications and university professors alike. To address this dilemma, the AUC Business Forum hosted a roundtable on “Case Studies as a Pedagogical Tool for Business and Management Education,” as part of Willard W. Brown Series to discuss the advantages and drawbacks of such studies. “The main objective of this roundtable is to get academics, practitioners, as well as publishers together in one place to discuss case writing and case teaching, enhance the learning experience, and facilitate the shift in culture to embrace this effective learning tool,” noted the roundtable’s moderator, Maha Mourad, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and Administration and professor in the School of Business at AUC.

Why do case studies?

“When we started, there was almost no case study whatsoever on local tech companies which left us puzzled as we develop our business,” said Gailan Shaaban, chief committee officer at Paymob. Shaaban highlighted that case studies, notably those that mainly focus on real-model tactics instead of broad strategies, are needed the most to help emerging businesses in benefiting from the experience of other well-established companies.

For Vicky Lester, CEO at the Case Centre, a British-based case method research center, case studies can raise profiles and build businesses from scratch. Lester denoted that case studies can drive the discussion of sensitive topics by laying out conversations. She also highlighted that mastering case studies increase students’ employability in the job market.

Case studies can widen the scope of business students and leaders, specialists suggest. “At PhD, if 500 students present their cases, we do not perceive them as 500 cases, but as 500 decisions instead. Case studies instill the values of teamwork in the classroom as peers learn from each other and accordingly, having 40-50 students means that you have 40-50 perspectives in class,” said Dviwesh Mehta, South Asia and Middle East director at Harvard Business Publishing.

Reflecting on a business consultancy course that he taught at the AUC School of Business, Ahmed Tolba, chair and professor of the management department, praised the effectiveness of the course in equipping students with tools for crafting good case studies, particularly compiling cases into themes.

Watch vs. read challenge

“The first [ever published case study], entitled General Shoe Company, was a one-page document which was published in 1921 by Harvard Business School. While cases have been there for 100 years, the learner’s behavior has evolved and so has the teaching methodology but the case method stays the same,” explained Mehta. He pointed out that the 25-30 page case papers are no longer viable at a time when concision is valued for providing time-efficient solutions.

Apart from formally presenting case papers, the panelists discussed the utilization of digital tools for the design of multimedia, user-friendly case studies. Irene Shaker, adjunct marketing instructor at the AUC School of Business and assistant professor at Misr International University, described this dilemma as the “watch vs. read challenge,” meaning that students have a plethora of animated content on social media platforms from which they gather information instead of spending longer time in reading materials.

Shaker suggested that providing multimedia—e.g. short videos showcasing findings—case studies could make them more relatable to students. Cinema and TV series can serve optimal platforms for providing real-life case studies, suggested Dr. Ahmed Taher, assistant marketing professor at the AUC School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and the chairman of Integrated Marketing Solutions. In this sense, scriptwriters and/or filmmakers would consult specialists while dealing with works that have corporations as their settings to accurately depict such an environment.

For Lester, the pandemic period made Care Centre assured that case studies can be brought online in different compatible formats, holding that “our mission is to advance case method, making sure it would still be there in 100 years.”

Mehta referred to Case Companion, an interactive and engaging material for case study analysis, offered by Harvard Business Education, as a model of how case studies can be taught and practiced with the use of modern technology. For her part, Mourad announced that AUC School of Business is about to deliver its first multimedia case study.

Unlike peer-reviewed academic articles, however, case studies lack standardized evaluation criteria that could help academics in assessing their quality. In this regard, Noha El-Bassiouny, Vice Dean for Academic Affairs and marketing professor at the German University in Cairo, expressed the need for the development of a citation index through which case studies can be evaluated.

On becoming an “impact” academic

Some business professors, however, may be hesitant to devote time to set such kinds of referential indexes and/or draft case studies, owing to the view that case studies are of less academic value. Panelists attributed professors’ reluctance to the cost and time-consumption which writing a case study requires.
According to Virginia Bodolica, Said T. Khoury Chair of Leadership Studies and the head of the management department at the American University of Sharjah, there are many advantages for professors to write case studies, including building credibility as practitioners who can put themselves in the stakeholders’ shoes, reducing the ongoing gap between theory and practice, a creating a sense of fulfillment through reaching out to external, non-academic communities.

If we succeed as a case community to convince faculty that cases are essential for their academic career, the use of cases will exponentially increase and have a positive spillover effect,” Bodolica said. She described the academic who fosters bridging theory with practice as an “impact academic,” in that they speak a real language and have practical solutions to offer.

From his side, Taher wondered if existing case studies need change. “We should deconstruct case studies into basic forms, then reconstruct them into new shapes and forms,” as new insights would be gained from practical business cases, he assured.

The reality of case studies in MENA and Egypt

Beyond the reluctance of academics to embrace case studies as part of their scholarship, case studies require commitment from the part of stakeholders in terms of data sharing. According to Sherif Kamel, Dean of the AUC School of Business, companies in Egypt “would share data several years after which these data would be no longer relevant to the current market’s needs.”. Kamel viewed businesses as key collaborators in case studies, insomuch that it is them who can only delineate the value and impact of such studies on their businesses.

A notable example of this category of businesses is Americana Foods, which has started investing in youth empowerment programs. International supply chain consultant Kirollos Rizk spoke about Americana’s initiative that attracted about 40 students from both public and private universities to develop case studies on the corporation. “We provided them with the data needed to develop well-crafted case studies without providing them with previous studies,” noted Rizk. Nonetheless, he highlighted that the case studies made through this initiative were not intended for public dissemination.

There must be a midway that can allow businesses to share their data with researchers without putting their confidentiality at stake, panelists argued. In light of his consulting experience, Taher proposed that companies could share the essence of their working structure without undermining their data.

Professor Tolba perceived the lack of Arabic case studies as a weakness, especially in an Arabic-speaking region. Accordingly, he called for the Arabization of case studies. On this, Mehta assured that there is an Arabic-language publication by Harvard Business Publishing.

“Our aim with this roundtable is to bring the industry into the classroom,” explained Kamel. As education has definitively evolved with the digital age, Engy Magdy, Director of El Khazindar Research Center, concluded that “the modern learner is quite different in their mindset, expectations, and attention span. We have to adapt or we will be left out of the game.”

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