The Case Method and Learning through Case Analysis
An Introduction to the Case Method For many of you, this will be the first course using cases that you have ever taken. The fact that this form of learning is new to you will naturally cause you some concern, and early on, some difficulty. Your textbook has chapters that present aspects of the Operations Management process, and a large number of “stories” about companies called cases. These cases give you the chance to look at the present situation facing an organization, and after a systematic analysis, make recommendations that will produce a change in the results or outcomes. While you cannot be certain what that outcome will be, through the discussion and critique of your suggestions by fellow students and your professor, projections can be made about the foundation for the probable success of your recommendations. In this course you will have the opportunity, through cases, to see how well you can assess and address a business issue or problem. The role of the course is to provide you with the opportunity to utilize the knowledge you have gained to this point to evaluate and make recommendations to enhance the performance of real organizations. This is not a substitute for real world experience in a job with an organization, but it is the type of learning that helps prepare you to begin using the business knowledge you have acquired.
Because the process of learning through case analysis may be new to you, we will devote much of this discussion to providing you with a framework to use in analyzing the cases found in your textbook. Such a framework is useful not only in analyzing cases in textbooks, but also in considering business situations described in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Fortune, and Forbes. In reality, most articles about companies in magazines and newspapers are mini-cases. The cases in your text tell stories, including facts, opinions, projections, results, expectations, plans, policies, and programs. As readers, we need some way to structure the information presented in a way that makes it more useable. Analysis frameworks provide a means to accomplish this end.
The framework presented in the remainder of this discussion is certainly not the only one that is useful in analyzing cases. We also cannot claim that it is the best framework. Your professor may provide his or her own framework, and if so, you should follow it. In all probability, it will be some modification of the one outlined here. As long as the framework provides you with the benefits outlined above, you feel it suits your needs, and you use it consistently, the case analysis process will be made more manageable and valuable.
The Seven-Step Case Analysis Framework The seven-step framework presented here has been improved over the years through discussions
with other professors who use case analysis in their courses. It is straightforward to use, and
Excerpted from : http://www.swlearning.com/marketing/ferrell/ferrell3e/how_analyze_case.doc provides the benefits of comprehensiveness, communication, and consistency. It will not, however, serve as a substitute for carefully reading (usually three or more times) and considering the cases. It will provide a solid structure to organize the diverse information presented in a case. As you work your way through this framework, or a similar approach to case analysis, we offer the following hints to increase your probability of success:
1. No one can analyze a case after reading it only one time, or even worse, doing the analysis during the first reading of the case. You should read through the case once just to get an understanding of the nature of the case. During the second reading, you can begin to structure and classify the issues as they appear. A truly comprehensive case analysis will probably require at least three readings.
2. Don’t get trapped into thinking the “answer” to the case is hidden somewhere in the case text. There is never a single answer to a case just as there is never a single strategy that is appropriate for all situations. Each case is unique. Looking for tricks or shortcuts is not appropriate.
3. Make an effort to put yourself in the shoes of the decision maker in the case. The use of role-playing as part of the analysis can be very useful. It helps you gain some feeling for the perspective of the key parties at the time the case took place. After you have done several analyses, you will likely come up with your own additional procedures or guidelines that assist you with this process.
Step 1: Situation Analysis
The material presented in a case is much like the communications we have in our daily lives. Usually our conversations involve the selection of a topic and then the discussion of that topic, and so it is with cases. The problem is that we end up with bits and pieces of information that by themselves are not very useful, but once organized, can be quite valuable in our assessment of the situation. The first step in the framework helps you organize the pieces of information into more useful topic blocks.
The process of assessing a situation is widely accomplished through the use of SWOT Analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). Our role here is simply to reinforce the issues covered in SWOT and to emphasize its role in the case analysis framework. Looking at an organization’s strengths and weaknesses is the first half of Step 1. This involves looking at the organization’s internal environment. Strengths are those aspects of the internal environment that can help the firm address a present problem, issue, or opportunity, while weaknesses are negative factors or deficiencies that do not allow the firm to reach its full potential. One topic that should be addressed is the content and appropriateness of the current plan(s) outlined in the case. Is the plan current? Do the key parties understand and utilize it? Was it developed with input from all levels of the organization? The organization’s financial condition may also present strengths and weaknesses. Is it in a solid position, and does it have, or can it acquire, needed funds at a reasonable cost of capital? Other possible strengths and weaknesses might include managerial expertise, human resources, product reputation and customer loyalty, patents and trademarks, age and capacity of production facilities, etc. These are all issues that we want to consider in terms of both the present state of the firm and identifiable trends. Students assessing a case situation see the importance of considering the organization’s internal operations environment fairly naturally. The aspect of SWOT analysis that gives students the most difficulty is the external environment where all opportunities and threats reside. These are
issues that exist outside the boundaries of the firm. All opportunities and threats will exist at their present levels even if the organization in question does not exist. Technology, competition, the macroeconomic environment, regulation, and social and cultural trends are all issues that affect the success of an organization’s strategies, but the organization has only limited influence on them.
Because the power to affect the external environment significantly is usually absent, management must view the factors and forces present in the external environment as issues to be considered, but not usually controlled. Managers should take steps to minimize the exposure to threats and to take full advantage of the opportunities. You might think of opportunities and threats as currents in a river. It is much easier to find a river whose currents will help take you where you are going than to try to make headway going against the force of the river. You may get hung up on several points when conducting a SWOT analysis. First, while a factor will usually fall into only one of the four categories, this is not always the case. A factor can be both a strength and a weakness, or an opportunity and a threat. For example, excess capacity in a factory would be a weakness from a production efficiency standpoint. But, it could be a strength if the firm is looking to introduce a new product because it will not have to build a new factory.
The second and more serious issue is the difficulty in identifying opportunities. There is a tendency to confuse opportunities with possibilities. Something the company might do, such as franchise its operations in an effort to expand, is not an opportunity. The mention of the organization’s name in the opportunity is a clear indication that it is not an issue from the external environment. Both threats and opportunities would be present even if the organization did not exist.
Finally, you are accustomed to the material in a textbook containing accurate information that should be believed and remembered. However, in some cases, you will find statements of opinion that are often biased by a person’s motives and position in a firm. The organization’s CEO who has just recently given approval to the firm’s strategic plan might say, “This is an excellent mission statement that will effectively direct our firm’s efforts for the next decade.” Is this really true? It might be, but it will be up to you to determine what is fact as opposed to someone’s opinion. Opinions will need to be assessed in your case analysis to determine their accuracy.
Step 2: Assumptions and Missing Information
As with life, it is neither possible nor realistic for cases to contain all the information a decision
maker might wish to have available. Usually a decision maker has only bits and pieces of
information. He or she must either fill in the gaps, or make the decision that the information is
not critical, fairly predictable, or simply too costly and time-consuming to justify collecting for
the decision at hand. A marketing manager might want to know the history of competitive
reactions to price cuts by his firm. This information may be present in company files. It also
might be available from trade sources or other noncompetitive channel members.
Following the seven-step framework, in step two you will list important information not
contained in the case, why that information might be useful, and how you might go about
acquiring it. This is more than just a wish list. The items included here should be considered
thoroughly. The list should contain pieces of information that would help shore up or fill gaps in
your SWOT analysis. Some of the materials may be available from secondary sources, such as
U.S. Department of Commerce reports, the Bureau of the Census, or trade publications. Internal
records will contain much of the needed strength/weakness information, such as employee
turnover or historical sales levels.
Some of the information that is not available can be addressed through assumptions. One might
assume that if information about the firm’s budget is not available, it would be equal to industry
averages. The same assumptions might be made for other costs and revenues. It is critical that
these assumptions be realistic and clearly identified before and during the case analysis. This list
should contain only those items that will be truly useful in enhancing the quality of the decisions
made. It should not be a list of things that would be interesting to know. The quality of your
analysis will depend on your coverage of the framework, the depth of your analysis, and the
degree to which you can defend your recommendations.
Step 3: Statement of The Problem(s)
The identification and clear presentation of the problem(s) or issue(s) facing the company is the
most critical part of the analysis framework. Only a problem properly defined can be addressed.
Define the problem too narrowly, or miss the key problem all together, and all subsequent
framework steps will be off the mark. Getting a clear picture of the problem is one major benefit
derived from SWOT analysis.
The process of identifying problems is similar to the one people go through with their doctors. A
nurse or assistant comes in to conduct a strength and weakness assessment on you. Your vital
signs are taken and you are asked about any symptoms you may be experiencing. Symptoms are
observable manifestations or indications that a problem may be present. Symptoms are not the
problem themselves. If you have a temperature of 103 degrees, that is a symptom. If the medical
staff were to pack you in ice for several minutes, that reading would probably approach 98.6
degrees. Would that make you well? It might make your condition worse! The doctor uses the
information collected from you, with knowledge of the viruses and diseases that are present in
the external environment, to identify what has led to your high fever. The doctor will attempt to
diagnose the real problem, then prescribe treatment from a set of feasible alternatives (make
recommendations about what steps will help solve the problem) and provide you with a
prognosis (an indication of the things you can expect to occur as you are recovering).
The case analysis process is similar to the doctor’s analysis and treatment of a patient in several
basic ways. First, symptoms are the most observable indication that a problem exists. Many
students are very quick to start treating the symptoms found in a case, as opposed to digging
deeper to find the underlying problem(s). A symptom may be that sales are down from previous
periods. If this is how you define the problem, your answer might be to cut the price. This might
be an appropriate step, but not based on the analysis to this point. Sales might pick up, but will
this reaction make the company healthier? This is a clear case of prescription without adequate
The most important question in the identification of any problem is “Why?” The Why question
should always be asked after a potential problem has been proposed. To illustrate, pinpointing
the problem associated with the sales decline in our previous example might progress like this:
The problem is that sales have declined.
Why have sales declined?
Sales have declined because there are too many sales territories that are not
assigned to a salesperson.
Why are so many sales territories unassigned?
Sales territories are unassigned because sales force turnover has
doubled in the past year.
Why has sales force turnover doubled?
Turnover began to increase over a year ago when
the sales force compensation plan was altered in
order to reduced variable expenses.
When you can no longer devise a meaningful response to the Why? question, you have probably
found the problem. In this instance, the problem statement might read:
The current sales force compensation plan at XYZ Company is inadequate to retain an
acceptable percentage of the firm’s salespeople, resulting in lost customers and decreased
The problem statement should be brief—almost always one or two sentences. It should be to the
point, and it should provide a clear indication as to what must be addressed to improve the
performance of the organization