PREPARING A CASE FOR CLASS DISCUSSION

Given that cases rest on the principle of learning by doing, their effectiveness hinges upon you making your analysis and reaching your own decisions and then in the classroom participating, in a collective analysis and decision-making process. If this is your first experience with the case method, you may have to reorient your study habits. Since a case assignment emphasizes student participation, it is obvious that the effectiveness of the class discussion depends upon each student having studied the case beforehand. Consequently, unlike lecture courses where there is no imperative of specific preparation before each class and where assigned readings and reviews of lecture notes may be done at irregular intervals, a case assignment requires conscientious preparation before class. You cannot, after all, expect to get much out of practicing managing in a situation with which you are totally unfamiliar.

Unfortunately, though, there is no nice, proven procedure for studying cases which can be recommended to you. There is no formula, no fail-safe step-by-step technique that we can recommend. Each case is a new situation and you will need to adjust accordingly. Moreover, you will, after a time, discover an approach which suits you best. Thus, the following, suggestions are offered simply to get you started.

A first step in understanding how the case method of teaching/learning works is to recognize that it represents a radical departure from the lecture/discussion problem classroom technique. To begin with, members of the class do most of the talking.

The instructor's role is to solicit student participation and guide the discussion. Expect
the instructor to begin the class with such questions as: What is the organization's strategy? What do you consider to be the real problem confronting the company? What factors have contributed most to the organization's successes? Its failures? Which manager is doing a good job? Are the organization's goals and strategies compatible with its skills and resources? Typically, members of the class will evaluate and test their opinions as much in discussions with each other as with the instructor. But irrespective of whether the discussion emphasis is instructor-student or student-student, members of the class carry the burden for analyzing the situation and for being prepared to present and defend their analysis in the classroom. Thus, you should expect an absence of professorial "here's how to do it," "right answers," and "hard knowledge for your notebook": instead, be prepared for a discussion involving what do you think, what would you do, and what do you feel is important.

Begin your analysis by reading the case once for familiarity. An initial reading should give you the general flavor of the situation and make possible identification of issues. On the second reading, attempt to gain full command of the facts. You may wish to make notes about apparent organizational goals, objectives, strategies, policies, symptoms of problems, problems, root causes of problem, unresolved issues, and roles, of key individuals. Be alert for issues or problems which are not necessarily made explicit but which nevertheless are lurking beneath the surface. Read between the lines and do not hesitate to do some detective work on your own. For instance, the apparent issue in the case might be whether a product has ample market potential at the current selling price while the root problem is that the method being used to compensate salespeople fails to generate adequate incentive for achieving greater unit volume. Needless to say, a clear-cut "size-up" of the company and its problems is an essential function of management: one cannot devise sensible solutions to an organizationís troubles until the troubles have first been correctly identified...In short, before a company's problems can be solved, they must be understood;they must be analyzed, they must be evaluated, and they must be placed in proper perspective.

To help gain this perspective, put yourself in the position of some manager or managerial group portrayed in the case and get attuned to the organizational environment within which the manager or management group must make decisions. Try to get a good feel for the ""personality" of the company, the management, and the organizational climate. This is essential if you are to come up with solutions which will be both workable and acceptable in light of the prevailing environmental constraints and realities. Do not be dismayed if you find it impractical to isolate the problems and issues in the case into distinct categories which can be treated separately. Very few and significant real-world management problems can be neatly sorted into mutually exclusive areas of concern.

Most important of all, you must arrive at a solid evaluation of the company, based on the information in the case. Developing an ability to evaluate companies and size up their situations is the key to case analysis. How do you evaluate a company? In general, the financial position of the firm must be scrutinized closely, the firm's external opportunities and internal resources compared and evaluated, and an assessment of its future potential made. Decide how urgent the organization's difficulties are and weigh the probable impacts upon performance and capability. Pinpoint the key factors which are crucial to success or failure. Uppermost in your efforts, strive for defensible arguments and positions. Do not rely upon just your opinion. Support any judgments or conclusions with evidence! Use the available data to make whatever relevant accounting, financial, marketing, or operations analysis calculations are necessary to support your assessment of the situation.

Lastly, be wary of accepting everything stated in the case as "fact." Sometimes, information or data in the case will be conflicting and/or opinions contradictory. For example, one manager may say that the firm's organizational structure is functioning quite effectively, whereas another may say it is not. It is your task to decide whose view is more valid and why. Forcing you to make judgments about the validity of the data and information presented in the case is both deliberate and realistic. It is deliberate because one function of the case method is to help you develop your powers of judgment and inference. It is realistic because a great many managerial situations entail conflicting points of view.

Once you have thoroughly diagnosed the company's situation and weighed the pros and cons of various alternative courses of action, the final step of case analysis is to decide what you think the company needs to do to improve its performance and to set forth a workable plan of action. This is a crucial part of the process of case analysis since diagnosis divorced from corrective action is sterile: but bear in mind that making a decision and jumping to a conclusion are not the same thing. One is well-advised to avoid the infamous decision-making pattern: "Don't confuse me with the facts. I've made up my mind."

On a few occasions, some desirable information may not be included in the case. In such instances you may be inclined to complain about the lack of "facts." A manager, however. uses more than facts upon which to base his or her decisions. Moreover, it may be possible to make a number of inferences from the facts you do have. So, be wary of rushing to include as part of your recommendations "the need to get more information." From time to time, of course, a search for additional facts or information may be entirely appropriate but you must also recognize that the organization's managers may not have had any more information available than that presented in the case. Before recommending that a final decision be postponed until additional facts are uncovered, be sure that you think it will be worthwhile to get them and that the organization could afford to wait. In general though, try to assess situations based upon the evidence you have at hand.

Again, remember that rarely is there a "right" decision or just one "optimal" plan of action or an "approved" solution. Your goal should be to find a practical and workable course of action which is based upon a serious analysis of the situation and which appears to you to be right in view of your assessment and weighing of the facts. Admittedly, someone else may evaluate the same facts in another way and thus have a different "right" solution, but since several good plans of action can normally be conceived, you should not be afraid to pursue your own intuition and judgment. One can make a strong argument for the view that the "right" answer for a manager is the one which he or she can propose, explain, defend, and make work when it is implemented.

THE CLASSROOM EXPERIENCE

In experiencing class discussions of management cases, you will, in all probability, notice very quickly that you will not have thought of everything in the case that your fellow students think of. While you will see things others did not, they will see things you did not. Do not be dismayed or alarmed by this. It is normal. As the old adage goes, "two heads are better than one." So, it is to be expected that the class as a whole will do a more penetrating and searching job of case analysis than will any one person working alone. This is the power of group effort and one of its virtues is that it will give you more insight into how others view situations and how to cope with differences of opinion. Second, you will see better why sometimes it is not managerially wise to assume a rigid position on an issue until a full range of views and information has been assembled. And, undoubtedly, somewhere along the way you will begin to recognize that neither the instructor nor other students in the class have all the answers, and even if they think they do, you are still free to present and hold to your own views. The truth in the saving that "there's more than one way to skin a cat" will be seen to apply nicely to most management situations.

For class discussion of cases to be useful and stimulating you need to keep the following points in mind:

1. The case method enlists a maximum of individual participation in class discussion. It is not enough to be present as a silent observer: if every student took this approach, then there would be no discussion. (Thus, do not be surprised if a portion of your grade is based on your participation in case discussions.)
2. Although you should do your own independent work and independent thinking, donít hesitate to discuss the case with other students. Managers often discuss their problems with other key people.

3. During case discussions, expect and tolerate challenges to the views expressed. Be willing to submit your conclusions for scrutiny and rebuttal. State your views without fear of disapproval and overcome the hesitation of speaking out.

4. In orally presenting and defending your ideas, keep in mind the importance of good communication. It is up to you to be convincing and persuasive in expressing your ideas.

5. Expect the instructor to assume the role of discussion leader: only when the discussion content is technique-oriented is it likely that your instructor will maintain direct control over the discussion.

6. Although discussion of a case is a group process, this does not imply conformity to group opinion. Learning respect for the views and approaches of others is an integral part of case analysis exercises. But be willing to "Swim against the tide" of majority opinion. In the practice of management, there is always room for originality, unorthodoxy, and unique personality.

7. In participating in the discussion, make a conscious effort to contribute rather than just talk. There is a difference.

8. Effective case discussions can occur only if participants have "the facts" of the case well in hand: rehashing information in the case should be held to a minimum except as it provides document comparisons, or support for your position.

9. During the discussion. new insights provided by the groupís efforts are likely to emerge, thereby opening up "the facts" to reinterpretation and perhaps causing one's analysis of the situation to be modified.

10. Although there will always be situations in which more technical information is imperative to the making of an intelligent decision, try not to shirk from making decisions in the face of incomplete information. Wrestling with imperfect information is a normal condition managers face and is something you should get used to.

11. Ordinarily, there are several acceptable solutions which can be proposed for dealing with the issues in a case. Definitive, probably correct answers rarely, if ever, exist in managerial situations.

12. In the final analysis, learning about management via the case method is up to you: just as with other learning techniques, the rewards are dependent upon the effort you put in to it.

PREPARING A WRITTEN CASE ANALYSIS

From time to time, your instructor may ask you to prepare a written analysis of the case assignment. Preparing a written case analysis is much like preparing a case for class discussion, except that your analysis, when completed, must be reduced to writing. Just as there was no set pattern or formula for preparing a case for oral discussion, there is no ironclad procedure for preparing a written case analysis. With a bit of experience you will arrive at your own preferred method of attack in writing up a case and you will learn to adjust your approach to the unique aspects that each case presents.

Your instructor may assign you a specific topic around which to prepare your written report. Common assignments include (1) identify and evaluate company X's corporate strategy: (2) in view of the opportunities and risks you see in the industry, what is your assessment of the companyís position and plan? (3) how would you size up the strategic situation of company Y? (4) what recommendations would you make to company Z's top management? and (5) what specific functions and activities does the company have to perform especially well in order for its strategy to succeed?

Alternatively, you may be asked to do a "comprehensive- written case analysis." It is typical for a comprehensive written case analysis to emphasize:

1. Identification of key issues and problems confronting management.

2. A thorough analysis and evaluation of these issues and problems.

3. An assessment of action alternatives, and

4. Presentation of a plan of action.

You may wish to consider the following pointers in preparing a comprehensive written case analysis.

Issues and Problems There are five vital areas in an organization which form an integral part of any comprehensive analysis:

(1) its product line and basic competitive position. (2) its profitability and financial conditions. (3) its operations-production, personnel, organization structure, controls, and so on. (4) the caliber of top management, including not only management's past record but also its adequacy to cope with what lies ahead. and (5) the company's prospects for the future.

A comprehensive analysis must survey all five of these areas, with a view toward identifying the key issues and problems which confront the organization. It is essential that your paper reflect a sharply focused diagnosis of these key issues and problems and, further that you demonstrate good business judgment in sizing up the company's present situation. Make sure you understand and can identify the firm's corporate strategy. You would probably be well advised to begin your paper by sizing up the company's situation, its strategy, and the significant problems and issues which confront management. State the problems/issues as clearly and precisely as you can. Unless it is necessary to do so for emphasis, avoid recounting facts and history about the company (assume your professor has read the case and is familiar with the organization!). Consider when and why each problem arose, who is involved, and how critical the situation is. Indicate, where appropriate, the interrelationships between problems/issues. Be careful to distinguish between symptoms and root causes.

Analysis and Evaluation. Very likely you will find this section the hardest part of the report. Analysis is hard work! Study the tables, exhibits, and financial statements carefully. Check out the firm's financial ratios, its profit margins and rates of return, its capital structure and decide how strong the firm is financially. Similarly, look at marketing, production, managerial competences, and so on, and evaluate the organizationís strengths and weaknesses in each if the major functional areas. Identify the factors underlying the organizationís successes and failures. Decide whether it has a distinctive competence and, if so, whether it is capitalizing upon it. Is the firm's strategy working? Why or why not?

Assess opportunities and threats, both internally and externally. Determine whether goals, objectives, strategies and policies are realistic in light of prevailing constraints. Look at how the organization is hedging its risks. Evaluate the firm's competitive position. Establish a hard-nosed perspective view of each problem-issue and indicate problem linkages and interrelationships.

In writing up your analysis and evaluation, bear in mind that:

1. You are required to offer supporting evidence for your views and judgments. Do not rely upon unsupported opinions, overgeneralizations, and platitudes as a substitute for tight, logical argument backed up with facts and figures.

2. You should indicate the key factors which are crucial to the organizationís success or failure: i.e.. what must it concentrate on and be sure to do right in order to be a high performer. Is manufacturing efficiency the key to profitability? Or is it high sales volume? Or convincing customers that the product is of high "quality?" Or is it rendering good service?

3. While some information in the case is established fact, other evidence may be in the form of opinions, judgments, and beliefs, some of which may be contradictory or inaccurate. You are thus obligated to assess the validity of such information. Do not hesitate to question what seems to be "fact."

4. You should demonstrate that your interpretation of the evidence is both reasonable and objective. Be wary of preparing an analysis which omits all arguments not favorable to your position. Likewise, try not to exaggerate, prejudge. or overdramatize. Endeavor to inject balance into your analysis. Strive to display good business judgment.

Assessing Alternatives. In dealing with this facet of the written report, you may wish to start with a brief account of the areas or categories where action needs to be initiated. Then, you will need to consider the various ways of undertaking each of the action priorities. Be sure to keep the focus on what can and should be done to solve the organization's problems. Decide what is feasible in light of the constraints involved. Weigh the risks that attach to each alternative, as well as the pros and cons. If there are important compromises or trade-offs, identify them.

The Plan of Action. The final section of the written case analysis should consist of a plan of action (or alternative plans, if contingencies may arise). The action plan should follow directly from the analysis. If it comes as a surprise, because it is logically inconsistent with or not related to the analysis, the effect of the discussion is weakened. Obviously, any recommendations for action should offer a reasonable prospect of success. Be sure that the company is financially able to carry out what you recommend: your recommendations need to be workable in terms of acceptance by the persons involved, the organizationís competence to implement them, and prevailing market and environmental constraints. Unless you feel justifiably compelled to do so, do not qualify, hedge, or weasel on the actions that you believe should be taken. Furthermore, state your recommendations in sufficient detail to be meaningful. Avoid using panaceas or platitudes such as "the organization should implement modern planning techniques" or "the company should be more aggressive in marketing its product." State specifically what should be done and make sure your recommendations are operational. For instance, do not stop with saying "the firm should improve its market position," continue on with exactly how you think this should be done. And, finally, you should indicate how your plan should be implemented. Here, you may wish to give some attention to leadership styles, psychological approaches, motivational aspects, and incentives that may be helpful. You might also stipulate a timetable for initiating actions, indicate priorities. and suggest who should be responsible for doing what. For example, "Have the manager take the following steps: (1)____________. (2)_______________. (3)____________. (4)_______.

In preparing your plan of action, remember that there is a great deal of difference between being responsible, on the one hand, for a decision which may be costly if it proves in error and, on the other hand, expressing a casual opinion as to some of the courses of action which might be taken when you do not have to bear the responsibility for any of the consequences. A good rule to follow in designing your plan of action is to avoid recommending anything you would not yourself be willing to do if you were in management's shoes. The importance of learning to develop good judgment in a managerial situation is indicated by the fact that while the same information and operating data may be available to every manager or executive in an organization, it does make a difference to the organization which person makes the final decision.

It should go without saying that your report should be organized and written in a manner that communicates well and is persuasive. Great ideas amount to little unless others can be convinced of their merit;this takes effective communication.