Case Study | Harvard Business School: How Story Connects Brands to People – Part 6

 In continuing with some of the thoughts I’ve put together on creativity, business, and storytelling:

In order to better understand the way creative actions and storytelling play a part in business, it will be helpful to look at three different case studies: the non-profit organization charity: water, the for-profit organization TOMS, and the Harvard Business School case method.

HBSIt may not be obvious, but the creative strategy of storytelling is incorporated into the fundamental practices of Harvard Business School. HBS employs the Case Method, which presents students with a written case account of a manager or organization facing a problem, and asks them to decide what they would do in the same scenario. According to the HBS website, “…cases are firsthand accounts of actual management problems that stem from a variety of interdependent factors and span all aspects of business. … Placing themselves in the role of the case protagonists (managers), students perform analyses and recommend a course of action, without knowing the outcome of the decision at hand.” According to Poets & Quants, HBS is the business school that teaches the case method the most, at 80% of its teaching model (the rest is experiential learning and team projects); the next highest business school is at 75% case method, and drops off significantly from there. The pedagogical choice is a deliberate one: Case-based learning pushes the student to think about and understand the material actively, rather than receive it passively through a lecture.

Cases were first taught at Harvard in 1870 at the Law School first. While the Business School was founded in 1908, cases didn’t appear there until 1920, and by the end of the decade cases were being used in all courses. A case itself can be a few pages to fifty pages long, and contain text and graphics. A case tells the story of an important real-life business decision that occurred, from an operations problem at a plant, to a rebranding dilemma, to an issue of doing business in another culture, to an in-house ethical issue. A case’s purpose, according to William Ellet, is “to represent reality, to convey a situation with all its cross currents and rough edges – including irrelevancies, sideshows, misconceptions, and little information or an overwhelming about of it.” Cases deliberately include “noise,” which can be irrelevant information, red herrings, and limited facts, that simulate the kind of incomplete information a manager or leader may encounter in real life. In coming up with conclusions from their analysis, the reader must decide what information is relevant and what is not. Faculty facilitate the classroom discussions by the Socratic method and guide students towards the “a-ha” moment, where an individual strategy makes sense for each student – but there is never one single “right” answer.

Whether HBS realizes it or not, they are employing a similar creative business model to Disney. Speaking at STORY 2014, growing up, Christopher Chapman, Creativity and Innovation Director at Disney, was always attracted to stories that allowed him to be the hero. He loved Choose Your Own Adventure books and videos games, where he could control the main character’s fate. When he went to Disneyland for the first time, he found them employing a similar technique: He wasn’t on a ride with Peter Pan flying over London, he was Peter Pan flying over London. He wasn’t watching the Nautilus sink below the ocean in 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he was in the Nautilus, living out the story. The rides at Disney’s parks are designed to be perfect representations of an alternate reality in order to make visitors feel like they are the protagonist in a story, able to decide and act out their own fate. Through reading a case where they are required to assume the role of protagonist, a student is entering into an alternate reality as the hero, and, like in a video game or a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, told to make decisions and carry out actions.

It’s not a typical type of teaching method, and “for students, this can be a monumental shift in the educational experience, from the comfort of authority and the officially sanctioned truth to the hard work of personal responsibility and the unease of ambiguity and multiple meanings” (Ellet). Yes the success of the case method is undisputed: Harvard Business School consistently ranks as one of the top business schools in the world, with more graduates making the billionaire list than any other school. The Handbook of Research on the Education of School Leaders also puts forth that “from the descriptive work that does exist, it is clear that case methods are pedagogically more engaging for students. The case study method is consistent with adult learning theory.” Story is the best teacher.

Last: Case Study | TOMS : How Story Connects Brands to People – Part 5

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