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Business and Corporate

How the case method maintains its relevance in a volatile world

Published on 17 February 2021

Exposure to real-world problems, understanding different perspectives in decision-making, and learning how to communicate effectively through robust discussions — these are the key strengths of the case method, a longstanding staple of business education.

SMU’s Centre for Management Practice (CMP) adds another value proposition to the mix — its cases offer an in-depth knowledge of organisations and business leaders operating in Asia.

Founded in 2011 as the Case Writing Initiative, CMP has developed into a full-fledged centre that offers thought leadership in management thinking and Asia-centric cases for learning across disciplines and issues.

Besides its flagship publication Asian Management Insights and monthly newsletter Perspectives@SMU, the teaching cases developed by CMP case writers and their faculty partners aim to grow management and business knowledge on Asia primarily through field studies that gather first-hand information from organisations and business leaders.

As of 2020, CMP teaching cases have been downloaded more than 120,000 times across the globe. As the centre celebrated the publication of its 300th case last year, its director Dr Havovi Joshi said: “At CMP, we are all very proud to have contributed to this milestone that reflects SMU’s efforts to create impact and document effective business management cases during a time of unprecedented volatility and change.”

Indeed, the case method has stood the test of time. Pioneered in 1870 by Christopher Columbus Langdell, the Dean of Harvard Law School, it made its way into business schools in the 1920s. Since then, the case method has also been embraced by several professional schools and disciplines, including medical schools, engineering, chemistry, civics education, and more


Here are four reasons for the case method’s continued relevance.


Learning from the real world

Why has the fast fashion behemoth Zara failed to gain market share in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region? Why did razor brand Gillette conceive an unconventional marketing campaign for India? Why did Oreo biscuits have to be re-invented for the China market?

These are some of the real-world business challenges examined in CMP’s most downloaded cases. Immersing students in the details of such challenges drives home the point that the real world is not a controlled environment. Rather, business decisions often have to be made in situations of flux and uncertainty. Often, decision-makers are armed with limited or imperfect information. In other words, the case method offers great training for the way students will have to operate in the real world.

Building empathy

A case often presents many sides of a scenario, and reviewing a case means students have to put themselves in the shoes of different decision-makers who envisage the scenario in varying ways. They learn to understand how people, when presented with the same information, can arrive at different conclusions.

The education in empathy doesn’t stop there. After reviewing a case, the next step is to discuss it with fellow students. As each student brings his or her own personal and professional perspectives to the discussion, this part of the process is invaluable in underlining the point that there are many different ways to approach a challenge.

Sharpening presentation skills

A case discussion sometimes kicks off with a ‘cold call’, which means a student is called on at random to summarise the case in question, lay out the key points for discussion, and present his or her viewpoints on these issues.

The possibility that one will be called upon to do this is reason enough for students to review the case rigorously before coming to class. That means not just reading the material in question, but also exercising critical thinking skills to analyse the case so that they can develop cogent points of view with regards to the case problem. That preparation will enable more confidence when presenting a case, but some prior practice in public speaking won’t hurt either.

Strengthening communication skills

As students debate a case, multiple perspectives will emerge. These can often be contrasting positions, but the process does not have to be contentious. A constructive discussion involves active listening, respectful engagement, and learning how to process complicated problems and oppositional approaches, so as to build on one another’s ideas and arguments.

Ultimately, while students may sometimes be asked to develop a consensus solution, the purpose of the case method is seldom to find one right answer. Rather, this way of contextual learning helps students understand theoretical concepts as they manifest in actual business dealings, therefore training them to address real-world problems through clear-eyed analysis and effective communication.

See also: Centre for Management Practice: Making global impact through its knowledge on Asia