Human Resources Director
The case method has been the dominant teaching style for graduate business education for the last hundred years, first at Harvard Business School and thereafter at most elite B-schools. But lately, cases have come under fire for not keeping up with the times — and for misrepresenting the times they do intend to reflect. Cases are under the microscope “for several serious moral failures, accused by various critics of ‘constructing mythical, heroic portrayals of leadership’ and ‘privileging senior management views and managerialism,’” wrote critic Lila MacLellan last fall in Quartz. They have been said to “exclude the voices of women, the poor, and labor, and to contain ‘a flawed logic of translatability from one context to others.’”
At Harvard Business School, where the vast majority of case studies are written and sold, Black American protagonists are badly underrepresented. Steven Rogers, who taught at HBS as a senior lecturer until last year, has noted that less than 1% of the case studies published by Harvard and used in business school and corporate classrooms around the world feature a Black protagonist (see Former Harvard Business School Prof Slams Dean For School’s ‘Systematic Anti-Black Practices‘). Even worse, only two of the roughly 300 case studies taught to first-year MBA students in the required curriculum had an African-American protagonist. Bottom line: The case against cases is strong.
Last fall, well before the reawakening of racial inequality fueled by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Kellie McElhaney and Genevieve Smith were having their own struggles with the case method — and their own epiphanies about its value to business education. McElhaney, founder of the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership (EGAL) at the University of California-Berkeley and a teaching professor at the Haas School of Business, and Smith, associate director of EGAL, were looking for prototypes to inform a pair of cases they were writing, one on the pay gap at Gap Inc. and the other about the work culture at Boston Consulting Group. But there were no prototypes to be found.
Later, discussing the white male slant of cases at an EGAL meeting, a board member’s comment stuck with McElhaney. “One of our investors, who was an MBA student many years ago, said she couldn’t remember any case in which there was anything other than white males,” McElhaney tells Poets&Quants. “And so we just started out by having somebody do a scan of cases out there that had at least some diverse protagonists.
“You think you’re going to do a little job and then you realize it’s huge.”
CREATING THE EGAL CASE COMPENDIUM
Kellie McElhaney. Haas photo
The daunting scale of the problem was quickly apparent. Harvard publishes hundreds of cases annually; its directory of more than 19,000 is the source of an estimated 80% of cases used in B-schools globally. Case studies are also big business. In 2019, HBS’s publishing arm made a record $262 million, more than a quarter of the school’s total income, largely through publishing new cases. (That income has been curtailed in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic.) The school publishes about 350 new cases every year to add to a stock of around 7,500; annually it sells millions of copies globally.
Yet in all those cases, Smith, McElhaney, and EGAL Research Assistant Diana Chavez-Varela, who earned her bachelor’s in political economy from UC-Berkeley in 2019, estimate that only around 1% include a Black person as a protagonist, the same percentage founded by Rogers, and just 9% have a female protagonist. EGAL also found a common focus on lower-level employees, with more than half (55%) of the cases about diversity, equity, and inclusion centered on entry- and mid-level employees, and only 15% focused on senior leadership. Advancing women in the workplace, moreover, was a far more common theme than issues focused on race, ethnicity, or other identities.
The majority of the primary authors (those listed first) are male, Smith and Chavez-Varela found: 55.35%. The majority of diverse protagonist case studies (67.91%) are male, too.
“I think we realized as we started this project, it’s not just around diverse protagonists, though that is obviously really important,” Smith says. “There’s different research that shows that having protagonists that reflect who you are increases confidence levels within the classroom, and just generally beyond the classroom as well. There really is a lack of cases that reflect the diversity, equity, and inclusion that are so real in businesses today. So that really spurred us to identify what cases do exist that we can help point faculty to, to fill some of these gaps within core courses, as well as other courses across Haas.”
The EGAL team wrote a report based on their findings, released this summer. But they went further. Collecting cases from more than 20 leading publishers, they created a master list of more than 400 cases with diverse protagonists. The EGAL Case Compendium is a spreadsheet with 215 cases with diverse protagonists and 215 cases specific to diversity, equity, and inclusion topics — and it’s free for any Haas or other B-school instructors to use.
‘YOU CAN’T BE WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE’
In a 2018 Financial Times story on criticism of the case method, Steven Shugin, a professor in marketing at the University of Florida’s College of Business Administration, argued for replacing both the writing and Socratic-style teaching of cases with the scientific method — arguing, in other words, for a method of rigorously testing theories rather than one based on historic events in a single company.
“I’m not saying the case has no value but it is not generalizable,” Shugin told the FT. “So many cases highlighted the best companies of the 1980s like Kodak, which had gone out of business by the 1990s.” He pointed to a series of HBS cases of “innovative” Enron financial transactions — since superseded by ones on the ethics raised by its collapse. “Teaching,” he said, “should keep students up with current thinking.”
Current thinking has come a long way in the areas of diversity and inclusion, McElhaney says.
“We can get really heady as academicians, but there’s an adage that ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ It’s pretty straight-up social psychology, not really complicated,” she says. “So if we’re only ever showing white men in positions of power — you can’t be what you can’t see. Here we are as a school, putting all these resources into trying to become more diverse, and yet our primary teaching tool is, in and of itself, not diverse.
“It’s just kind of a straight-up problem. And I’ll own this more as a professor. I have been a professor since 1997. And I have heard a proliferation of reasons why faculty won’t try new things in the classroom or try new cases. And it is often because, they say, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Or put another way, there is no better case. I think what we are trying to show is, it’s possible there is more than one option out there, something other than the one that you’ve been using for 10 years.
“As a professor who uses cases, I know that switching costs are high. It takes a lot of work on my end to learn the case, to teach it well, to make sure that it gets across the point I’m trying to make. But I didn’t want to let faculty off the hook for that sort of a simplistic response.”
‘LOWERING THE BAR’?
One of the biggest problems with outdated cases and case-writing is not a lack of representation but misrepresentation — of under-represented minorities as well as women. “The misrepresentation is more of a perpetuating of stereotypes,” McElhaney says, “such as always putting women in positions of HR or marketing or executive assistant.” EGAL found that 84% of cases with diverse protagonists focused on HR and had primarily white women as protagonists. Some disciplines are nonexistent, Smith says, while stereotypical business roles and positions are predominant.
“There is one case around the rare African-American venture capitalist, and it was written by a white male author,” she says. “Or there was another case that kind of seemed to equate diversity to less quality, which perpetuates the narrative that diversity and inclusion initiatives mean you’re going to be lowering the quality bar.
“Of the diverse protagonists cases, almost 70% of the authors were male, which again, is part of the issue in itself. And it reflects the lens that’s being used.”
EGAL Research Assistant Diana Chavez-Varela, Associate Director Genevieve Smith, and Program Director Jennifer Wells (from left). Photo: Jim Block
The EGAL Case Compendium, compiled with the help of a $5,000 Haas Culture grant, is already making an impact. About a week after it was published, McElhaney says, “one of our top professors submitted an opportunity for two different cases that she would like to see written. She’s somebody who’s been around for a long time and has a lot of clout. So that was pretty fast.”
No word from Harvard yet, but other members of the Haas School faculty are taking a strong interest, Smith says.
“One thing that we’re really interested in is, how can we make sure others are aware that it exists?” Smith says. “We were able to get a lot of different faculty at Haas that was able to see it, and some folks reaching out from the California Management Review as well. They have been interested in helping to financially support some cases so that we can continue to write, continue to add to the cases that exist. But we would love to be able to make sure it is more known by other schools and that it is a resource that they can draw from.”
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR STAKEHOLDERS: B-SCHOOLS, FACULTY, CASE PUBLISHERS
In their report. Smith and Chavez-Varela included recommendations for faculty and case study publishers.
- Explore using cases with diverse protagonists and on DEI topics. Use EGAL’s Case Compendium to identify cases. We have created a survey tool for any faculty member (at Haas and beyond) to find cases appropriate for their particular context. We review this survey monthly and respond to faculty needs and requests.
- Consider writing and publishing more case studies with diverse protagonists – particularly intersectional identities and for use in courses in the core curriculum.
Consider writing and publishing on topics of DEI outside of Human Resource Management / Organizational Behavior– and particularly across core curriculum courses.
- Ensure case study language used in the case and in the class discussion does not commodify / discriminate against certain identities, and/or perpetuate stereotypes and harmful norms.
- Engage with centers such as EGAL to write case studies or support research in case study development.
- Encourage and incentivize faculty to utilize case studies with diverse protagonists or case studies on DEI topics– assuming the case(s) align with the course and their teaching goals.
- Support centers such as EGAL to write case studies that fill key gaps, and inform faculty of case study options.
- Educate case study authors/faculty on topics of power, privilege, discrimination, bias, and structural inequities and how they can manifest in their classroom discussions.
- Provide faculty and lecturers resources and educational opportunities to integrate DEI in the classroom. A barrier for faculty to use cases with diverse protagonists or on DEI-related topics is a lack of comfort on sensitive topics of diversity. For example, how can faculty facilitate tough conversations around identity when challenges are brought up from students?
“It was interesting that we essentially finished this and launched it right around when the Black Lives Matter protests were really taking off,” Smith says. “And it was announced to Haas faculty at a time that I think people in faculty were really starting to think about their cases for the fall and recognizing and realizing how big and important and critical it is to think about how we’re perpetuating issues in our own house, our own school.”
GETTING MORE & BETTER DIVERSE CASES WRITTEN
Another challenge, not just at the Haas School but across graduate business education, is that faculty are “cat-like,” McElhaney says, and disinclined to use unproven or unknown cases. Case quality is also a sticking point.
“We’re under no grand illusion that change is going to happen fast,” she says. “What we tried to do is take away some of the excuses that we’ve heard, so if somebody says, ‘Well, there are no good cases,’ we can say, ‘Maybe there are no great cases, but there’s a better case from the one you’re using, here’s a compendium.’
“Far and away our two biggest challenges are, one, there aren’t fantastic cases out there. So we do need to really throttle down to get it into the hands of powerful faculty. Academia has no corporate structure such that the CEO can say, ‘Do this,’ and everybody has to do it. So we really need to figure out how to get it into the hands of power players inside of business schools. And every business school is different. At one business school it could be the dean, and another business school it could be the core faculty committee.
“But the second thing — and the thing, I guess, that I’m more interested in — is how to get more cases written in rapid-fire succession. Because even diversity, as we thought of it yesterday, is different from diversity today. Right? If somebody asks me how I identify, I might say, ‘white woman.’ Those are the first two things that come to my mind. But the younger generation now has like five things at once in terms of how they self-identify. And so there’s a proliferation of multicultural diversity: you’re not just hiring an Asian female, you’re hiring a gender non-binary queer, first-in-family, child-of-immigrant Asian female. And so when we have all of these multiple identities it’s even more uncommon to find some of them reflected in the classroom.”
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