Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Case of the Case

Even before I entered the full-time program at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota last fall, or knew exactly what a case was, I was aware that cases were VERY IMPORTANT in the life of an MBA student. I had heard about the famous case study method of learning, about the case interviews required for internships in so many fields, and about the case competitions that many students viewed as an important extracurricular activity. So what, exactly, is a case? Definitions I found on the web include the following (source:

(n) case, instance, example (an occurrence of something) "it was a case of bad judgment";
(n) event, case (a special set of circumstances) "in that event, the first possibility is excluded"; "it may rain in which case the picnic will be canceled"
(n) case (the actual state of things) "that was not the case"
(n) subject, case, guinea pig (a person who is subjected to experimental or other observational procedures; someone who is an object of investigation) "the cases that we studied were drawn from two different communities"
(n) case (a problem requiring investigation) "Perry Mason solved the case of the missing heir"
(n) case (a statement of facts and reasons used to support an argument) "he stated his case clearly"

Each of these definitions has something to contribute to the business student's understanding of what a case is, what purpose it serves, and how it can help you be a better student, better interviewer, and better businessperson. A business case is a "special set of circumstances," a "problem requiring investigation," and an "object of investigation... subjected to experimental or other observational procedures." Cases come in all shapes and sizes. They might be written or verbal, short or long, have detailed financial projections or ask big blue-sky questions. A strategy case might ask you to assess an industry's attractiveness using Porter's Five Forces; an operations or supply chain case may focus on the Theory of Constraints or Lean manufacturing principles, and a managerial accounting case might test your understanding of the cost-volume-profit relationship. A broader case might just ask you to solve a business problem without telling you how. What all cases have in common is the last definition: cases are all really about using knowledge and logic to develop a reasoned solution to a particular problem.

If you're thinking about business school, I urge you to begin your case preparation as soon as possible. Case thinking is an approach that extends beyond school to on-the-job problem solving, and it might prove useful before you even have your first business school class! I really liked Marc Cosentino's book Case in Point, which teaches frameworks that can be applied in many different situations. Most major consulting firms also have a section on their website about cases and case preparation, as well as several sample cases. The last reason to start thinking about cases is that aside from their utility, they can be fun, like a puzzle. One of my favorite things I've done in my first year of business school is participate in the NAWMBA and Kelley Women's Case Competitions. The opportunity to solve a challenging problem with a team of my incredibly bright, creative, motivated classmates was so much fun, and since both these cases were "live" we had the satisfaction of knowing that our work might directly impact the organization we were making recommendations to. Pretty cool stuff.

If you have any questions about case preparation, case interviews, the Forte Foundation or life as a first-year MBA at the Carlson School, please let me know! I can be reached at

Elizabeth Woodwick
Forte Fellow, MBA Candidate 2012
Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota

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