Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Some thoughts on selecting and presenting a meaningful case study

Posted in book recommendations, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on October 4, 2013

Every business school offers case studies as a way to bring theory out of the abstract and into a real world context. Books and journal articles on business do this same thing and for similar reason and many are in fact written as case studies and logically connected series of them. I use examples and case studies in the same way and for the same basic reasons in the course of my own work and when I write and talk about business and technology. But what makes a good case study? That is a question that is not always as easy to address, as using them is.

As a case in point, I would note Jim Collin’s excellent books:

• Collins, J. (2001) Good to Great. Harper Business.
• Collins, J. and Porras, J.I. (2002) Built to Last. Collins Business Essentials.
• Collins, Jim. (2009) How the Mighty Fall (and why some companies never give up). HarperCollins.

Collins and his research team are studiously careful in selecting business success stories that meet rigorous long-term success criteria before he identifies a company as one of his select best of breed, when looking to determine what the best hold in common that would contribute to their being best. But even so, some of his longest term success stories from his earlier writings had already fallen into significant distress and some had even disappeared, at least as separate business entities by the time he wrote his 2009 book.

• Businesses in trouble can turn themselves around and become real success stories, and success stories with lessons worth sharing as to how to do that right.
• A business that has been continuously successful and resilient in facing any possible challenge and even for generations, can find itself on the wrong side of history and in real trouble – and for any of a very wide range of reasons. Ongoing success can lead to organizational complacency and an inability to quickly and effectively respond to a changing competitive environment. Leadership succession that looked to follow what has been a successful pattern can fail. And the wrong people for a business’ competitive here and now, still trying to address old challenges and successes, might be put in charge. Those are just two possibilities out of many.
• My point here is that even a great case study example can have a brief and even a very tenuous shelf life of relevancy without irony – the irony of looking at how obsolete its selection for this role has become.

But setting the issue of shelf life aside and simply looking at accuracy and relevancy when the case study example is first selected and presented, what makes a really good case study? There are a number of ways to answer that.

• One of them is that a well-chosen and effectively presented case study example really does breathe life into what otherwise might be a dry and abstract description, evaluation or analysis. A good case study gives people a framework of how the more theoretical side of a discussion actually connects with the real world.
• More than that, a well-chosen case study provokes further thought. It does not simply add a company name to what was already stated. It opens doors to a continuation of that discussion by at the very least pointing to new and still unexplored issues that also connect in relevantly.
• But for me, a best case study also challenges the theory and principles that it highlights; it might very well end up sustaining and supporting them but a good case study should never come across as a rubber stamp confirmation, but rather as a validation of principles stated. Think of this as taking more of a scientific approach to business analysis where case studies are considered for their ability to challange and refine or even refute accepted theory and abstract principle, as much as they are for clarifying and explaining them.

And as a final thought for this posting, a good case study should be rigorously developed and with all criteria for data collection and evaluation fully explained. And wherever possible, its data should be quantifiable. That way any conclusions reached and the processes by which they are reached can be clear and unequivocal as to meaning, and as clear as possible as to reasonable interpretation, range of relevancy and use.

I offer this note as a thought piece and include it in Business Strategy and Operations – 3. You can also find related postings and series at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory.

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