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Does the case method still work for business schools? - An interview with Amir Ziv, Vice Dean at Columbia Business School

The case method is a key teaching tool in most business schools. A case study provides students with mostly real events and challenges from the corporate world. These can be 30 pages on the introduction of a new frequent flyer programme or a company’s re-branding campaign for example … During a case students have to turn into decision makers, they are confronted with a problem and need to solve it.
For years this method has been praised but in recent times, more and more criticism has sprung up.


Amir Ziv

Especially one of the professors at Harvard Business School, Jim Heskett, challenges the method by asking if too much emphasis is placed on cases. Other high-profile business schools like Columbia Business School in New York have reacted as well and invented their own case methods: the so called decision briefs. MBA Channel spoke to Columbia Business School’s Vice Dean Amir Ziv about the case method, their very own invention of a case study, and the role technology plays these days.

Talking about the question that Harvard’s Professor Jim Heskett raises: do business schools place too much emphasis on cases these days omitting other forms of teaching?
Amir Ziv: I think Professor Heskett has a very solid point. At Columbia Business School, we believe that you should not teach with only one method, as being dogmatic is never good. In order to teach two plus two, I don’t need a case—I can teach that in a lecture, which is less time-consuming. It is also true that some people are better at teaching cases while others are better with other methods, like hands-on-teaching or lecturing. If you say the only way to teach is the case method, you rule out many other great instructors that do an excellent and effective job with other techniques.

This also includes the case method as a teaching tool then. Which benefits do you see in cases?
Amir Ziv: I think the biggest benefit of the case method is that it resembles a real-life situation and it forces students to make a decision. You have a case and you need to solve it—so that’s one big advantage. The second big advantage is that a case draws on everyone’s experience. If you have 60 students and everyone has four years of work experience that is many more total years than what I have myself. In the case method everyone benefits from the shared experiences of everyone else in the class. If I lecture, I talk and only share what I know. In a case, a good instructor can add insights to add structure to the conversation and to help students relate to great and not so great ideas. You can also bring in a company’s decision maker and the case allows you to show what happened afterwards. It wasn’t necessarily the optimal decision that was made at the time or the optimal execution, but you can also learn from mistakes.

And the downsides of this method…
Amir Ziv: There are quite a few downsides. Sometimes cases are quite artificial and if you teach something really simple, cases are much too time-consuming. In the same timeframe you can either cover two cases or six other things when lecturing. Another issue is that most cases are, in a sense, too complete. You get a 30-page analysis—everything you need to know is there and is already presented in a structured way. Students don’t need to do research anymore or figure out what the problem really is... That is artificial and doesn’t allow students to think what additional information they might need and how to get it. And how do I learn to deal with biased or incomplete information when I’m studying a case where everything is correct already? If the instructor isn’t good, you will spend most of the time talking about the details of the case. A good instructor, however, will make sure that all the important points are made during a lesson. In order to deliver a good case analysis you need lots of preparation from your students. If the school culture is calling for rigorous preparation before class and everyone is prepared, case studies work. On the other hand, if people are stressed or tired or do not prioritize academics, they don’t prepare, it shows, and all the benefits of the case method are absent.

How do you perceive the issue that students usually talk for at least 80 per cent of the lesson when subjects are taught in the case method? Is that good value for money for students that pay very high school fees?
Amir Ziv: This is actually one of the benefits—students learn less when they are listening. They learn best when they are teaching others and draw on other students’ experiences. Once I was teaching a case about Coca-Cola and I was lucky enough to have a person from Coca-Cola in the classroom who was involved in the specific deal we were discussing—that is priceless. You get 60 students’ expertise and it allows you to learn more and to challenge multiple points of view.

So how do you teach at Columbia Business School? How different are your “decision briefs” from traditional case studies?
Amir Ziv: 40 per cent of our class time is devoted to cases and 40 per cent to lectures and the rest is hands-on experience and team projects. We work with decision briefs instead of full cases to go after the weaknesses that I mentioned before. We simulate real life and give students only partial information in a non-traditional way. In one case we hand out two emails and one picture. You have to figure out what the issue is, who on the team should work on what, and what other information you need. If the case is less complete, students go out and get information. That’s how we overcome the weakness of the case method: by giving our students incomplete and unstructured information.

How can technology and online learning support modern teaching?
Amir Ziv: I don’t think the online MBA is a solution or a replacement to what we do now, as it is so important to meet people, network, and listen to arguments. But what you can do with technology is remove the lecturing part and let students watch a video, do the mechanics, and then come to class and discuss their work as a class. In this case people can watch and learn at their own pace. This also gives you consistency, as currently every lecturer is different and if you have your content online, then you know at least that everyone is exposed to exactly the same lecture and you can also choose the best faculty members to do it.

Have you got a vision for the future teaching at Columbia?
Amir Ziv: Teaching will become more hands on: students come and get a problem and then go and work in teams, debrief, receive new information, go back to the team, and so on. Teaching will therefore also be more interactive. We also will improve our integration in order to see a problem from all angles, not only from a specific discipline or perspective. That is, an overall business perspective and not just the finance, marketing, or accounting point of view. We started this last year with one integrated case on General Motors’ difficulties in 2007 and we asked different questions in different courses—but on the same case. In the economics class we wanted to know if General Motors should produce during the next few months despite having such a high inventory and costs that are higher than the price of the car? In marketing we asked, since they have to sell their cars, should they use incentives and if so what kind? And then we looked at the accounting implications and the operations component of General Motors in those classes. In each course we asked different questions but in the end, all subjects came together. And so did our students.

About Amir Ziv
Professor Ziv is the Vice Dean of Columbia Business School in New York. Whilst heading the degree programmes at the business school, he is still committed to teaching. His common teaching is Financial Accounting, which he teaches in various MBA, Executive MBA, and Executive Education programmes at the school.

Facts and Figures Columbia Business School
Students: 2,281 (35 % female, 65 % male students)
International students: 38%
Length of programme: 21 months
Cost MBA programme: $ 113,180.00
Accreditation: AACSB
Amir Ziv on what makes Columbia Business School special:
“We’re sitting in New York, the business centre of the world and this allows us to bridge theory and practice like no other school. It is easy to get business leaders into class and many faculty members also consult to major companies here. But while they do this, they also learn. There is also a lot of energy in the city and I strongly believe in the entrepreneurial mindset, in particular in a globally minded city. The second strength is our curriculum, where we combine cutting-edge research and excellent classes with practical knowledge, which gives our students a very solid foundation. And thirdly it is our culture that sets us apart. Our students have the reputation that they have good skills but without the attitude. They are well trained, willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard. Nothing is below them and they are very much team players. Finally, our network of 41,000 alumni in 120 countries around the world isn’t just impressive—it’s accessible. A large portion of our students stay in the vicinity of New York and many come back to visit and share their experiences—the opportunities our students have to build strong relationships with our alumni are incomparable.”

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