Case studies giving textbooks a run for their money
Is the iPad able to continue fueling Apple’s growth? Should Starbucks invest $40 million to improve its in-store operations? If you have thought about these questions, then congratulations. You are among the many b-schoolers who are being trained under the case method. Case studies have become a quintessential part of the business school experience. Costing a few dollars apiece, these write-ups are, compared to your traditional hardback textbook, cheap, easy to carry and more rooted in real life. Although different, the dwindling textbook industry can look at the case market to gain some insight on reforming its business model.
Case studies are detailed accounts of a company or an industry, giving its background and a real-world situation, offering the student the chance to assess the circumstances and make decisions. They are designed to hone diagnostic and strategy-forming skills with a stronger tie to the real world. Professors choose the case that they want to assign the class and purchase the content through the school on a per-student basis. If these descriptions don’t ring a bell, these are the things in the Olin Business School packets that you can find in the bookstore.
As of 2011, Harvard Business School cases are dominating the market. It is estimated that around 80 percent of cases used worldwide are sold by Harvard Business School Publishing. Other players, however, are struggling to stay on the market. The few major publishers include Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., Canada’s Ivey publishing, U.K.-based Cranfield University School of Management, and ecch (a nonprofit). Unlike other forms of publishing, they have built a concentrated sales model by selling cases through other publishers. This draws writers to continue writing for the same few publishers and effectively provides a one-stop shop for schools.
The profits from the case-study business are also attracting more and more schools into their market despite the fierce competition. The Columbia Business School started to sell cases externally through Columbia CaseWorks in 2010. Yet, without Harvard’s established network of cases, smaller publishers are having a much harder time.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, because smaller-scale schools are actually actively improving their technology and communication methods to increase market share. This in turn also stimulates new offerings from dominant publishers. Harvard brought online simulation exercises to the table about five years ago, and this segment is going strong. The highly integrative nature of case studies has also allowed for the adaptation to computer tablets, making them even easier to read and carry around.
It is true that cases usually have a few years’ lag in order for the writers to gather sufficient data to support their claims. Still, they are evolving faster than traditional textbooks. With the amount of information and the method of communication unique to textbooks, it is impossible to adapt to the case-study model completely. But it certainly makes people think twice about whether textbooks can be more flexible and integrative, especially with the high prices that students all over the nation are paying.