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Human Resource Development

You can do it! — Case Study Creation Hints 1(Total of 5)

At Mitsui & Co. HRD Institute, we utilize information from many sources on a daily basis in our business operations and for our learning. Here, I would like to introduce our initiatives on case studies using company’s own past cases. I hope this will be of some use for people involved in human resource development in companies.

Launch of In-house Training

In 2012, Mitsui & Co. HRD Institute began producing case studies of Mitsui & Co.’s own initiatives to be used in in-house training. There are currently ten case studies being used. Here, I will explain the benefits of these internal case studies.

We had been employing case studies in various types of training even before creating the case studies of Mitsui & Co.’s own initiatives. Many publications explain the usefulness of case studies, in particular, their great effectiveness in management training. Case studies have also drawn interest recently as an active learning method (in which participants actively take part in learning), which has been introduced in various fields, and it is also said to be an effective learning method for developing decision-making skills. Case studies were first introduced in the 1920s at Harvard Business School and The University of Western Ontario, and are now used at many business schools. It is said that roughly 80% of coursework at Harvard Business School consists of case studies, and students learn about approximately 500 cases in the two-year MBA course.

We first thought of creating case studies of Mitsui & Co.’s own past projects in 2012. When I talked with a training program participant who has experience in studying at a business school, he said, “Case studies were pretty interesting because I was able to simulate the experience of the parties involved in past cases, think from their perspectives, and have various discussions. However, some of the things learned were difficult to put into practical use, although I can understand what the point is of such case studies in general terms.” His point was that the cases of other companies are different from not only Mitsui & Co.’s business models but also actual conditions, such as company size, organizational form, and partner relationships, and in reality, many of these cannot be applied in practice without modification. His comment made me think about the possibility of effectively putting things learned from cases to practical use, and I began to consider producing cases of Mitsui & Co.’s own past projects.

Three Criteria in Case Selection and Points of Differentiation

While any daily events can become cases, I will introduce the points to consider when selecting the company’s own past projects for case studies. Cases include those that are based on actual initiatives and those that are based on set virtual conditions. Since our purpose is to utilize the things learned from cases in actual work, many of the cases we created were based on actual projects, and we employ two types of cases: 1) new business creation; and 2) hierarchical role expectation.

New business creation is an important issue for all business divisions, while hierarchical role expectation is a theme used in job grade-based training. The process of creating a case study is the same for both types, and I will explain the creation process using an example of a new business creation case.

Sogo shosha (general trading companies) engage in business in a variety of fields. For the purpose of sharing the knowledge and knowhow of each business unit among all the employees, we launched an extension internal training course that will enable participants to learn the keys to building business in a short amount of time.
In selecting past projects for case studies, we carefully explained the intent of the training course to the business divisions and asked for their cooperation, under the following three criteria.

The first is that the people involved in the actual past project are still working at the company. A person who is responsible for creating a case study must deeply study materials related to the subject project, and conduct interviews with the parties involved in the project to gain information that cannot be obtained from the materials or to clarify any unclear points. For the sake of securing cooperation from the person actually involved in the project, we place importance on whether or not such person is still working at the company.

The second is whether or not there are related materials, such as a ringi proposals and email exchanges, used in the process of building the business and whether or not such materials can be lent to the person creating the case study. The person creates the case study by first reading through all of the materials to get an overall picture, and then gaining information that cannot be obtained from these materials through interviews with the persons involved, and confirming the past decision-making process or historical background. In other words, the related materials serve as the case framework. However, we concluded that past projects that require strict management of information for some reason are not suitable for case creation.

The third criterion is that a certain amount of time has elapsed since the establishment of the subject business. In general, such initiatives have overcome numerous obstacles in the process of advancing the business, and this makes it easy to set learning objectives for the training. Moreover, business that has not yet been established or was recently established could fail in the course of development. This would make it difficult to discern between success and failure in an actual response in the business and to set individual learning objectives. Above all, we want to avoid a situation in which the use of a case study would be disallowed right after we have managed to complete it.

In general, there are fewer cases on failed initiatives than successful ones, and the learning points of the cases on failed initiatives are serious ones. However, there are many challenges in creating cases on failed initiatives for various reasons, and it is usually difficult to select such projects for case studies.

When producing multiple cases in the same business area, it is important to differentiate the learning objectives for each case. Since we produce about one case a year, we pay particular attention to this point. There are many conceivable points of differentiation, and we achieve differentiation by using a matrix of industry characteristics (B to C/B to B) and success/failure cases (although it is difficult to create a failure-based case, as mentioned above), as well as the differentiation of learning objectives through setting of different discussion points. It is also possible to achieve differentiation based on regions on a global basis or the organizational form, e.g., a joint venture, etc.

We keep all these points in mind when selecting past projects for case studies. However, these are just examples from our company, and we are still in a learning phase. I would appreciate it if you could use this information for reference. I will upload several reports on other points to consider when creating case studies. The next report will be on the points to note when conducting an interview with a person involved in a past project, who is the most important source of information for a case study.
I plan to post a report about once a month, so please look out for my next post.

小林 陽一
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