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  4. You can do it! — Case Study Creation Hints 4 (Total of 5)


Human Resource Development

You can do it! — Case Study Creation Hints 4 (Total of 5)

In the previous installment we examined the key points of case writing (first half) and identified aspects requiring particular care when outsourcing and creating cases in-house. We also looked at the differences between case method and case studies. In this installment, which forms the second half of the key points of case writing, we will examine approaches to story composition and the setting of questions. Please note the information given below are drawn from cases from within Mitsui & Co., and they should be used purely for reference.


Overall Structure of the Story


Before you begin to write a case, you should first create an overall story outline. The learning effectiveness of case studies depend on whether or not learners can experience a sense of ownership. If you create the story from the learners’ perspective, it will be easier for them to participate with a sense of ownership. The main character in the story will generally be the person in charge of the project concerned. However, for some training we create the story from the perspective of other individuals involved in the project, such as a superior or a subordinate.


The next step is to create a table of contents listing the chapters. This will make it easier to visualize the overall flow of the story. When creating a business case, you should structure it as a logical process from the initial idea for the project through to its completion, while also incorporating any issues encountered in each phase of the project. If you start by describing the background situation when the idea for the project was conceived, it will be easier for readers to gain an overall understanding of the case. You should therefore begin the case with a description of the circumstances of the person in charge and the business environment. This should be followed by a description of the process through which the project was completed, in chronological order.


To make this easier to visualize, we will now look at a typical chapter structure that we created, as well as the key points in each chapter.


  • Circumstances Surrounding when the Idea for the Project was Conceived (Industry Overview, Work Environment, etc.)


The case should begin with a description of the background circumstances when the idea for the project was conceived. Projects generally arise out of a problem or challenge representing the gap between the ideal situation and the actual state of affairs. You should describe the gap between the thoughts and ideals of the main character and the actual situation at the time, thereby providing a clear description of the problem behind the project. Before starting to write, you should deepen your understanding of the industry concerned by gathering information from books, the Internet, and other sources. Write about the circumstances surrounding the problem, while supplementing your knowledge through interview questions focusing on aspects that cannot be ascertained from publicly available information, such as the frontline situation and the thoughts of the person in charge. You can include the personal history of the person in charge, which would further clarify the processes that led to the idea for the project and background factors influencing his/her thoughts. Readers will find it easier to understand the industry if you provide reference data in the form of quantitative graphs, as well as photographs.


  • Project Implementation Process


Here you will describe the process from the initial formation of the project concept to the completion of the project. You should deliberately include descriptions about the challenges and obstacles encountered as a project was implemented, and how those obstacles were overcome. Many people have told us that such descriptions are especially applicable to actual business operations.


Learning can be further deepened if you keep the learning points in mind as you create the story. For example, if the focus of learning through a case study will be the importance of communication, you should describe the communication environment and related issues at the start of the case. This should be followed by descriptions of how the person in charge perceived these issues and sought to influence superiors, subordinates, and stakeholders, the difficulties encountered, any creative steps taken, and improvements achieved through these efforts.


  • Project Completion


In this section you should describe the outcomes achieved through the completion of the project. These outcomes are directly relevant to learning points, and learners often apply them to their own business operations. The significance of this section is the opportunity to stimulate reader interest by describing not only how the project contributed to the organization (the organizational perspective), but also the extent to which it influenced the growth of individuals (the individual perspective). If you also describe changes in the main character’s emotions before and after the completion of the project, learners will be able to read the case with a greater sense of ownership. The learners’ sense of ownership has a significant influence on the level of learning of a case study.


  • Current Situation, Future Challenges


In the final chapter of the case study, you should describe any issues in the situation after the completion of the project and ask readers to think about possible future measures to address those issues. Projects and issues occur at specific points in time, and the environments surrounding projects change with the passage of time. For this reason, the descriptions of these issues will eventually become outdated. If there are major changes in the environment after the creation of a case, we sometimes add information as a postscript. Learners tend to think that old cases are not applicable to their current situations. However, we can extend the shelf life of a case by adding a “Case B.”


So far, we have looked at key points for each chapter. When writing cases, it is easier to create a story structure if you keep in mind that the story begins with an issue (a gap between the vision and the actual situation) and ends with a solution for that issue.


The Appropriate Number of Pages


The prevailing view at present is that the optimal length of a case is 7-8 pages. A decade ago most business schools generally used cases that were nearly 20 pages long. More recently, shorter content is seen as better from the viewpoint of reducing the burden on readers. The trend toward online training over the past few years has led to an increase in the use of even shorter cases with the key points condensed into 1-3 pages.


Setting Case Study Questions


To ensure that the questions are relevant to the learning points, you should set them before the case writing process and reflect them in the writing, while asking questions during the interviews. Generally there will be 3-4 questions. The first question should be one that any of the learners can answer. It should be one that enables them to put forward various views. Because the learners will be nervous at the start of the training, the priority is to encourage them to speak, and offer as many responses as possible. For the second half of the program, you should set questions that will cause people to think deeply about the learning points. The final question should focus on how the knowledge learned through the course can be applied to actual business operations. The basic aim of training is to convey knowledge that will change people’s behavior after the course, so it is important to ask questions that are relevant to actual business operations.


We have now completed two segments looking at the key points of case writing. In the next installment will we look at key aspects of case study facilitation.


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