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How To Write a Case Study (CIAPS Class)

Uploaded 3/17/2024, approx. 16 minute read

Hello everyone and welcome aboard. Today we are going to learn about case studies.

Case studies is an instrument borrowed from psychology but now in wide use in management studies, business and finance. And this would be the focus of our conversation today.

My name is Sam Wagner. I'm a former economic advisor to several governments, a former financial advisor to many multinationals currently on the faculty of CEPS Commonwealth Institute for Advanced Professional Studies. I'm a columnist in United Press International and right now in Brussels morning. So I've spent 40 years of my life in business, in finance and in management and throughout this period case studies have been an indispensable part of my arsenal and my ability to help my clients.

I want to convey this information to you so that you too are able to use this tool for your edification, enlightenment and helping others.

So what is a case study? A case study is a story. It contains a narrative but it also contains conclusions. So it's not just a nice story about something that may have happened but it also teaches us a lesson.

In this sense a case study harks back to a long tradition. Fables for example, fables for example, fork stories, they also end with a conclusion, with a lesson to be learned and implemented to make life better and yourself more efficacious.

Case studies therefore contain as I said a narrative, a story and a conclusion regarding a specific event or a transaction, a business deal or a corporate entity or an institution or specific individuals within these structures in business, in finance and in management.

What is a narrative when we apply this word to a case study? A narrative contains the facts because every good story is based on facts. So it contains the facts but it also contains the context of the facts. Where do the facts fit in? How did the facts came to be? What gave rise to the specific chain of events? This is all embedded in theories.

The narrative in the case study usually refers to management theories or business theories or finance theories or other bodies of knowledge that embed the facts in a rich intellectual tradition or consensus regarding how things work and what makes people tick.

And the last thing in the narrative, last component, last ingredient of the narrative are the assumptions. We all make assumptions, hidden assumptions, explicit assumptions and you have to write them down, you have to explicate them in the narrative part of the case study.

So let's summarize.

The narrative is comprised of facts, context, theories and assumptions. Don't worry, we're going to deal with each one of these at length a bit later.

What about the conclusions? Because remember, I started this lecture or this conversation with you by saying that a case study contains a narrative and a conclusion.

What about the conclusion part?

The conclusion part includes an analysis of the event or the transaction, an analysis of the company, an analysis of an institution or an analysis of the behaviors of specific individuals within these institutions and corporate entities analysis.

So analysis, criticism, if need be, and solutions or the path forward, the vision thing, a kind of vision.

So put the two together, you have narrative and conclusion, facts, context, theories, assumptions, analysis, criticism, solutions or the path forward.

When you have all these elements, you have a case study.

Case study again of something that has happened, of a corporation or a company or firm, of an institution and so on and so forth.

But whenever you write a case study, you have to really work hard on imagining your audience. Who are you writing the case study for? Sometimes the audience is you and sometimes much more often the audience is other people.

Ask yourself, who's going to read my case study? Why would anyone want to read my case study? How can I make my case study applicable, relevant, pertinent, useful to others? And who are these others? What are the needs, autobiographies, preferences, expectations, dreams, goals, vision? Try to visualize your audience and then ask yourself, what's the best way to communicate with my audience?

If your audience is a group of bureaucrats, then maybe a formal approach is appropriate. If your audience is a group of technicians, programmers, scientists, scientists, maybe a technical language is called for. If your audience is finance graduates, maybe an emphasis on financial benefits and outcomes is appropriate.

Tailor, customize your case study to cater to the profile of your audience. Otherwise it will not resonate, it will not have any impact, it will be wasted on your audience.

Ask yourself, once I succeeded to get through to my audience, what would be the impact of my case study? Are they going to use it? Are they going to implement it? Are they going to study my case study? Are they going to be enlightened by it? Will it transform them in any way?

And so on and so forth. Always make sure that if you use technical terms, if you use jargon or lingo, if you use language that is specific to a given discipline, always make sure that you explain these terms in a very concise but clear language. Not everyone knows the specific language or lingo of all disciplines.

So you need to be able to communicate by creating a common dictionary between you and your audience. Remember, the case study is a study aid. It should interest, it should entertain, it should enlighten and it should transform. It is a management diagnostic tool but also a prescriptive instrument. In other words, it helps management to put its finger, its collective finger on a problem or an issue or a topic that requires attention.

And then it helps management to come up with solutions and conclusions. Not always, but most case studies do exactly this.

And never forget the human angle. The people described in your case study and the people reading your case study. The people who made the decisions and the choices that led to the case study and the people who are now trying to learn lessons from other people's experiences through your case study, they're all human. They're all human. They have motivations. They have psychological defense mechanisms. They're resistant to change and some of them are resistant to learning. They are very defensive of their own actions. They're stakeholders in some of them are management, others are suppliers, some employers, some employees. You need to always take into account the fact that your case study will be consumed by human beings, not by machines.

And so you need your presentation in your case study, need to emphasize the human angle.


Now let's go into the mechanics of creating a case study.

You can't create a case study without facts. Fact gathering and fact checking. Fact checking is even more important than fact gathering because the world today is inundated with misinformation, disinformation, fake news. You need to have a critical mind. You need to analyze everything presented to you as fact in order to ascertain that it is indeed fact and not counterfactual, not a lie or an invention or a bit of imagination.

So fact checking comes after fact gathering. Where could you gather your information from? Open sources such as newspapers, media archives, social media, mass media, television and so on. These are known as open sources or public domain sources.

Interviews with specific people, managers, suppliers, customers, workers, employees, employers, bosses, regulators. You could interview people, people who have been involved in the narrative of the in the storyline of your case study, collect documents and review them with the help of forensic experts in some cases and finally gather statistics and numerical information, for example, by reviewing and analyzing financial statements.

So this is the fact gathering and fact checking phase.

It is followed by the contextual phase.

You need to embed all your facts in some framework, in some context, in some bigger picture.

Every company, every firm operates within an industry.

So you need to describe the industry.

Every manager, every finance director, every employee, every employer, every customer, every supplier, every agent, every economic agent, every business executive, everyone operate within an economy.

So you need to specify the economy of the country in which they are operating or maybe the global economy in case of a multinational.

Industry and economy, trends, we're all subject to trends. Most trends are inexorable, the stronger than us.

So you need to specify trends in the marketplace relevant to your case study.

If you are making a case, if you're writing a case study about a technology company, the industry would be high tech, the economy would be the United States, for example, and the marketplace would be the global technology, global high tech marketplace.

You need to specify and to explain to the reader of the case study, what is the industry? What is the economy in which the firm operates or in which the event took place or in which the transaction transpired?

And what trends affected the resolution of the new denouement, the end result, which led to the case study?

And finally, you need to embed all these in history. You need to compare your case study to similar situations in the past.

If you're analyzing an event, find similar events. If you're analyzing a company or firm, find similar corporate entities in other periods in history, in other places on the globe.

If you are analyzing decision making, management decision making, try to isolate and identify similar decisions in the past.

So context is very crucial. In the absence of context, wrong results, erroneous solutions and conclusions are very likely.

Next thing within the case study, you need to identify issues, topics. What is it that you want to discuss and why should it be discussed?

What renders the topic you have selected, the issue you have chosen a problem or something worthy of dissection and analysis.

So you need to identify issues, problems, and you need to differentiate between structural systemic issues and functional operational issues.

Most functional operational issues are contingent. They are responsive to changes in the marketplace, in the economy, in global trends, but they are self-limiting and they tend to unravel and undo themselves.

Structural issues, systemic issues, however, are much more serious. They require a revamping of the entire structure that gave rise to the problem.

So you need to differentiate these two. Sometimes you come across a business deal or a company or a management structure or a story and you say to yourself, "Wow, this looks really bad. The whole system is falling apart and corrupt." And then when you delve deeper, you discover that actually this has been a single wrong decision or an operational issue or a problem with the chain of supply. So you need to be very, very careful before you characterize issues, topics, and problems as structural and systemic. You need to know the field.

So if you are writing about finance, you need to be acquainted with theories of finance.

If you are writing about manufacturing, you need to know about various theories of manufacturing.

Not only formal academic theories, but theories on the ground. They are known as heuristics, rules of thumb, cumulative wisdom, which is derived from long-term experience by managers and employees.

So you need to embed your case study in the collective wisdom of the ages.

And this collective wisdom of the ages is sometimes encoded in academic theories and sometimes you would have to interview people to interview business managers, finance managers, employees, suppliers, customers, to interview people in order to glean from them and to garner from them what they have learned about the topic of your case study. This is an invaluable resource. It's a treasure waiting to be discovered.

What is the structure of a typical case study? It has usually seven or eight parts.

The first one is the abstract, also known as executive summary or synopsis. In the abstract, which is usually a few paragraphs long, two or three paragraphs long, in the abstract you introduce the topic of the report, the purpose of your case study. You outline key topics or key issues, your findings. This is known as headline intelligence because in the executive summary you do not go into details. You give only the headlines, headline intelligence or headline knowledge. You can identify theories that you've used, you can mention interviews that you've made and you summarize the recommendations.

The executive summary should never be longer than three paragraphs and it needs to capture 99% of the relevant information in the case study.

So this is the most important part of the case study and requires a lot of irredition and ability to concisely and incisively summarize data.

The next part of the case study is introduction and goals. What is it that you're trying to accomplish? Why do you think your case study deals with significant issues or topics? And if they are significant, who are they significant to? Is your case study limited to a specific company with a highly idiosyncratic profile? Can your case study be implemented industry-wise? Maybe your case study has global implications. You need to identify all these and justify your opinion. You state your aims and your goals and you describe the main ideas behind your case study.

What is the sum total of your impressions and what is your predilection or tendency when it comes to solutions and conclusions?

Brief, has to be brief. The key problem, the significance of the key problem, your ideas about the key problem, recommendations regarding the key problem. Do not make this an essay. Introduction should be ideally as short as the executive summary.

And then you delve into the body of the case study starting with facts and findings. You present the central issues. You provide a minimal analysis at this stage because you are in the fact-gathering, in fact-checking phase. You're not sufficiently informed. So the main issues, a list of the main issues, some preliminary thoughts and analysis, reasoning for your selection criteria. Why did you choose to include specific facts and exclude others? In which way are the facts that you have included supportive of your main thesis, of your main idea, of your main message and in which way the excluded facts do not undermine your thesis. If the excluded facts tend to challenge what your message, your thesis, your main idea, if they tend to undermine it and you have excluded them, that is bad practice. That is a way to avoid true analysis which should take into account, even countervailing information, even information that doesn't fit into the way you see things.

You identify in this phase, which is the facts and findings phase chapter, you identify your methodology, justify it, which analytical tools you've selected, you've chosen to use, you explain why and you need to be convincing throughout. Excluding facts, excluding certain analytical methods and instruments could be a way to falsify the data and to reach predetermined conclusions, which is bad practice.

So you need to be really careful and you need to convince people that your choices are objective and the only reason you have excluded certain things is because they are not likely to contribute to your pursuit of truth.

Make sure that your case study is neatly divided into headings, subheadings, sections, subsections, paragraphs.

Make it readable, make it pleasant on the eye.

Transition then, having completed the facts and findings section, transition then continue on to the analysis and discussion section.

Summarize again the main problems. Identify solutions to these problems, solutions that are already being implemented and solutions that you think could serve as viable alternatives, feasible alternatives to the solutions currently in operation.

In other words, offer additional new solutions.

Briefly outline your solutions, evaluate the advantages and disadvantages, but don't go too far. Don't engage in propaganda or in hard sell.

This is not a marketing exercise. You are just there to map the topography or the terrain of the problem and its possible solutions.

Refer to theories, to professional practice, to your interviews in order to buttress and support your opinions and your conclusions and your proposed solutions.

If you can generalize your findings to other situations, but if you can't, don't. Don't force the case study by grandiosely claiming that it applies where it does not apply. Be modest and be humble.

Realize that your case study is an in-depth dive into a highly specific situation or event or institution or corporate entity. Maybe nothing more than that and maybe it does not apply elsewhere and maybe it does.

Be very careful when you make high-falutin grandiose claims. It may backfire.

The next chapter in your case study is by far the most important. It's conclusions, recommendations and solutions.

Here you restate the purpose of the report. You sum up the main points, findings, facts, discussions, recommendations. You analyze everything or wrap up the analysis and then you begin to discuss alternative solutions. You justify your choices. You explain how the solutions will work, why they would solve problems, why the problems require solving other problems to start with. You integrate theory, you integrate practice, you suggest action plans.

At this stage of the case study, you become a lot more detailed. You go into details and you can come up with the equivalent of many tiny business plans and action plans.

Who should take action? When? What steps? How to assess actions taken and even a budget if necessary. If appropriate, include rough estimates of course and income, financial, other inputs, resources and so on.

A business plan. This is a business plan phase. While all previous phases are the equivalent of due diligence, this phase is the equivalent of a business plan.

Recommendations, implementations, all wrapped into this single chapter.

And then the next chapter is the humility chapter. Limitations, unintended consequences, an opportunity course.

You state clearly the limitations of your case study. Where your case study is inapplicable, inappropriate, cannot teach us anything. Where your case study may have failed, what are the inherent limits on your ability to have gathered data and so on and so forth.

All the limitations, the unintended consequences of your solutions and action plans and courses of action that you recommend.

The opportunity course. If certain solutions are chosen, what are the course? If certain opportunities are overlooked, neglected in favor of the solutions that you're recommending, what are the course? So this is a place where you inject a dose of reality into your vision, into the way you see things. It's a place where you put yourself in the shoes of your opponents and adversaries and in the shoes of those likely to challenge you, criticize your case study and disagree with you completely.

You preempt them, you include their opinions in the case study. The case study terminates with literature, bibliography, every source, written or visual that you've used, appendices, footnotes and indices which are usually not included in the body of the case study.

This is a typical case study.

Now I will be referring you to an article I've written, essay I've written about the due diligence process. If you apply the tools in this essay to the construction and the offering of a case study, your case study will be further augmented and be much more well considered in my view.

But it's optional. The case study does not need to meet the rigorous criteria of due diligence or a prospectus, a stock exchange prospectus.

A case study is isolated, limited by definition to the case. It's a study tool and it's a catalyst. It's supposed to bring on a pseudo-chemical reaction of learning transformation and enlightenment in its readers.

So the due diligence aspects and the business plan aspects are auxiliary, they're secondary.

Have a look at the essay, the link to which your instructor will attach and otherwise I wish you good luck with your case studies. It's a fun exercise. It's like being a detective.

Case study is an exercise, a combined exercise in journalism, the writing of history and the documentary film. It requires a lot of effort but also is very rewarding when you unearth something you believe is the truth and when it leads you to a new revelation of solutions and conclusions and recommendations and the path forward suddenly is illuminated by your case study.

That is the power of a case study and that's why it's used so widely.

Good luck.

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