Interview: Bringing controversy into the classroom

Urs Müller

Dr. Urs Müller has been a program director at ESMT Customized Solutions since 2005 and is head of the practice group Consumer Goods and Retail. He is also a tutor of The Case Centre on “Writing and Teaching with Case Studies.” He is one of ESMT’s most well-known case writers, and his case studies have been recognized by both The Case Centre and EFMD.

Why use case studies as a teaching method?

Case studies can be a great tool to help students and participants in executive education to anticipate some of the managerial decisions they will have to make in the near future or over the long term.

What are the cases that are the strongest from a learning perspective for students?

A good case addresses a relevant managerial topic, is not obvious, and helps in creating a controversial debate in the class. If there is no controversy in the classroom, it’s not going to be an effective discussion. I strongly believe that there is no “right solution.” In many cases, different courses of action for a company can be equally good.

In your case studies, there are typically one or two key protagonists; do they usually tend to be the CEO?

There has been a tradition of writing case studies from the perspectives of CEOs. However, the reality is that most of our students and participants will not become CEOs of large Fortune 500 companies. Therefore, I think it is important to offer case studies from different perspectives. For example, our award-winning “Anna Frisch” case is about a mid-level manager who is trying to push for change and suddenly faces unexpected resistance. I believe that this challenge of pushing change from a lateral perspective is far more interesting than the typical CEO perspective of most case studies on change management.

How much of a say does a company have in whether a case study is published or not?

As long as the case is written entirely on the basis of publicly available information, there is no need to ask the company for permission. As soon as you include information that was obtained from a company, it is necessary to get their sign-off.

Can a case be as strong using public sources as a case that has access to internal documents?

Yes, they can be equally effective. If a case is solely based on news journals and other public sources, there is a risk of being biased or missing something important. Therefore, having the involvement of the company is usually helpful. However, when a company tries to influence the way a case study is written or presented, it is time to make the difficult decision – either not to publish it at all, or only to write it on the basis of public information. Given that I am normally interested in sensitive issues, I sometimes just make the decision not to ask for internal information at all.

Are there companies who are willing to provide access on issues to do with corruption, or is the door always closed?

Companies are typically willing to have case studies written about them, even if it is about a controversial issue, as long as they believe that they have come up with a creative solution, and that they are in fact a good company and doing well. Yes, then they are willing. But I have also already faced quite some resistance.

Are there benefits to using fictional case studies?

Sometimes from a pedagogical perspective, it can be easier to use a fictional case study because you can condense the story. It is also less distracting. Students often believe they have an advantage if they can google what the company did, but I believe that’s not the case. The good thing about using a case study in class is to debate what should be the best courses of action for a specific manager or company. Students sometimes tend to believe they are “right” when they suggest courses of actions that the company or manager actually selected – but this is not true; it is almost always possible to develop alternative “solutions” that would have been even better. So if you use a fictional case study, then there is no chance that anyone will google the results.

Do you see a strong future for case-study teaching, and how do you see it developing?

I believe that we will see a continuation of case study-based teaching in certain disciplines, because there are subjects that don’t have a convergent solution. And this is where I believe case studies can lead to improved critical thinking and reflection.

General Management

Professional Service Firms

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