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The Case for Case Study Method

By Harold D. Stolovitch & Erica J. Keeps &

This brief article addresses the reasons why one would use case study method in performance-based learning. Furthermore, it provides a step-by-step procedure for building cases as well as a protocol for conducting case-based learning sessions and a checklist to evaluate the cases you wish to use.

Why Use Case Study Method?

Use of cases is excellent for marrying theory to practice. Cases bring to life processes, principles, theoretical models, as well as abstract notions. Case study method also offers opportunities for practice in identifying, analyzing and solving problems. Because the method makes use of multiple cases illustrating in ever-increasing levels of complexity a variety of theoretical notions, learners receive numerous opportunities to practice their analytical and problem-solving skills. Cases also bring to bear diverse viewpoints. The richness of ideas and confrontations of perspectives focused on a central issue greatly enhance participant learning. Finally, as stated above, cases are examples of past or potential realities. Cases bring learners closer to what they may face in the real world than do lectures or reading. This facilitates transfer and application to the workplace. To illustrate, Exhibit 1 contains a brief case used with bus drivers learning about how to manage diversity aboard their buses.

Exhibit 1: Sample Case for Teaching Bus Drivers to Handle Diversity

A bus is traveling along Park Avenue at 2:30 on a hot summer afternoon. There are about 15 people on the bus. Everything is going smoothly until, suddenly, between stops, a woman passenger runs up the aisle shouting that someone is molesting her. The driver stops the bus and follows the woman back to her seat. She points to a man who appears to be of Middle-Eastern descent, about 40 years old. She explains in an agitated, hostile manner that while there are plenty to seats on the bus, this man chose to sit down beside her. She explains that she had asked him politely to give her some room - that he was sitting too closely. He had not responded. Another woman backs up the story of the distressed woman. The middle-aged man who is the subject of the commotion doesn't seem to understand what is going on. The driver questions him about the situation, but he receives no reply. The driver orders the offending passenger to change seats. When the passenger doesn't respond, the driver physically moves him to a seat far away from the passengers.
  1. Did the driver make the right decision? Did the driver make the wrong decision? Support your conclusion.
  2. What would you do in the same situation? Explain why.

How Do You Build Cases?

Cases are relatively easy to create. All you need is to follow three principles and apply seven steps. The three principles are:

  1. Focus each case on a singe issue.
  2. Provide all necessary information to arrive at a conclusion.
  3. In general, develop a series of single-issue cases that build skills over time.

Follow these seven steps:

  1. For each case, select a single topic or issue. Each selection must illustrate one or a very few clearly defined principles.
  2. Collect all necessary documentation or content to make your case "authentic."
  3. Create an outline for the case.
  4. Identify the characters.
  5. Write up the case. Make it clear, concise and coherent. Write simply. Add dialogue as appropriate.
  6. End with clear instructions on what the case user is to do.
  7. Select a title. Keep it brief and specific. Don't imply a conclusion (for example, "Never Give a Loan on Faith").

Exhibit 2: Sample Case for Novice Supervisors - Managing Tardiness

Cheryl's coffee was getting cold. She was so engrossed in figuring out what to do about Dave that she didn't even notice.

"Darn, Dave's late for work again! I know he's one of my best order-takers, but I've got to do something about his tardiness. Everybody really likes him - including me. He's got such a great personality that he just seems to get by being late. How do you get mad at Dave?

"I've joked several times with Dave in the past about his being late and I know some of the others have kidded him about it, too. He's taken all the ribbing like a good sport, but it hasn't changed his behavior much. I guess one of the problems is that his being late isn't really all that bad, because he always gets his work done. His orders are always perfect. But, it's beginning to affect the rest of the order-takers. It's gone to the point that when someone else comes in late and I say something, they get really insulted and make scenes.

"'Look at Dave's time log,' they say. 'He's been late three times in a row and five times this month.' It's just out of hand. I've got to do something!"

  • Determine the exact nature of the problem.
  • Determine what the possible causes are for persistent tardiness. How can you verify these?
  • Decide what policies and procedures are required to handle such circumstances and how these should be applied.
  • What course of action should Cheryl follow with Dave? With others?

The two cases in the exhibits illustrate many of the points stated in the seven steps for successful case development and writing.

When you have created a case, test it against the checklist that follows:

Worksheet 1: Criteria for a "Good" Case

Clear, single topic or issue
All necessary content and/or data included
Characters, if any, clearly identified
Concise, coherent; writing is tight
Dialogue, if any, is appropriate
Clear instructions for user - what to do
Title is specific but does not give away conclusion
Relevant to job
Authentic: realistic, credible, valid
Requires immediate resolution
Complete: total, self-contained situation

Running Cases in Case Study Method

The key to using cases is to get learners involved as quickly as possible. One of the most effective means for doing this is to place learners in teams, each with an elected or appointed facilitator and, if necessary, one or two "secretaries" to record findings, decisions and conclusions. Then,

  • distribute materials to all participants.
  • provide sufficient time for them to review/analyze the case.
  • review case requirements - the mission to be accomplished.
  • facilitate discussion of the goal. Provide a "guide sheet" to team facilitators that directs them to
    • invite dialogue
    • get everyone to speak
    • summarize key points
    • ensure that key points, decisions and conclusions are recorded
    • manage emotions
    • not allow any individual to dominate
    • manage time
    • draw out consensus solution/s
    • come to a conclusion.

Bring everyone together at the end of the case discussions and debrief. In the next issue of HSA e-Xpress we present a debriefing model called D-FITGA which can be used very effectively following a case-based learning session.

This article is an excerpt from Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps' bestseller, Beyond Telling Ain't Training Fieldbook. Interested in learning more? Visit order.htm#BTAT to order a copy of the book.

Talent Management Columnist

Talent Management is a monthly magazine directed to top-level management, senior human resources, and workforce and organizational development executives whose task is to optimize the abilities of their human assets to drive and improve the execution of enterprise strategy. Harold Stolovitch is the regular "Human Performance" columnist for Talent Management magazine. You can read his latest article, "Apply Low-Cost Performance Measures" by visiting page 10 of the January 2009 digtial edition at For more information on Talent Management, visit their Website at If there are any topics that you would like Harold to address in his column, please email him at

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Until February 14, 2009, save 20% on your toolkit purchase or 30% when you buy both toolkits as a set. Visit for more information.

Guest Author Series

Our Guest Author Series features articles by various professional colleagues. The latest in our series is by Petti Van Rekom, Ed.D & CPT. Petti heads The Workplace Review, an online resource of employee reviews of local workplaces. Its mission is to help people to find a workplace that provides the job satisfaction and fulfillment they seek. For more information visit her website at or contact Petti by email at or by telephone at 949-370-8772.

Seeking "Worktopia:" Changing Work Expectations
By Petti Van Rekom, Ed.D, CPT

It's time once again for you to conduct the annual employee satisfaction survey. As always, the business goal is to reduce turnover costs and increase employee retention (and productivity). You'll gather the responses, analyze them carefully, and report the results to senior management. You'll suggest several interventions to improve employee engagement. But how certain are you that you've identified the root causes of employee dis-engagement and suggested the appropriate interventions?

Sources of Employee Dis-engagement

It seems that everywhere you go you hear the term "employee engagement" discussed. Groups like Gallup and Hewitt have found that good organizations with engaged employees average 1½ times more revenue. There's plenty of discussion linking the lack of engagement to the different attitudes of the generations or to the organization's culture. The common sources of lack of engagement are usually found in management practices, business policies, culture and environmental issues, and compensation and recognition factors. Added to these, right now, are employees' economic concerns for their job and the viability of the organization.

While all are valid factors, there's another deeper reason that, despite many interventions, employee engagement continues to be a challenge.

Changing Work Expectations

What many line managers, HR managers, OD consultants, recruiters, outplacement consultants, career counselors, job seekers, and organizations that research workplace issues have noticed is that employees' expectations are evolving. Workers in virtually every category are seeking jobs that provide far more than a paycheck. Many are hunting for "meaningful work." (If you don't believe this, check out the 18 million hits this term has on Google.) Many believe that work is one of the principle means through which life takes on meaning.

Social psychologists consider this to be a cultural evolution based on world views, values, and individual motivations. Many in Western societies no longer accept work as a "means to an end." They have higher expectations; they seek "meaningful work." Followers of Abraham Maslow would state that more people have arrived at the higher psychological level of what he called "self-actualization."

However, organizations are slow to adapt to the change in employee expectations. As pointed out by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, "People have changed more than the business organizations upon which they depend." In order to meet the complexity of the workplace and employee expectations, some business leaders are trying new forms of capitalism. For example, John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, is a strong supporter of "conscious capitalism."

What is Meaningful Work?

Trying to define "meaningful work" is about as difficult as defining "happiness." What both terms have in common is that the definition is personal and based on individual personality and life conditions (including where one lives and what is happening to the person). For some, "meaningful work" may mean a work environment similar to that of a caring family. For others it means exciting, challenging tasks, filled with recognition, advancement and material rewards. For many today, the term suggests work that provides them with joy, deep satisfaction, and a feeling of purpose.

Where Did This Trend Come From?

According to The Work Foundation, the search for meaningful work began in the 1970s. It is attributed to increased affluence in Western societies, a rise in people asking "Who-am-I?" types of questions, and the replacement of skilled craft jobs (producing a tangible output) with knowledge-based ones.

What Are Organizations Doing to Engage Employees?

Organizations that are interested in retaining engaged employees are attempting many different tactics. In addition, they are seeking awards that name them a "best company" or "employer of choice."

Here are some tactics that organizations are applying to engage and retain employees:

Work Environment and Culture
  • Provide activities to maintain a "fun" environment
  • Support camaraderie or friendship among employees
  • Provide a safe, clean, attractive work facility
  • Support work/life balance
  • Demonstrate care about employees
  • Support community or social cause
Business Practices
  • Demonstrate positive values
  • Insist on honest and ethical work practices
  • Provide open and frequent communication between employees and leadership
  • Establish efficient work processes
  • Promote existing employees based on merit
  • Implement an effective performance management system
Employees and Managers
  • Establish manager's role to coach and develop employees
  • Establish collaborative, non-competitive work teams
  • Provide mentoring for employees
  • Provide for diversity in the workforce
  • Provide regular feedback on performance
Benefits and Perks
  • Offer flexible work schedules
  • Offer flexible work locations ("virtual")
  • Provide competitive salaries and benefits
  • Offer perks tailored to specific needs of employees (e.g. childcare, health club, parties, trips)
  • Provide training and job development
  • Establish opportunities for career growth
Job Satisfaction
  • Match work to skills and strengths
  • Provide work that is interesting or challenging
  • Ensure clear work expectations
  • Communicate that employee work is valued
  • Recognize significant accomplishment

What Can Organizations Do To Provide Meaningful Work?

Self-knowledge and finding meaningful work is an employee's responsibility. However, this search requires a positive work environment in order to flourish. If your organization truly wishes to help employees find meaning or purpose through their work, a much deeper knowledge of the individuals is required - not what you will find on their resumés or in performance reviews. Five things your organization can do to support employees' search for meaningful work are:

  1. Clearly define the culture of your organization and that of its individual functions. Define not only the values but how they play out in expected behaviors and company policies.
  2. Establish and maintain a work environment that supports both the growth of the organization and the growth of its employees.
  3. Place the right person in the right job based not only on skills, strengths, and experience, but on "cultural fit," which encompasses the individual's personality, patterns of thinking, and cultural values.
  4. Give employees jobs that have meaning and significance to them. Be aware and take action when jobs and people change. (A new manager almost always triggers changes in expectations.)
  5. Regularly survey employees to uncover potential problems and identify specific work satisfiers.

Another Employee Development Intervention

Another important intervention is to provide employees with information or training to assist them in assessing their own work values and strengths. Help them understand what their current work expectations are and what could cause their expectations to change. Your annual employee survey may find engagement increases as you support them in their self knowledge. A good career development program will include self-assessments and goal setting activities. While this may sound too "touchy-feely," remember there are a number of research studies to substantiate that:

  • about 50% of employees are not satisfied (i.e. disengaged) with their jobs and
  • engaged employees create improved business results.

Searching for Worktopia

Worktopia, that perfect workplace, may be an ephemeral goal. However, despite growing unemployment, people still desire to find a great place to work. They want a workplace that allows them to apply their skills and satisfy their personal and psychological needs. As employees continue to want meaningful work, organizations with a healthy culture, a positive work environment, and support for self-development will be more successful in increasing revenue and retaining valued employees.

We're looking for articles to include in our Guest Author Series. If you have one that you would like us to consider, whether it be new or previously published, please contact Erica Keeps at

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What basic elements should be included in a "training plan" for a job in which the development of technical and soft skills are required?

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