Introduction to the Case-Study Method

(Adapted from: Seperich, G.J, M.J. Woolverton, J. G. Beierlein and D. E. Hahn, eds., Cases in Agribusiness Management, Gorsuch Scarisbrick, Publishers, Scottsdale, AZ 1996)

The case-study method may be new to you. Experience has shown that case studies bring interesting, real-world situations into the classroom study of agribusiness marketing, finance and management.

As you discuss cases with your fellow students, you will learn that decision making is often a confrontational activity involving people with different points of view. Most important, you will learn how to work toward consensus while tolerating legitimate differences of opinion.

Decision making is what managers do. The decisions of managers directly influence revenues, costs, and profits of an agribusiness firm. If you are to be successful in an agribusiness career, you must learn to be a good decision maker. You must develop the ability to apply classroom training in business and economics to agribusiness problem solving so that you can learn how to (1) make decision making easier, (2) improve the analytical quality of decisions, (3) reduce the time required to make decisions, and (4) increase the frequency of correct decisions.

After completing a few case studies, you should find them an interesting and rewarding way to learn. You will soon discover, however, that case studies require an approach that is different from normal homework assignments. Each case can have more than one right answer depending on how the problem is defined and which assumptions are made. Students commonly spend several hours preparing the solution for a case assigned for classroom discussion. The time you spend working on case studies will be well spent because it will prepare you to confidently take on a position in agribusiness in which decision-making challenges face you each day. Success in your career will be the real reward for the work you do in preparing case studies.

ATTACKING THE CASE

Your first reaction upon reading a case will probably be to feel over whelmed by all the information. Upon closer reading, you may feel that the case is missing some information that is vital to your decision. Don't despair. Case writers do this on purpose to make the cases represent as closely as possible the typical situations faced by agribusiness managers. In this age of computers, managers often have to sift through an excessive amount of information to glean the facts needed to make a decision. In other situations, there is too little information and too little time or money to collect all the information desired. One definition of management is "the art of using scanty information to make terribly important, semi-permanent decisions under time pressure." One reason for using the case-study method is for you to learn how to function effectively in that type of decision-making environment.

When assigned a case that does not contain all the information you need, you can do two things: First, seek additional information. Library research or a few telephone calls may provide the necessary facts. Second, you can make assumptions when key facts or data are not available. Your assumptions should be reasonable and consistent with the situation because the "correctness" of your solution may depend upon the assumptions you make. This is one reason that a case can have more than one right solution. In fact, your teacher may be more interested in the analysis and process you used to arrive at the decision than in its absolute correctness.

In some cases, the case writer(s) have provided questions to guide your analysis; in other cases it is up to you, the case analyst, to decide which questions are relevant in defining the problem. This too is by design. In an actual agribusiness situation you will have to decide which questions to ask, and certainly no one will give you a list of multiple-choice answers. This is why it is suggested that you not limit your analysis to the questions at the end of a case.

The Seven Steps of Problem Analysis

Using an organized seven-stem approach in analyzing a case will make the entire process easier and can increase your learning benefits.

  1. Read the case thoroughly. To understand fully what is happening in a case, it is necessary to read the case carefully and thoroughly. You may want to read the case rather quickly the first time to get an overview of the industry, the company, the people, and the situation. Read the case again more slowly, making notes as you go.
  2. Define the central issue. Many cases will involve several issues or problems. Identify the most important problems and separate them from the more trivial issues. After identifying what appears to be a major underlying issue, examine related problems in the functional areas (for example, marketing, finance, personnel, and so on). Functional area problems may help you identify deep-rooted problems that are the responsibility of top management.
  3. Define the firm's goals. Inconsistencies between a firm's goals and its performance may further highlight the problems discovered in step 2. At the very least, identifying the firm's goals will provide a guide for the remaining analysis.
  4. Identify the constraints to the problem. The constraints may limit the solutions available to the firm. Typical constraints include limited finances, lack of additional production capacity, personnel limitations, strong competitors, relationships with suppliers and customers, and so on. Constraints have to be considered when suggesting a solution.
  5. Identify all the relevant alternatives. The list should all the relevant alternatives that could solve the problem(s) that were identified in step 2. Use your creativity in coming up with alternative solutions. Even when solutions are suggested in the case, you may be able to suggest better solutions.
  6. Select the best alternative. Evaluate each alternative in light of the available information. If you have carefully taken the proceeding five steps, a good solution to the case should be apparent. Resist the temptation to jump to this step early in the case analysis. You will probably miss important facts, misunderstand the problem, or skip what may be the best alternative solution. You will also need to explain the logic you used to choose one alternative and reject the others.
  7. Develop an implementation plan. The final step in the analysis is to develop a plan for effective implementation of your decision. Lack of an implementation plan even for a very good decision can lead to disaster for a firm and for you. Don't overlook this step. Your teacher will surely ask you or someone in the class to explain how to implement the decision.

The Report

The course instructor may require a written or an oral report describing your solution to the case. The high quality of your analysis or the brilliance of your insights will do you little good if your solution is not expressed clearly. The teacher is more likely to accept your solution even if he or she does not agree with it, if you are able to identify the issues, explain the analysis and logic that led you to choose a particular alternative, and lay out a good plan for implementing the decision.

Written Reports

You probably will be asked to write reports for at least some cases. The following guidelines will help you write an effective case analysis. First, in business communications a short report is usually considered better than a long report. This does not mean that in your report you can skip key points, but rather that you state relevant points clearly and concisely. Do not include trivial matters.

Second, the report should be well written. It should be typed and not contain spelling or grammatical errors. The report you hand in for class should be equivalent in quality to a report you would write for your boss, a senior manager of an agribusiness company. In the early years of your career, particularly in a large firm, you are likely to become known for the quality of your written reports.

A well-written report would contain the following elements:

  1. Executive summary. This is a concisely written statement, less than one page, placed at the front of the report. It briefly summarizes the major points of the case and your solution. It should describe the major issue, the proposed solution, and the logic supporting the solution.
  2. Problem statement. Present the central issue(s) or major problem(s) in the case here. Do not rehash the facts of the case; assume that anyone reading the report is familiar with the case.
  3. Alternatives. Discuss all relevant alternatives. Briefly present the major arguments for and against each alternative. Be sure to state your assumptions and the impact of constraints on each alternative.
  4. Conclusion. Present the analysis and the logic that led you to select a particular solution. Also discuss the reasons you rejected the other alternatives.
  5. Implementation. Outline a plan of action that will lead to effective implementation of the decision so that the reader can see not only why you chose a particular alternative but how it will work.

Oral Reports

In some instances the instructor may specifically require an oral report on a case. One student or a team of students will be assigned an oral report in advance. In many classroom situations, each student must be prepared to discuss any aspect of a case if called upon or to comment on ideas presented by other students. It is not uncommon for a large portion of the course grade to be based on the frequency and quality of a student's oral participation in classroom discussions. Preparation of an oral case report should include the following:

  1. Description of the case situation. Present a brief overview of the situation in the case. Sometimes a teacher will ask a student to start off the classroom discussion with this overview.
  2. Problem statement. Describe the major issue(s) or problem(s) in the case.
  3. Analysis of the key alternatives. Present the results of your analysis of relevant alternatives in a concise manner. Depending on the type of analysis, this is sometimes called "running the numbers."
  4. Conclusion. Briefly describe the logic that led you to choose the alternative. Summarize why the other alternatives were not chosen.
  5. Implementation. Present your implementation plan.

Sometimes the teacher will assign a full-case presentation. In that situation you go through the presentation point by point. In a class discussion setting, however, even though you must be prepared, you will almost never make a full-case presentation. You will be asked to present pieces of your presentation. For example, you may be called upon or volunteer to present your conclusion. You are likely to be interrupted, and count on being asked to defend your statements.

CONCLUSIONS

The analysis of case studies may be among the most challenging assignments given to a student. Cases are not just "busy work" given to fill up a student's time. Approached properly, case analysis can be extremely beneficial in preparing you for a career in agribusiness management by giving you a chance to develop decision-making skills in the classroom so that you will be better prepared to meet the challenges of your after-graduation job.

By preparing solutions to cases studies, you will be exposed to a variety of agribusinesses, management roles, and business situations. Your decision-making skills will be enhanced as you sift through large volumes of information to identify problems, determine corporate goals, define relevant alternatives, and develop plans to implement decisions. You will hone your ability to apply analytical tools in true-to-life agribusiness situations. By preparing reports, you will learn how to express yourself succinctly, both orally and in writing. You will also develop the ability to defend the logic of your analysis and conclusions. These are all valuable skills for a future agribusiness manager and will help you go a long way in a rewarding career.