27 Jul 2022

Making the Case: Behind the Scenes of Case Writing


by Shona Simkin

Picture of paper copies of HBS cases
Photo courtesy Susan Young.

Sarah Mehta, a senior case researcher at Harvard Business School (HBS), finished her final interview with the founder of Somatus, a startup aiming to transform kidney care delivery in the US. As she reflected on the conversation, and on those with stakeholders and employees, various puzzle pieces began fitting into a full picture and story.

From her meetings with Professors Robert Huckman and Ariel Stern, Mehta had the guidance she needed: what the faculty hoped to achieve with the case, what they wanted students to take away from it, when it would be taught and and the cases that would precede and follow it. Over the next few weeks, she would help her faculty partners draft a case for the second-year MBA elective, Transforming Health Care Delivery.

She explained, “I joined HBS with a background and interest in health care, so while I enjoy working on all types of cases—ranging from IBM’s innovative recruiting and hiring practices to the career trajectory of pop star Alicia Keys—sometimes a great health care case comes along that’s right up my alley.”

Mehta is one of 17 writers in the Case Research & Writing Group (CRG), a centralized HBS service that assists faculty with sourcing and developing cases and other course materials for the School’s academic programs, including MBA, Executive Education, custom programs, Harvard Business Analytics Program, and HBS Online.

Other case development resources include the Global Research Centers for in-region expertise, IT’s Technology Products Group (TPG) for multimedia cases, and dedicated faculty research associates (RAs).

Because cases are effective teaching vehicles for analyzing thorny, complicated managerial issues, Mehta finds them particularly well suited for evaluating health care startups, given how complex the US healthcare system can be. In the case of Somatus, some early indicators of chronic kidney disease could be tracked but usually weren’t because the health care system is fragmented. Mehta continued, “It’s incredibly inspiring to see how entrepreneurs apply business principles to tackle the issues inherent in the system.”

CRG researchers are generalists but tend to have particular areas of interest and repeat business by faculty. For Mehta, it might be health care; for others, it could be digital transformation and cryptocurrencies, agribusiness, or entrepreneurship. The team is a good match for faculty with a handful of case projects each year or for those suddenly needing to develop several cases in parallel. Mehta and her CRG peers tend to have six to eight cases in their pipelines, all in various stages of development. Since its founding in 2000, the CRG has supported the development of over 3,000 pieces of course materials, with 95 completed cases in FY22 alone.

Once a CRG case draft is completed, it moves to a departmental review for quality standards, then to the faculty for input and review, then to the company for review and sign-off. Finally, Case Services conducts a legal and compliance read and ensures that all the copyright permissions are secured.

Susan Kahn, associate director of Case Services, explains, “We sit between the case writers and Harvard Business Publishing and help navigate the policies and permissions, such as confidentiality agreements and questions about the policies and exceptions. What underlies these policies is the importance of maintaining good relationships with our protagonist organizations so that we can continue this 100-year tradition of the case method.” The case then enters the Harvard Business Publishing catalog and is available for sale to educators worldwide.

Mehta’s Somatus case was a field case, which comprise most of the CRG-supported cases. Pre-pandemic, field cases involved traveling to the company and conducting several days of interviews with leaders, employees, and stakeholders. Over the past few years, all of those interviews moved online, which means increased availability and, therefore, more interviews, but also often a longer timeline.

There are also library cases, based on publicly-sourced materials. Both have their merits—the timeline for library cases can be faster as they don’t involve company review or interviews and can describe controversial companies or topics. In contrast, field cases can provide a unique window into the inner workings of a company and enable faculty to engage with practitioners to learn from and with them.

Mehta describes the case writer’s learning curve as quite steep, as the writing is highly specific and there is such a variety of topics. “As the case writer you are the holder of a neutral objective and facts,” she explained. “I envision myself as holding the hand of my reader, taking them through this complex landscape and showing them what different people think and what the data say. Then it’s in their hands—given all these facts and perspectives, how do you assess this? How do you place value judgments? I want to keep myself completely removed from my own opinions. That takes a long time to understand how to do well and cogently.”

The CRG pairs experienced case researchers with newcomers to help them learn the ropes with their first few projects. They also helped design and help deliver part of the RA training program, which covers navigating the RA role, research standards and best practices, and the case writing process.

In the spring of 2020, the CRG started to develop internal training materials to address implicit bias and how it affects the research, writing, and ultimately teaching of the case. “We all have biases that can influence the editorial choices we’re making without realizing it,” noted CRG Director Kerry Herman. "As well as the steps that come before writing—how you facilitate an interview or interact with company employees depends on what expectations you may have. It’s a lot of self-awareness.”

In addition to self-awareness, adds Carin-Isabel Knoop, executive director of the CRG, skilled case writers combine strong writing and storytelling skills with project management and a sense of pedagogy.

“There are also some interpersonal skills necessary for managing and working symbiotically with faculty and interfacing with the company,” continued Knoop. “You also need to be equally excited about the concept as you are about formatting footnotes and checking links. We help bring the faculty's vision alive in the classrooms. It’s a weird combination of skills, looking for conflict and presenting it in a way that generates friction but no fire.”

That friction, explains senior case researcher Amram Migdal, is essential to writing a good case. For it to be effective in the classroom, there must be tension in the decision that the company faces, which can be challenging to draw out in interviews.

“You’re trying to get all of the details, which are often not pretty, so that the students can get in on the decision-making process and the dilemma that the company is facing. But of course, they’re also your partner in telling the story,” explained Migdal.

“We can disguise data and do things to make the company more comfortable, but at the end of the day, if it’s going to be a good case, it sometimes puts them in a position of having to stretch to get comfortable. It’s our job to get them there. You have to be judicious and get the disagreement on the page in a way that will make them okay with signing off at the end and in a way that allows the process to keep going and not collapse.”

“It’s like baking a cake,” said Devin DiCristofaro, CRG research support assistant. “Students see the beautiful piece that comes out at the end but don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. I’ve heard from every case writer that going to class is their best experience—they’ve worked so hard on this product, so it’s quite powerful to see what comes out of the kitchen. It’s such an extensive operation with so many people involved that when it comes together, it’s really quite impressive.”

As Herman sees it, the classroom experience is essential for case writers to understand that the case study is but one leg of a three-legged stool, equally important as the other two: student preparation and faculty facilitation of the in-class discussion.

Mehta concurs. “You can get very focused, thinking that one tiny detail is critical, and then you get in the classroom and realize that there’s a whole other universe that’s happening—students are debating with their classmates, disagreeing in a very thoughtful way and in a very analytical fashion, and the professor is asking questions,” she explained.

This spring, Mehta sat in on the first discussion of her Somatus case and was delighted to see it be well received. “I poured my soul into the case, so it was fun to see students pick up on all the interesting things I had put in the background. It took me back to being at my desk, doing the research and interviews and holding these pieces in my head for the intensive writing phase, which is what I love. Seeing it all come together was extremely rewarding.”

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