Case Studies

Case studies are an educational tool used to look at an organization at a given point in time through a specific lens to evaluate a particular decision and its results. They try to accomplish a lot by providing a real world study to the academic realm and can be useful from a variety of perspectives. A case study is usually best accomplished in groups, although an individual can read through case studies to get a feel for how organizations solve certain problems.

Why Are Case Studies Useful?

Real World: Case studies bring the successes and failures of the real world to the academic world to be probed for greater understanding. This is advantageous because it provides feedback on theoretical concepts, but the disadvantage is that they can miss relevant externalities.

Discover Important Factors: A case study can be used to highlight the importance of a specific concept or principle, both from the success or failure of its implementation.

Exposure and Context: As students prepare for the real world, usually in the sense of going to business school, case studies can provide exposure and context to issues they might otherwise not face. This can be useful in developing problem solving skills in future scenarios.

Students Can Learn from One Another: Another important value of working through a case study as a group is to receive feedback and understand an issue from other students experiences. If a student from one industry saw that a concept worked while in another industry it didn't work, that may be useful to know and understand.

How Do I Perform a Case Study?

Questions to Study: Each case study is trying to analyze a particular question, such as "How did the mission of an organization change successfully?", and it is important to understand and discuss this question as a group or individually. Did the case study do it well? Was it clear? Concise?

Assumptions: Every case study makes assumptions, even though it tries to reduce them as much as possible, thus it is important to identify each of these assumptions and analyze how they affect both the situation and the results.

Analyze Data: In many case studies, numbers could be incorporated, and it is important to understand why those numbers were used, how they support the case study's argument, and any problems that may exist within the numbers. Do the numbers have hidden assumptions? Could the data be interpreted differently?

Is it Logical?: Do the assumptions lead to logical conclusions? Are there any failures in how the case makes an argument? Are there hidden premises in the context that allow the solution to work in one scenario but not another?

Criteria for Interpretation: What are the criteria involved for understanding this case study? How can it be compared to both other case studies or theoretical principles? Does it answer the questions it studies? Should it answer the questions it studies?


Case studies are very useful in that they can provide a student a "test drive" of real world problem solving and results. While they have many advantages, it is important to understand and appreciate their limitations. There are certainly questions of reliability, validity, and generalizability to the claims made within a case study, and it is only through critical analysis that one can develop value from a case study. Finally, there are many online resources for case studies and their analysis, and the Stanford Business School as well as the Harvard Business School are great examples of where to find case studies, and the Social Enterprise Knowledge Network is a great example of social enterprise case studies.


Primary Source:

Colorado State University. "Case Studies". Page Online. April 2009.

Secondary Source:

Social Enterprise Knowledge Network. Page Online. April 2009.

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