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[Case Studies] Tag team for a productive case discussion

Hi,

[We're approaching the end of this series in which Rakshith explores Case Studies as a training tool. Over to him.]

I began this series by asking myself, how to conduct a case discussion and hopefully arriving at a stronger understanding of the facilitative method. This is my conclusion.

In a conventional classroom, experts share their knowledge with learners. A case discussion is not a conventional classroom. Learners participating in case discussions for the first time can make wrong assumptions like case analysis is the process of finding the correct answer, or that a case discussion is an opportunity for learners to show the trainer they have found the right answer.

This can create a difficult climate in the case discussion. Learners who feel confident in their “right answers” will be eager to speak, and those who have less confidence want to avoid participation. Those who speak see themselves as being in a competition to prove to the trainer that they have found the RIGHT ANSWER. They have no compelling reason to listen closely to other students because they believe only the trainer knows the right answer. So the case discussion just becomes a series of exchanges between the trainer and one learner, with the trainer at the centre.

These beliefs are understandable. But they are at odds with the case method.

Case discussions aren’t opportunities to recite knowledge learned elsewhere. They are opportunities to use knowledge and intuition to generate new knowledge. Everyone in a case discussion has to give up the comforting idea that a case has one right answer. A case is a description of a situation, usually a complex one, that has multiple meanings, some of which can be contradictory. Of course, there is an answer to a case. For example, the numbers that describe the financial performance of a company over the last decade are

fact; they cannot be changed at will. However, the explanation of why the numbers are what they are is open to debate and so is the crafting of a strategy most advantageous to a company.

So, in a case discussion, the learner has to do something that might feel uncomfortable at first: take responsibility for his own view of a case, develop an argument for it, be prepared to explain the argument, and listen to others who disagree with him. This very public process can be nerve-wracking. As a trainer, I need to demonstrate that disagreement can enhance learning.

It’s also important that, as a trainer, I set reasonable expectations for the learner’s performance in a discussion. The standard comment in a case discussion is not some great insight expressed beautifully. Providing a fact straight from the case when it is needed in the discussion is valuable. So is asking a supposedly “dumb” question – the same question many of the learner’s peers have but are hesitant to ask. No one wants to make comments that don’t contribute to the discussion, but if your remark reveals a misconception about the case, bringing it into the open can lead to a clarification that might not have happened if you hadn’t spoken up.

In the midst of all this, I also need to ensure that there is some levity, some laughter. If the learners take themselves and their points too seriously, the class environment can quickly turn negative and shut off discussion.

Therefore, collaboration is what the case method is about. It succeeds or fails on learners’ willingness to take risks and contribute to the evolving understanding of a case situation. When only a few of them are willing to take risks, the method falters; if the entire group participates, the method can succeed to a degree that no one in the room expected. In the case method, the burden, the responsibility, and the privilege of learning rest primarily with the learner.

What then is my role as the trainer? The trainer and the learner in a case discussion classroom are like a team. For a team to perform well, every member needs to contribute. A football team made up of individuals, some wanting to showcase their individual skill and others wanting to stay as far away from the action as possible, cannot succeed. Neither can a case discussion. The coach, (like the trainer) can guide and support the team but can’t kick a goal or save one.

Making my peace with facilitation,

Rakshith