A case study is a written description of a problem or situation. Unlike other forms of stories and narrations, a case study does not include analysis or conclusions but only the facts of a story arranged in a chronological sequence. The purpose of a case study is to place participants in the role of decision-makers, asking them to distinguish pertinent from peripheral facts, to identify central alternatives among several issues competing for attention, and to formulate strategies and policy recommendations. The method provides an opportunity to sharpen problem-solving skills and to improve the ability to think and reason rigorously.
Most cases depict real situations. In some instances, the data are disguised, and infrequently, the case may be fictional. Cases are not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive. Most cases are snapshots of a particular situation within a complex environment.
The focus of a case study is on a main protagonist who is shown at the point of a major decision. Typically, the information presented is only what was available to the protagonist in the real situation on which the case is based. Thus, as in real life, important information is often unavailable or incomplete. Because a case study describes reality, it may be frustrating. “Real-life” is ambiguous, and cases reflect that reality. A “right” answer or “correct solution” is rarely apparent.
Although the case study method is principally used in the development and improvement of management skill and leadership ability, its usefulness is not limited to this field. For example, case study pedagogy is also used to teach medical diagnosis to doctors, classroom skills to teachers, and legal decision-making to lawyers. This educational method is useful whenever decision-making must be derived primarily from skillful analysis, choice, and persuasion. The case study method actively engages the participant in these processes: first, in the analysis of the facts and details of the case itself; second, in the selection of a strategy; and third, in the refinement and defense of the chosen strategy in the discussion group and before the class. The case method does not provide a set of solutions, but rather refines the student’s ability to ask the appropriate questions and to make decisions based upon his or her answers to those questions.