Writing case studies in Business and Economics

What is a case study?

  • A case refers to a real, or realistic, situation that occurred, e.g. in a workplace.
  • A case study is where you analyse this situation. It involves identifying what has happened and why it happened, and applying relevant theory. In addition to this, some case studies require you to evaluate and recommend solutions.

What is the purpose of a case study?

The purpose of a case study is to consider a particular situation in detail in order to:

  • identify the problems
  • analyse these problems.

Some case studies will also:

  • develop and evaluate alternative solutions
  • make recommendations for action.

Why might I be asked to undertake a case study?

A case study is a means by which your lecturer can assess your understanding of concepts, analytical skills, and problem-solving abilities in preparation for professional employment.

In a professional context, you could be asked by an organisation to undertake a case study when issues arise. For instance, an organisation might request an analysis of their work environment to alert management to the underlying causes of problems. You might also be called upon to go further, providing a way to resolve these problems.

Types of case studies

There are two types of case studies you’ll likely be asked to do, both as a student, and later, in the workforce. These are:

1. Analytical case study

This method requires you to analyse the case to:

  • determine exactly what has happened
  • identify the problems which existed in the case
  • explain the reasons why events unfolded the way they did.

In a sense, you are determining the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the situation.

2. Problem-solving case study

Using this method, you need to:

  • identify the major problems which existed in the case
  • identify what caused these problems
  • understand why the events occurred the way they did
  • suggest possible solutions to improve the situation
  • recommend the best solution for implementation.

This approach builds upon, and extends, the analytical case study. In addition to identifying problems and explaining why they happened, you also need to develop solutions and make recommendations.

In a sense, you are determining the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the situation.

NOTE: There are a variety of ways a case study assignment might be designed, so make sure you carefully read the instructions given in your unit and seek clarification before proceeding. 

Looking ahead

Now that you know what a case study is, the rest of this module will explain the different steps to take when completing a case study, and will show you how to structure a written case study report. The final section includes an annotated example.

Steps to approaching a case study

Preparing a case study assignment will involve you undertaking the steps outlined below.

Generally, steps 1 – 4 apply to both analytical case studies and problem-solving case studies. Steps 5 and 6 only apply to problem-solving case studies. Nevertheless, ensure you follow the instructions for the particular assignment.

1. Understand the task

Read the case to gain an overview of the situation.

Read your task instructions, and any questions associated with the case. Highlight any key words and concepts. Also, pay particular attention to any instruction verbs, and make sure you understand what they are asking you to do. You can find definitions of commonly used words at this assignment direction words resource.

2. Understand the case

Read the case closely.

Identify the key facts of the case. Questions that might help you do this include:

  • What organisations are involved?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • What is the organisational environment or structure?
  • Who was the decision maker?
  • What were the financial constraints of this organisation?
  • What conflicts or issues have arisen?
  • What strategies were implemented (if any)?
  • What was the sequence of events?
  • What were the outcomes?

Note, these questions may not apply to your particular case. You must determine your own particular set of questions for each individual case.

3. Identify the main problem(s)

  • Now that you understand the facts of the case, what do you think the main problems are?

Problems in a case may be caused by other, underlying problems. When you are analysing the case information given to you, aim to identify the problem causing other problems: this is the main problem. It can help to consider why something in the case situation happened –  ask yourself why an event occurred, or why something went wrong.

The main problem may not be obvious when you begin the assignment. However, you can apply the skills you have learnt in the unit to analyse the case and discover it. Case study assignments reflect work in professional organisations, and they give you an opportunity to develop these transferable analytical skills.

To understand analytical skills more broadly see this critical thinking resource.

4. Analyse the problems

Now that you have identified the main problems, the next step is to try to uncover the causes of those problems. Aim to explain the reasons why the problems have occurred.

Start by questioning the information presented to you. Let’s go back to the questions we asked above in step 2 (to identify the key facts), and probe further:

  • What is the organisational environment or structure? Are there any inherent problems with the organisation’s environment or structure?
  • Who was the decision maker? Is the decision maker the appropriate person or group who should be making the decisions?
  • What were the financial constraints of this organisation? What difficulties could arise from the financial constraints? Are these difficulties relevant to the problems arising in this case?
  • What strategies were implemented (if any)? Were the strategies implemented here based upon any particular theory? What problems were caused as a result of this action?

Consider what theories (i.e. systems of principles and concepts that can explain situations) might be applied to the case:

  • Guided by the case study requirements, look up relevant theory and background information in your unit’s prescribed texts and any additional readings. Use the keywords and concepts (identified in step 1) to help you locate the relevant sections.

Make notes, in your own words, on how the theory applies to this case. How does the theory help explain what has happened? Make sure you record the bibliographical details of the sources you read for easy reference when responding to the case.

Theory in this context means concepts and principles you can apply to explain a situation. For example, a theory might highlight the characteristics of different management styles. You can compare general characteristics in theory to your case to gain a sophisticated understanding of the problems and solutions. Access relevant theory in your unit’s prescribed texts and other scholarly sources.

5. Develop and evaluate solutions

  • Identify potential solutions to the problems.
  • Assess the advantages and disadvantages of each solution.
  • Consider how the theories you apply in step 4 might support or find faults in each solution.

6. Make recommendations for action

  • Recommend the solution which achieves the most favourable outcome, and justify your decision.

How to write up your case study: Preparing a written case report

The following structure is commonly used for case study reports.

Note:

  • An analytical case study will include only sections 1-5.
  • A problem-solving case study will include all sections 1-8.

Checklist: make sure your case study report does the following

  • Identifies, analyses, and (possibly) resolves the key problems involved in the case. Don’t simply repeat what the textbook and case information has stated
  • Remains consistent, i.e. if you are required to apply the ‘problem solving approach’, do not say ‘X’ is the major problem and then recommend a solution to ‘Y’
  • Applies relevant theory, especially in sections 4, 6 and 7
  • Addresses all of the required questions
  • Includes all the necessary sections
  • Cites and references your sources appropriately.


Identifying assumptions, analysing problems and evaluating solutions

Example: ‘Atlanta Public Schools’ Case Study

In 2011, an external investigation of the performance evaluation strategies of the Atlanta Public Schools System revealed that schools had been cheating to obtain high results. For this example case analysis, the student has identified the problems faced by the organisation, outlined factors that contributed to the problem, and proposed solutions and recommendations.

The following case analysis is annotated with tips and explanations in each section. Click the icons to see annotations. Click again to hide them. Note that for your actual assignment you may not be required to include all sections in the example case analysis here – check your assignment instructions carefully.

Click the icons next to each paragraph to show the lecturer’s comments. Click again to hide the comment.

Legend:

Good Problem Suggestion Question

Atlanta Public Schools: A Case Study

Executive summary

Show/hide lecturer's comment 1

Since 1999, the Atlanta Public Schools System (APS) has implemented significant changes in performance evaluation strategies after the appointment of Beverly Hall as its superintendent. Over 10 years, Hall’s data-centric methods were praised, attributing the significant improvements in academic performance in APS schools to her rigorous attention to the measurement of data. However, an external investigation in 2011 revealed that schools had been cheating to obtain these high results. This report investigates the factors that could have led to this situation. It identifies problems associated with the organisational culture, leadership style, and top-down control of the APS. The main problems identified in the APS organisation are that staff are motivated by fear, there is an inappropriate leadership style, and too much emphasis was placed on the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) of each school. Lecturer's comment 1:
The first section of the Executive Summary provides a brief background to the organisation and outlines its problems. It uses clear language and lists the problems identified. It also states the purpose of the report – to investigate the factors leading to the situation.

Show/hide lecturer's comment 2

The authors have investigated and critically analysed each main problem and formulated solutions to address these problems. From these solutions the report recommends a suitable implementation plan, to aid the new superintendent in considering the future of APS. Recommendations include the introduction of a new cultural mantra, holding focus groups with APS principals and teachers, and establishing new metrics to evaluate performance in non-academic areas.

Lecturer's comment 2:
This is a brief outline of the recommendations. Remember, this is just a summary, so you do not need to go into a lot of detail or explain the recommendations yet.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 3

To understand the problems and consider solutions this report applies theories including organisational culture theory, transactional and transformational leadership styles, the balanced scorecard approach to controlling, and benchmarking. The authors assume that APS has appointed a new superintendent, and that the organisation has sufficient human and financial resources to implement the recommendations made in this report.

Lecturer's comment 3:
The final part of the Executive Summary mentions theories used and any assumptions made in preparing the report.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 4

Problem Identification and Analysis

Lecturer's comment 4:
This example case study (report) looks at only one problem. However, case study assignments will often require you to discuss a number of different problems in a particular scenario.

1. Organisational Culture

Show/hide lecturer's comment 5

The culture problem faced by the APS organisation is that staff are motivated by fear of punishment rather than the mission of the organisation.

Lecturer's comment 5:
What is the ‘mission of the organisation’? Change this topic sentence to be more precise by thinking about what the organisation’s mission might be.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 6 Show/hide lecturer's comment 7 Show/hide lecturer's comment 8 Show/hide lecturer's comment 9 Show/hide lecturer's comment 10

The culture problem faced by the APS organisation is that staff are motivated by fear of punishment rather than their vocation to educate students. Lecturer's comment 6:
Use a clear topic sentence to outline the first problem.
Teachers were motivated to achieve targets because of the intimidation, threats and humiliation they may receive if they failed to do so: “In the end, meeting targets became more about the adults than the children.” (Simons & Kindred, 2017, p.17). This placed high pressure on employees and caused them to seek ways to reach the targets with minimum effort (Reizer, Brender-Ilan, & Sheaffer, 2019). Staff in their desperation have resorted to cheating to avoid the harsh punishments. Lecturer's comment 7:
Include an explanation of the causes of the problem; note that there are several causes.
The tone for this survivalist atmosphere was set by Hall’s mantra of “No exceptions. No excuses.” As suggested by Williams et al. (2016), an organisation’s founder is integral in setting the beliefs, attitudes and values of the organisation. Hall’s merciless approach was adopted by the principals, who then influenced their staff and proliferated the phrase, “low score, out the door” (Simons & Kindred, 2017, p11). Lecturer's comment 8:
Make sure that theory is clearly applied to the situation. Note how this is done here by first describing the theory of Williams et al, and then applying this to Hall’s behaviour.
Furthermore, this culture was reinforced by the celebration of ‘organisational heroes’, staff who met the targets but did so whilst demonstrating these unhealthy behaviours (Williams et al., 2016). Hence, though the practices were unethical, teachers were pressured to comply or keep silent as they “feared retaliation if they spoke up” (Simons & Kindred, 2017, p.16). Due to these reasons, the APS organisation sustained a culture shaped by fear. Staff have adopted unethical practices which provide quantitative results, but do not work towards educating students. Lecturer's comment 9:
Include a clear concluding statement linking the causes to the problem.
Lecturer's comment 10:
When analysing multiple problems, repeat the processes of this paragraph for each problem you identify.

Show/hide lecturer's comment 11

Statement of major problems

Lecturer's comment 11:
State clearly which are the two or three main problems that must be solved first.

Organisational Culture 

Staff are motivated by fear of punishment rather than their vocation to educate students

Leadership style 

Hall’s transactional leadership style is ineffective in leading APS towards providing students with a good quality education. It fosters a short-term rather than a long-term focus and does not inspire innovation.

Top-down control

Show/hide lecturer's comment 12

The organisation focused too much on achieving the required AYP targets, leading to the neglect of other non-academic measures. The ability of principals to correct problems at individual schools was also compromised.

Lecturer's comment 12:
Include a short concise statement of what problems you are going to solve in the remainder of the case.

Generation and evaluation of alternative solutions

Organisational culture

Show/hide lecturer's comment 13 Show/hide lecturer's comment 14

Introduce a clear code of conduct: Introduce a written code of conduct prohibiting the use of actions such as intimidation, threats and humiliation. Lecturer's comment 13:
State the problem first, followed by the solution. Then, include a short statement explaining the solution.
Research by Chen, Chen and Liu (2013) suggests that when a clear set of organisational rules is defined, employees are less likely to engage in deviant behaviours. Staff would be more aware of the expected behaviours, and hence, less likely to continue acting unethically to achieve goals (Chen, Chen & Liu, 2013).

Lecturer's comment 14:
Note that here, the theory is clearly related to the practical solution. The solutions must be useful and viable for the organisation; if you use theory in this section it should support the practical solution proposed.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 15

With the threat of abuse removed, teachers would experience less peer pressure to cheat and are more likely to invest time and energy into developing legitimate teaching plans to support their students. However, the reduced external pressure may negatively affect the schools’ performance in statistical terms. With cheating discouraged, schools may not be able to produce the required AYP, disqualifying them for funding, which would further slow their progress. Staff could also be reluctant to change. Doll, Cornelison, Rath and Syme (2016) note that culture change is difficult and spans many years.

Lecturer's comment 15:
After explaining the solution in detail, it is important to evaluate it. What are the potential disadvantages or difficulties in implementing the proposed solution? Remember, you don’t need to make recommendations in this section - you just need to explain and evaluate each solution.
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Establish and teach a new cultural mantra

Lecturer's comment 16:
Repeat the above process for each solution to this problem. Then move on to the next problem and repeat the process of explaining and evaluating solutions.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 17

Regularly monitor staff behaviour

Lecturer's comment 17:
Repeat the above process for each solution to this problem.

Recommendations

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Organisational Culture

Lecturer's comment 18:
Restate the problem. Remember each problem usually has specific solutions, so it is important to remind the reader which problem and its solutions you are discussing.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 19

The chosen solution is to establish and teach a new cultural mantra that focuses on educating students, the APS’s mission. This solution will work to solve the problem of motivation by fear, by focusing on the purpose of APS, rather than the data, and changing the merciless attitude initiated by Hall. If the new superintendent consistently promotes and demonstrates the new statement, change will be possible within the organisation, as the cultural foundation is set by the organisational leader (Williams et al., 2016).

Lecturer's comment 19:
Clearly state how the solution will solve the problem.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 20 Show/hide lecturer's comment 21

This solution addresses the base cause of the aggressive culture, which is the attitude set by the organisational leader, rather than only addressing the outward behaviours, like teachers’ unethical practices. This solution is also more likely to lead to sustained improvement in the future. Lecturer's comment 20:
Explain why this recommendation is preferable to the other solutions proposed in the previous section.
Thus, the recommendation being put forward is to establish and teach a new cultural mantra centred on the mission of the APS organisation.

Lecturer's comment 21:
Include a clear concluding statement about this recommendation.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 22

Implementation

Lecturer's comment 22:
The implementation section states the action steps involved to introduce the recommended solutions: Who/When/How/Cost? You may choose to present this information in a table, as in this example. Include a separate implementation plan for each recommendation.

Organisational Culture Plan

Show/hide lecturer's comment 23

Establish and teach a new cultural mantra

Lecturer's comment 23:
Include a clear restatement of the problem and the solution to the problem.
Who

Superintendent, deputy superintendent, directors, principals, administration personnel

What

Create a new cultural mantra that highlights the mission of APS, which is “to ensure that APS students are successful in school and life”. Teach, promote and demonstrate this mantra so that the fear culture of APS can be transformed.

When

[Complete for each recommendation. Remember to identify the problem first, then the recommendation, and then you are ready to outline your implementation plan.]

Where/How

[Complete for each recommendation. Remember to identify the problem first, then the recommendation, and then you are ready to outline your implementation plan.]

Costs

[Complete for each recommendation. Remember to identify the problem first, then the recommendation, and then you are ready to outline your implementation plan.]

Establish and teach a new cultural mantra ...

Show/hide lecturer's comment 24

Regularly monitor staff behaviour ...

Lecturer's comment 24:
Develop a separate implementation plan for each recommendation.

Summary

This module has demonstrated the main steps in producing a case study assignment.

These steps will help you to identify what has happened in a case situation and why it happened, and apply relevant theory. Remember that some case studies require you to evaluate and recommend solutions.

You will need to:

  • identify the problems in a case
  • analyse the problems.

You may also need to:

  • develop and evaluate alternative solutions
  • make recommendations for action.

Remember to check your assignment instructions carefully to determine the type of case study you are required to write.

Acknowledgements

This tutorial was adapted from elements of the Monash University Business School student Q Manual developed by Associate Professor Nell Kimberley.

References

Kimberley, N. (2016). StudentQ Manual (6th ed.). Faculty  of Business and Economics, Monash University. https://www.monash.edu/business/5931328906e0c/pdf_file/current-students/qmanual.pdf

Van Weelden, S. J. & Busuttil, L. (2018). Student guide to the case method. Ivey Publishing.