This page is a very simplified version of the one found here (F.C. Manning School of Business Administration, Acadia University, Canada) and has been adapted to suit english levels for non-native speakers. A local copy of the page is here.

What is a Case Study

A case study is a description of an actual situation where a decision has to be made or a problem to be solved. It can be a real situation that has actually happened. Most case studies are written in such a way that the reader takes the place of the manager whose responsibility is to make decisions to help solve the problem. In almost all case studies, a decision of some sort must be made.  

How to do a Case Study

Before you actually start a case study, make sure that you understand the concepts that are highlighted in the case study. This is all the theory that your instructor has discussed in class along with other readings. Once you get the case study:

1. Read the reading assignments (if any)

2. Use the Short Cycle Process to familiarize yourself with the case.

3. Use the Long Cycle Process to analyze the case.

4. Write up the case answers (if required)

Step 1: The Short Cycle Process

1. Quickly read the case. If it is a long case, at this stage you may want to read only the first few and last paragraphs. You should then be able to:
2. Answer the following questions:
  1. Who is the decision maker in this case, and what is their position and responsibilities?
  2. What appears to be the issue (of concern, problem, challenge, or opportunity) and its significance for the organization?
  3. Why has the issue arisen and why is the decision maker involved now?
  4. When does the decision maker have to decide, resolve, act or dispose of the issue? What is the urgency to the situation?
3. Take a look at the charts to see what numbers have been provided.
4. Review the case subtitles to see what areas are covered in more depth.
5. Review the case questions if they have been provided. This may give you some clues are what the main issues are to be resolved.

You should now be familiar with what the case study is about, and are ready to begin the process of analyzing it. You are not done yet! You need to go further to prepare the case, using the next step. One of the main reasons for doing the short cycle process is to give you an indication of how much work will need to be done to prepare the case study properly. 

Step 2: The Long Cycle Process

At this point, the task consists of two parts:

1. A detailed reading of the case, and then
2. Analyzing the case.

When you are doing the detailed reading of the case study, look for the following sections:

1. Opening paragraph: introduces the situation.
2. Background information: industry, organization, products, history, competition, financial information, and anything else of significance.
3. Specific (functional) area of interest: marketing, finance, operations, human resources, or integrated.
4. The specific problem or decision(s) to be made.
5. Alternatives open to the decision maker, which may or may not be stated in the case.
6. Conclusion: sets up the task, any constraints or limitations, and the urgency of the situation.

Most, but not all case studies will follow this format. The purpose here is to thoroughly understand the situation and the decisions that will need to be made. Take your time, make notes, and keep focussed on your objectives. 

Analyzing the case should take the following steps:

1. Defining the issue(s)
2. Analyzing the case data
3. Generating alternatives
4. Selecting decision criteria
5. Analyzing and evaluating alternatives
6. Selecting the preferred alternative
7. Developing an action/implementation plan

Defining the issue(s)/Problem Statement

The problem statement should be a clear statement of exactly what needs to be addressed. This is not easy to write! The work that you did in the short cycle process answered the basic questions. Now it is time to decide what the main issues to be addressed are going to be in much more detail. Asking yourself the following questions may help:

1. What appears to be the problem(s) here?
2. How do I know that this is a problem? Note that by asking this question, you will be helping to separate the symptoms of the problem from the problem itself. Example: while declining sales or unhappy employees are a problem to most companies, they are in fact, symptoms of underlying problems which need to addressed.
3. What are the immediate issues that need to be addressed? This helps to differentiate between issues that can be resolved within the context of the case, and those that are bigger issues that needed to addressed at a another time (preferably by someone else!).
4. Differentiate between importance and urgency for the issues identified. Some issues may appear to be urgent, but upon closer examination are relatively unimportant, while others may be far more important (relative to solving our problem) than urgent. You want to deal with important issues in order of urgency to keep focussed on your objective. Important issues are those that have a significant effect on:
  1. profitability,
  2. strategic direction of the company,
  3. source of competitive advantage,
  4. morale of the company's employees, and/or
  5. customer satisfaction.

The problem statement may be framed as a question, eg: What should Fatima do? or How can Mr Omran improve market share?

Usually the problem statement has to be re-written several times during the analysis of a case, as you go deeper into ALL of the symptoms.

Analyzing Case Data

In analyzing the case data, you are trying to answer the following:

1. Why or how did these issues arise? You are trying to determine cause and effect for the problems identified. You cannot solve a problem that you cannot determine the cause of! It may be helpful to think of the organization in question as consisting of the following components:
  1. resources, such as materials, equipment, or supplies, and
  2. people who transform these resources using
  3. processes, which creates something of greater value.
Now, where are the problems being caused within this framework, and why?
2. Who is affected most by this issues? You are trying to identify who are the relevant stakeholders to the situation, and who will be affected by the decisions to be made.
3. What are the constraints and opportunities implicit to this situation? It is very rare that resources are not a constraint, and allocations must be made on the assumption that not enough will be available to please everyone.
4. What do the numbers tell you? You need to take a look at the numbers given in the case study and make a judgement as to their relevance to the problem identified. Not all numbers will be immediately useful or relevant, but you need to be careful not to overlook anything. When deciding to analyze numbers, keep in mind why you are doing it, and what you intend to do with the result. Use common sense and comparisons to industry standards when making judgements as to the meaning of your answers to avoid jumping to conclusions.

Generating Alternatives

This section deals with different ways in which the problem can be resolved. Typically, there are many and you need to be a little creative.

Things to remember at this stage are:

1. Be realistic! While you might be able to find a dozen solutions to the problem, keep in mind that they should be realistic and fit within the boundaries of the situation.
2. The alternatives should be mutually exclusive, that is, they cannot happen at the same time.
3. Not making a decision pending further investigation is not an acceptable decision for any case study that you will analyze. A manager can always delay making a decision to gather more information, which is not managing at all! The whole point to this exercise is to learn how to make good decisions, and having imperfect information is normal for most business decisions, not the exception.
4. Doing nothing as in not changing your strategy can be a possible alternative, provided it is being recommended for the correct reasons, as will be discussed below.
5. Avoid the meat sandwich method of providing only two other clearly undesirable alternatives to make one reasonable alternative look better by comparison.

Once the alternatives have been identified, a method of evaluating them and selecting the most appropriate one needs to be used to arrive at a decision.

Key Decision Criteria

For a business situation, the key decision criteria are those things that are important to the organization making the decision, and they will be used to evaluate the suitability of each alternative recommended. 

Key decision criteria should be:

1. Brief, preferably in point form, such as
  1. improve (or at least maintain) profitability,
  2. increase sales, market share, or return on investment,
  3. maintain customer satisfaction, corporate image,
  4. be consistent with the corporate mission or strategy,
  5. within our present (or future) resources and capabilities,
  6. within acceptable risk parameters,
  7. ease or speed of implementation,
  8. employee morale, safety, or turnover,
  9. retain flexibility, and/or
  10. minimize environmental impact.
2. Measurable, at least to the point of comparison, such as alternative A will improve profitability more that alternative B.
3. Be related to your problem statement, and alternatives. If you find that you are talking about something else, that is a sign of a missing alternative or key decision criteria, or a poorly formed problem statement.

Students tend to find the concept of key decision criteria very confusing, so you will probably find that you re-write them several times as you analyze the case. They are similar to constraints or limitations, but are used to evaluate alternatives. 

Evaluation of Alternatives

If you have done all the above properly, this should be easy. You measure the alternatives against each key decision criteria. Often you can set up a simple table with key decision criteria as columns and alternatives as rows, and write this section based on the table. Each alternative must be compared to each criteria and its suitability ranked in some way, such as met/not met, or in relation to the other alternatives, such as better than, or highest. This will be important to selecting an alternative.

Another method that can be used is to list the advantages and disadvantages (pros/cons) of each alternative, and then discussing the short and long term implications of choosing each. Note that this implies that you have already predicted the most likely outcome of each of the alternatives. Some students find it helpful to consider three different levels of outcome, such as best, worst, and most likely, as another way of evaluating alternatives. 

Recommendation

You must have one! Business people are decision-makers; this is your opportunity to practice making decisions. Give a justification for your decision (use the Key Decision Criterias). Check to make sure that it is one (and only one) of your Alternatives and that it does resolve what you defined as the Problem. 

Other Case Study Resources

Article  
How to Analyze a Case Study (Pearson) *
Analysing a Case Study (About.com)
Preparing an Effective Case Analysis (for Strategic Management courses)
Analysing a Case Study - Tips (University of Westminister, UK)