Keith Cowing

Keith Cowing

Product guy. Entrepreneur.
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Open Source Case Studies

July 11, 2012

Most business schools rely heavily on the case study method. This was pioneered by Harvard Business School and in my opinion HBS cases tend to be the best (I didn’t go to Harvard, but read plenty of HBS cases while going to business school at Cornell). Case studies provide a detailed setup to a particular business problem, put you in the shoes of the protagonist, and give you just enough info to craft an approach but not enough to make a perfect decision. It’s a good way to learn and tackle interesting problems. However, there are some serious drawbacks to typical case studies and I have to wonder if there is room for “open source case studies” that could improve the learning experience.

People used to pay thousands of dollars for the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Then they paid $50 for Microsoft Encarta, which included rich media and easy navigation. Now Wikipedia is free, updates itself in real-time and (although imperfect) has made those before it completely obsolete. Perhaps the future of case studies is free, open source material that is routinely updated and built with a natural layer of social interaction.

I went to business school in the fall of 2008 (aka the financial apocalypse). The entire world was changing so some of our case studies were literally rooted in ideas that no longer held true. If case studies were open source, collaborative works, they could be updated in real-time and adjusted as necessary. It would also enable more current events to be modeled as case studies. Studying history is interesting and we should all do it, but understanding the present and thinking about the future is what will ultimately generate success in your career. The time required to write, publish, and distribute case studies limits the number of case studies about business problems that are happening right now. Open source case studies could provide much fresher content, while reducing the cost of education.

MIT started a movement that’s shifting in this direction via Open Courseware. Sebastian Thrun is pushing a disruptive model with Udacity and Fred Wilson is using MBA Mondays to provide free learning experiences to a large community of followers. Creating high-quality content takes time, energy, and expertise, but the momentum is already visible. If Wikipedia can become what it is today, then it’s entirely possible that some day we’ll have a rich resource of case studies that are powerful learning tools and are completely free.


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  • Jagannath

    Rightly said about case study method. Global economies are not stable and therefore every case study needs to be looked at from current time. Accessing case studies for learning is pretty expensive. Some day, some time, we can expect a change when resources are freely available.

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