5.1: Preface: Learning with Case Studies

Learning Objectives

  1. Define case study learning
  2. Identify the use of case studies in learning scenarios
  3. Describe the types of case studies available for learning use
NB: The material in this section has been prepared by Fanshawe College faculty with a specific focus on the use of case studies in the COMM 6019 curriculum. 

Case Studies: Definition and Uses

Case studies are detailed “stories” about a business situation that allow us to consider a number of aspects of the business world:

  • the diversity of everyday business situations we might encounter;
  • the seriousness of some of the dilemmas business professionals routinely deal with;
  • the consequences involved if a difficult situation is mishandled (if those involved do or say the wrong thing);
  • the difficulty to choose the best response in a complicated business situation (sometimes, there is no ideal solution, and we might have to choose the least damaging solution instead).

These “stories” typically provide detailed information about the business situation in question, the problem encountered, how it was approached, and to what results. They can be shorter or longer, and strictly descriptive (most cases used for training purposes in college tend to be descriptive, and students are asked to analyze them) or analytical (some academic case studies provide analysis, too, and they might also make suggestions regarding better ways to address similar situations in the future). For instance, an academic article tracing Target’s failure to operate in Canada (2013-2015) would summarize in detail the facts of the case and analyze where the company went wrong; it might also suggest what the company should have done instead to secure a place on the Canadian market.

Professionals in different fields often use case studies as part of their research into various issues of interest for their organization (for instance, when they decide to launch a new product and/or service and want to learn from other companies’ success/failure before they plan their course of action). In college/university courses, case studies are used in order to connect the course material more effectively to the types of tasks the students will have to perform at work once they graduate.

Main advantages of learning with case studies — in general and in COMM 6019:

  • Case studies allow us to apply the theoretical knowledge we have acquired, so we can see how we can take advantage of our knowledge in everyday business situations.
  • Case studies encourage critical thinking and collaborative learning.
  • Based on what we know about professional business communication, we can use case studies to assess situations, examine options, trace a course of action for each option, and decide which might be the best. In so doing, we have to keep our focus on our goal.
  • For each case study, we should try to make suggestions that would allow those involved to reach their goal, if possible, or get as close to their initial expectations as possible.
  • Case studies allow us to gain a better understanding of workplace dynamics. For example, they might allow us to understand that:
    • people who are equally valuable in an organization might have very different leadership, management, or communication styles – and they might fail to appreciate each other for these reasons;
    • depending on our boss and coworkers’ personality, background, and preferences, different approaches must be taken to ensure success (a direct approach might work with some of them, whereas others might prefer an indirect approach; there might also be situations when certain issues should not be brought up at all in order to avoid making a bad situation worse;
    • choosing the wrong words in expressing an idea might have serious consequences for our career, even if we had the best of intentions in initiating contact with the other person(s) involved and did not mean to offend anyone.

Approaching Case Studies Analytically and Making Suggestions

Understanding the Situation

Whenever we work with a case study, we should take an analytical approach. First, we should make sure we understand the situation clearly. That includes identifying the following:

1. The problem/ issue:

What is the problem, exactly? In complex business situations, this question might not be as easy to answer as it seems. For example, there might be several problems involved, and trying to solve them all or treating them all as equally important might cause us to get lost in details and give insufficient attention to the one issue that might have the most damaging effect on our organization. In identifying the problem, we need to clearly distinguish between major concerns and peripheral aspects.

2. The context/background:

What caused the problem? Again, the answer might not be easy to formulate. There might be multiple causes, and some might have had more impact than others. Some of these causes might be out of anyone’s control: unpredictable market fluctuations due to natural disasters, etc. Others might be mistakes people made: lack of foresight in analyzing the market, communication problems, etc.

We also need to analyze the context in terms of the options available in addressing the problem. For example, the context might not allow for a certain type of approach (some obvious examples would be differences in legislation or in cultural norms between different countries).

3. The key aspects/facts of the situation:

Again, distinguishing between major and minor aspects might not be an easy task. Making this distinction might be particularly difficult for people who are directly involved in the situation. This may seem counterintuitive, but if, say, a project leader is more invested in some parts of a project than others for whatever reason, he/she might not be able to judge the key facts correctly in a crisis.

4. The decision-maker’s priorities and goal:

We need to understand exactly what the decision-maker is hoping to achieve, as well as what he/she can – realistically – achieve. We also need to understand the decision-maker’s and the company’s priorities. Caution is recommended here: the decision-maker might not be aware that there is a mismatch between the goal he/she has set and the company’s priorities. If that is the case, our recommendations may have to include cautious explanations that might help the decision-maker redefine his/her goal.

Analyzing Options

Next, we should try to see how many options the decision-maker might have. The key question at this stage is the following: Can the problem be solved (can all negative aspects or effects be completely eliminated) or is reducing the negative effects the best we can hope for?

Many professionals sometimes make a situation worse because they naïvely assume that every conflict or problem can be completely eliminated, in all its overt and hidden implications/ consequences. Thus, they set the wrong goal (an unreachable goal) and choose their strategies based on that goal. In such situations, the results can be disastrous – financial losses, loss of reputation, etc. — because resources will be wasted on aspects that were hopeless to begin with. Setting a more realistic goal (say, to improve specific aspects of the situation in a limited, achievable way) would allow decision-makers to select the right strategies to reduce losses as much as possible, and to get the most out of the resources available.

Presenting Persuasive Suggestions

Finally, after analyzing the situation and the available options, case studies allow us to present and motivate our recommendation as we would at work. To make our recommendation persuasive, we should offer several options (typically, at least two or three) and discuss them in detail, to show that the one we recommend is the most likely to lead to a positive outcome.

Here are some aspects to consider in choosing the solutions we should discuss and then selecting the best one:

  • If other decision-makers involved seem to favour an approach with which we disagree, we need to include that approach as one of the options, analyze it, and show that it will have limited success or that it comports serious risks.
  • Potential improvements, as well as potential risks need to be discussed in detail for the solution we want to recommend, too. If we do not mention some obvious drawbacks of the solution we support, we can lose our credibility.
  • The idea is to show that we have carefully weighed all relevant options and that we chosen the option that seems to be the most advantageous.

Case Study Work in COMM 6019 and Workplace Applications

Depending on your course section and professor, you might have to do more or less case study-related work in this course, but you are likely going to be asked to complete at least two case study-related assignments. Specifically, your professors might use information from case studies to create scenarios for your written assignments, or they may ask you to find and/or analyze case studies specific to your field, always with a focus on communication aspects. Case study elements can also be used in the Research Report, although they are not mandatory.

Our work with case studies in COMM 6019 is meant to help you assimilate the necessary strategies in analyzing any business situation (from a communication perspective, as well as in general). This experience will prove particularly useful when you are asked to complete analytical reports and recommendation reports at work. Any routine business situation, as well as any crisis, can be analyzed in this manner to make sure we arrive at the best decision.

Whenever you are assigned this type of task in the workplace, make sure you understand what you are expected to do and that you do just that:

  • In some cases, you might be asked for a recommendation, whereas in others you might just be asked to analyze options.
  • If you are asked to analyze options, you can still explain which option you think is best, to show initiative – but only if you think your reader(s) would be open to accepting a recommendation. (Some upper-management employees might think that you are overstepping your mandate if you do that. Always consider your primary audience carefully when you make such decisions.)

In courses focused on field-specific skills, professors usually use complex case studies, and the students are expected to produce lengthy case study-related assignments (reports). Thus, the case studies provided to students would be at least 4 pages long (usually much longer), and the reports the students would be expected to write might be 2000-word reports that include information from several research sources.

In COMM 6019, our focus is on teaching students how to analyze situations and make recommendations in objective language and without saying anything that might be perceived as unnecessarily negative, insensitive, or offensive. To this end, we typically use short case studies and short articles reporting various real-life business/professional incidents as “prompts” for assignments – to help you understand what kinds of problems professionals have to deal with in the business/professional world and what might be the best approach from a communication perspective. Your professors might also ask you to read a longer, more complex case study but focus on just one particular aspect of the situation instead of providing a full-length case study analysis (a long report). This is meant to stimulate your critical thinking skills while maintaining the focus on the main objective of this course – helping students to acquire the writing and communication techniques they need in order to make their case effectively in any business situation, however difficult/ sensitive.

A Sample Case Study

Here is an example of a case study we might use in a Professional Communication class:

This is a tricky case study – as case studies usually are. In class discussions, some students rush to suggest that the two business people involved should set up a meeting and solve their financial disagreements immediately, so that they can work together on the new task they have been assigned. However, a more careful analysis of the case study would show that this is a naïve approach. The details provided about the two individuals’ educational background, personality, work history, and history of business conflict (including a lawsuit!) clearly indicate that they won’t be able to “solve the problem” in a meeting (or two, or ten). Therefore, what they need to do is agree to focus on the new task and never mention their previous problems in meetings related to the new task, allowing the old conflict to be solved in court.

Once this aspect of the situation is clarified, a good way to use this case study for an assignment in COMM 6019 would be to ask students to pick one of the two business professionals and write a short recommendation report from a Communication perspective, advising the person of their choice that the best way to approach the situation is to keep the old conflict and the new task separate. To be persuasive and useful, the report would have to include the following sections:

  • an analysis of the situation, explaining why this is the best option;
  • a section of detailed suggestions concerning exactly how the person they are advising should behave, exactly what he should say, etc.

In order to help you to understand a little better the relevance of the content studied in this course for the work you will do as professionals, your professors may relate case studies or media coverage of business/ professional/ corporate incidents to any number of themes covered in this course, from effective social media use to workplace diversity and intercultural communication to employment interviews.

Case Studies and Workplace Communication: Quick Example

Here is an example of a costly communication mistake concerning the channel of communication chosen by the sender of the initial message and the role the receiver decided to assume — a mistake with serious international consequences, as you are about to see.

You might have heard that Hillary Clinton is assumed to have lost quite a few votes in the US election in 2016 after some emails exchanged between individuals in high-ranking positions in her campaign were “leaked” as a result of hacking. According to a December 2016 New York Times article, FBI agent Adrian Hawkins called the Democratic National Committee in September 2015 to warn them that their computers are being hacked by “The Dukes,” a cyberespionage team linked to the Russian Government. He was transferred to the Help Desk and spoke to Yared Tamene, a tech-support contractor working for the DNC, who did a routine check of the DNC computer system logs to look for evidence of a cyberattack and did not find any.

Tamene was not an expert in cyberattacks, and “The Dukes” appear to be a sophisticated group – they are suspected of having hacked the unclassified email systems of the White House and the State Department, among other cybercrimes. Apparently, Tamene was not sure if Hawkins was a real FBI agent or an impostor – sohe  did not conduct a more thorough search for signs of hacking and did not transmit the information to higher-ranking DNC officials, although Special Agent Hawkins called repeatedly, over several weeks.

You can read a New York Times article on this topic here if you are not familiar with the incident:

It is easy to see that several communication mistakes are to blame for the fact that the cyberattack was not stopped right away. Most importantly,

  • The FBI agent spoke on the phone with a tech desk employee instead of setting up an official face-to-face meeting with a top DNC official (he made a serious error in choosing the channel of communication and the person to contact).
  • The tech desk employee acted as a gatekeeper for the message although he was not competent to assess the validity of the warning (he made a serious error in judgement).

Since Hillary Clinton won the popular vote (by 2.8 million votes) and was narrowly defeated in several key states, many political commentators have argued that if even one mistake of this type had been avoided, she could have been the President of the U.S. instead of Donald Trump. Imagine what this public perception might mean for the future career of the F.B.I. agent or for that of the tech desk employee involved. Even communication mistakes of a much lower magnitude can get employees into serious trouble. At the very least, they would lose any chance at promotions. Consequences might also include being fired and, perhaps, becoming unemployable in their field. (Who would take a chance on a potential employee with this kind of work history?)

Additional Case Study Examples


A list of case studies in Astronomy, Biochemistry, Bioinformatics, Chemistry, Ethics, Evolution, Genetics, Behavior, Biology, Botany, Ecology, Epidemiology, Health Sciences, Microbiology, Phylogenetics, Physiology, Physics,  and other disciplines:

National Centre for Case Study Teaching in Science: The purpose of this center is to “promote a nationwide application of active learning techniques to the teaching of science, with a particular emphasis on case studies and problem-based learning” (quotation from front page of the official website). This resource contains many cases in all areas of science:

MERLOT II: Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching: You can have access to many cases in various disciplines by doing a search with the key phrase: “case studies”.

Stanley, E., (n.d.). Investigative case based learning examples, SERC Pedagogic Service Project: Several cases are provided and some of the Earth Systems topics are in atmosphere, biosphere, climate, Earth’s cycles, human dimensions, hydrology and surface processes.

Ryerson University – The Teaching and Learning Office – Teaching Methods for Case Studies: This is a pdf file with information on how to pick a case study, how to prepare students for it, the importance of knowing students’ abilities and needs, how to lead the discussion, what types of questions to be asked, and the evaluation process.

Boston University – Center for Teaching and Learning – Using Case Studies to Teach: This website has a brief introduction on case study use to teach: common elements in case studies, advantages in using them in class, guidelines for using them, how to lead a case discussion and how to evaluate performance.

The case directory of Western University’s Ivey Business School:

Key Takeaways

  • Key IconCase studies prepare students for the workplace by engaging them in active forms of learning in asking them to analyze and address situations similar to what they would encounter at work
  • Case studies allow for complex learning activities that stimulate the development of higher-order cognitive skills such as critical thinking in students
  • Analyzing a case study (and any business situation) involved understanding the problem/ issue, the context of the problem, the key aspects of the situation, and the decision-maker’s priorities and goal.
  • In making suggestions, we should always start by carefully assessing what is achievable and what is not — to avoid directing resources at issues that can’t be solved. We should also make our suggestions in clear, objective language, being careful to avoid careless and unnecessarily negative comments.

Additional resources for case study-based learning:

Brown University, (n.d.). Case Studies. Retrieved April 13, 2017 from:


Davis, C., and Wilcock, E. (2003). Teaching materials using case studies. In UK Centre for Materials Education: Working with you to enhance the student experience. Retrieved on April 18, 2017 from:


Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, (1994). Teaching with case studies. In Speaking of Teaching, 5(2), 1-4. Retrieved on April 13 2017 from:


Stanley, E., (n.d.). Using Investigative Cases. SERC Pedagogic Service Project. Retrieved on April 18, 2017, from:


The BioQuest Library IV, (1996). Planning for case-based learning. Retrieved on April 18, 2017, from:



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