By Richard Li
April 26, 2020
As a graduating student, I’ve noticed how a Harvard Business Review case study is oftentimes a business professor’s best friend. As a business student in college, I find these pieces fascinating and a smart method of instruction; they are incredibly useful windows into how the lessons we learn in class can apply in professional settings. As I have come to learn this semester in my Strategy in Action class – a capstone course for all business majors at Northeastern – they are also incredibly effort-intensive and challenging to put together. In our main semester-long project for the course, my classmates and I worked in teams to create a true consulting case based on the very real problems of today’s organizations. Although it would be unwise for me to disclose who my own team looked into due to legal reasons, what I can say is that building it took a tremendous amount of rigorous research work, a true commitment to the details, and a solemn oath to the objective.
At this point, it must be recognized that not all consulting cases are even worthy of reading. Oftentimes, an author’s lack of intent or enthusiasm reflects through in his or her writing. An unengaging, uninspiring case can read off as a dull repetition of vaguely related facts or simply just a wall of words. So what’s the takeaway? An author must have a purpose for creating the work – not just through his or her time, but also through his or her own personal, social, and professional investments. This means having reasons for the case to be successful and being genuinely passionate about the case. Using the BE-EDGE framework, we can use these guiding principles to voice our own selves as outside stakeholders. This will not only showcase our dedication but also help build up a more effective case study.
While the difference between boutique vs. built-in employability is well described here, I want to share my own experience of going through each stage of the process.
Laozi’s proverb says that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This is true for much of life, but especially in business, and the first step to building this case involves planning. As professionals, every one of our actions must have a logical rationale behind it. So before case authors embark on their journeys of a thousand miles, stop and think for a second about the five Ws:
I would argue that the “why” is the most important of the five, as it drives the underlying reasoning for our involvement in our cases at the most basic level. If there is no “why,” then there is no purpose. Additionally, we must also consider how we plan to execute our strategy. How will we structure our case to make it most effective? How will our message translate? How can I ensure that my excitement for this subject shines through? And how can I make the case more meaningful for me? These are almost never the most interesting questions, but they are almost always the most important ones.
Once we can honestly answer our five Ws, the base foundation has been set. These ideas show us our purpose as case authors, or in other words, our personal capital. We can begin to better understand how we as individual people want to connect to our work. In my experience working with my peers this semester, perhaps what I found most surprising over the last four months was the amount of learning I was able to oversee in my own personal life. As I was able to realize, much of the work my group and I were doing for our case resonated with me because I believed our project reflected my own interests. Furthermore, I was able to learn how elucidating my core actually enhanced my own writing. As a result, I was able to craft and solidify my personal strategy through the group case. Although the focus of our case was on a specific organization and not ourselves, my group and I felt like moral stakeholders.
For all case writers, we can choose to allow our personal capital to guide our narratives and even which stories to pursue. For example, an author may choose to write about the National Football League because he or she is an avid football fan and enjoys watching sports. Perhaps another author writes about the role of the airline industry in the economy because he or she travels often for work and has always been fascinated by the sector. As for me, I know myself to be an avid follower of national politics, so my next case might be about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the 2020 elections. Whatever we choose to write about should elucidate our core – in other words, represent who we are as people and validate our pursuit in delving into these subjects.
Picture running the 100-meter race at the Olympics or a local track meet. Before takeoff, runners hear an announcer proclaim “on your marks, get set, go!” Strategizing a case represents this initial moment; we can get “on our marks” by asking the five Ws and “get set” by solidifying our purpose. Now, it is time to “go” and turn ideas into actions.
One of the first and most challenging parts of writing a case is gathering information and thoughts. For example, many cases require interviewing primary sources. Even more, ask for external information to back up statements or claims. When building our content, my group and I interviewed a source from within the organization we were researching. We understood that the only way for our interviewee to provide us with accurate information as if there was a mutually developed level of trust. Although this individual showed initial reservations about sharing organizational data, we were reassuring in keeping sensitive material confidential and in communicating often. Eventually, this person recognized the group’s social capital in learning more about the organization and cooperated with us to provide an internal perspective. We did not include this person’s name in the final product, but the input we received was invaluable in building our case.
Regardless of subject and structure, a knowledgeable case writer understands that developing trust – not just with sources, but also with ourselves and our ability to accurately parlay information – is a crucial necessity. Where are we getting our information? What information are we including? Are we representing our subjects with full objectivity? This will not only speak about our credibility as business writers but also about how we handle our social capital in our work.
As of now, what we have only shows what the case could be, not what it should be. In order to maximize the effectiveness of our pieces, we as authors have an obligation to generate value – not just for ourselves, but also for our readers.
The first part – generating value for ourselves – requires us to think more deeply about another version of ourselves: not as human beings or social creatures, but as professionals. Here’s where a writer’s professional capital weaves into play.
In other words, the business strategies my group and I applied to the Chargers were also directly applicable to how I wanted to shape my life and career.
Acting essentially as a “mock consultant” and a strategist, I can state with certainty that the final project this semester in class has been an incredibly valuable experience in my development as a businessperson. Although many of the concepts my group and I explored were not only relevant for the business field, working on this case and consulting report has definitely developed me into a better business professional and more knowledgeable strategist. Additionally, I have become a much better researcher. For example, the secondary source research I performed leveraged publications such as USA Today and The New York Times along with databases such as Statista to dig up useful information. Through these activities, I was further able to grow skill areas in which I needed improvement. And while the overall experience I gained may not have been traditional hands-on learning, many of my specific questions at the beginning of the semester regarding the leadership, organization, and management of great organizations were clarified and answered through our exercise. On a broader plane, I was able to walk away with a concrete idea of the factors that go into a business strategy and how to craft a successful one.
Personal and social capital are very different from professional capital. We make personal and social investments because they are what excite us on an ideological level. Referencing an earlier example about myself and football, I would write about the National Football League in said scenario simply because I find football and sports to be fun. Professional capital, on the other hand, is more practical. This is not saying that it is more important, but it generally represents our interest in writing cases in regards to our job paths and career developments. If I were writing about the National Football League because I was a junior sports journalist and wanted to better learn the nuances of my field, I would be implementing my professional capital rather than personal or social capital into this project. The same could be said – for instance – for the Chief Financial Officer of an NFL franchise who is relatively new to the game. Thus, we can see how valuable it becomes for us to stimulate our writing with our professional drivers. When our professional lives impact and are impacted by the cases we create, we add a new layer of impact into what our pieces can become.
We still cannot forget about that second part of generating value – the part about the reader. This is arguably the most important step to ensure that others comprehend our work fully and receive the same rewarding experience as we do. As a student, I can attest firsthand that the least effective cases I’ve read in my collegiate career have been ones where I come away wondering, “what was the point of that?”
As I am about to graduate in a few months and embark on my own real-life career, it is my goal to never ask that question about my own job opportunities or career takeaways. My ability to utilize my personal, social, and professional capital will play an integral part in my career development. According to Education Data, 3.9 million students graduated with a college degree in just the United States in 2019. This year in 2020, it will likely be more, and the competition will be fiercer due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Thus, my own path towards success relies on how I choose to leverage my personal, social, and professional learnings to set myself apart.
So how does this translate to case writing? Before proclaiming a finished product, every case writer ought to take some time to read and reread their own work. Is it fully understandable? Are there main points to be summarized? Is there anything to learn to ponder? Most importantly, is there anything to gain from reading it? Again, if the answer to any of these is “no,” that is completely normal! However, it does mean that some additional thought will need to be added into how the story can be better shaped to impart value. In my own case this semester, I should not only feel that I’ve learned something from what I helped write, but I should also feel that what I have learned will help propel me towards my future vision for myself. Ultimately, it is the goal of both the writer and the reader to come away from this exercise feeling intellectually challenged and satisfied.
“BE” can be thought of as a two-step process: once at the beginning of the framework, and once again at the end. Before we began the case-writing process, we learned to ask ourselves what our personal, social, and professional capitals were – in other words, why we were invested. Now, it is time to revisit those ideas and reflect. Does our finished product reflect our best standards? Were we ultimately successful? Did we achieve everything we set out to achieve? Does it feel like we poured out our 100%?
It is completely fine for any of these answers to be “no.” I will never claim to be an expert at this art, and anyone who believes he or she has found the right secrets or hacks to crafting the perfect case is, unfortunately, fooling themselves. We are all very perfect at being imperfect, and one case ultimately only reflects as a single step in our thousand-mile journeys to become better writers, researchers, and business professionals.
About the Author
Richard Li is a third-year student at Northeastern University who is currently working towards a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration and two minors, one in Political Science and one in Consulting. He is also a Research Co-op at Koya Leadership Partners, an executive search firm based out of Boston, Massachusetts. In this role, Richard performs research for search teams through a variety of responsibilities which include creating strategy documents, building candidate lists, and managing internal databases.
Richard’s most recent experience prior to Koya was as an Income Management Co-op at Eaton Vance Corp. Working in an administrative role, his primary responsibility was in managing day-to-day operations for the 200-person Income Group and Chief Income Investment Officer. Additionally, he helped create Eaton Vance Management’s administrative training manual, a comprehensive functionality guide for EVM’s administrative staff.
Community impact has always been one of Richard’s most defining interests. Having worked for multiple political campaigns on the local-, state-, and federal levels, he is particularly intrigued by the government and the public sector. Through his experiences in election politics and community service, he developed a genuine fervor for building relationships, identifying problems, and finding solutions.
Outside of work and school, Richard can be found enjoying good food and company with friends as well as cheering on the Seattle Seahawks on Sundays. He is originally from San Jose, California. You can connect with Richard on LinkedIn here.