Alas, as with many things in life, complexity reigns.
This doesn’t mean firms shouldn’t seek knowledge from the successes and failures of others. Case studies are a great tool for acquiring these learnings.
Some disagree with case studies and the case method. On a recent episode of Marketing Over Coffee the hosts derided it as a tool of the “majority,” suggesting that firms and folks who sought case studies in social media were behind the curve and not innovative. This perspective is not helpful.
Let’s disclose a bit about me before I get into why Penn and Wall were out to lunch on this (note – I’m a big fan of MOC and they rarely are). I wrote my MA thesis on assassination as a tool of US foreign policy by analyzing 10 cases of attempts on world leaders. I also hold an MBA – a degree where much of the learning comes via the case method. So, maybe I’ve already had too much case Kool Aid.
Truth is, the method is slightly limited.
As Penn and Wall suggested on their podcast, cases are never fully analogous to reality. What happened to Firm X might not happen to Firm Y even if circumstances appear similar. Thus, making business decisions based on “what happened/worked/did not work for the other guy” is a dice roll. As such, the case method is often criticized for a lack of generalizability. Point taken.
However, cases have value in new realms and ones characterized by change. The world of social media, replete with advice but little empirical data, fits this description. However, beyond Motrin Moms, Starbucks, Burger King and other big names who’ve done interesting things there is not a hell of a lot case based info. Some groups are trying to change this, but more dialogue would be helpful.
Case studies help firms understand how actions aimed at solving business problems can go right or wrong. They also illuminate innovative approaches to managing various functional areas.
Yes, if someone in your space is already killing it because of Facebook and you move late then you’re screwed. However, the learnings from cases are not “space specific” (Penn and Wall wrongly suggest they are). In fact, many of the learnings from the case method come BECAUSE a case looks at a firm in a DIFFERENT industry/vertical etc. For instance, Lincoln Electric’s approach to HR and Toyota’s approach to lean manufacturing have taught many non auto and electrical companies about right ways to apply tools and do business.
Case studies aren’t security blankets or panaceas. Neither are they for laggards or fraidy cats. They’re for smart businesses. What fool would not want to see what worked and failed for others?
If you are in school now studying PR or marketing, do you look at social media cases? If so, what are they? If you are a teacher/instructor/social media consultant do you use cases to educate your students and clients? Why or why not?
If you’ve got an MBA, what do you think about the case method? Was it good for you?