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Vol 1, Issue 04, Nov 2019
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Todd Bridgman (He tweets @toddbridgman) is an Associate Professor of organisational behaviour in the School of Management at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Management Learning – The Journal for Critical, Reflexive Scholarship on Organization and Learning. Todd’s research interests lie at the intersection of management history, management education and critical management studies. He co-authored A New History of Management (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies (2009). He has recently won Best Paper prizes in Human Relations and Academy of Management Learning & Education. Todd is twice winner of the Dark Side Case Competition run by the Academy of Management’s Critical Management Studies Division. As well as writing cases for the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) Case Programme, Todd has a research interest in the history of the case method, and in critical case writing pedagogy.

Here, Todd Bridgman shares his perspectives on why case method of teaching is popular in management education, the importance of case writing to effective teaching of management subjects, and his experience of using critical cases.

CRC: Why, according to you, is the case method of teaching so popular in Management education?

Todd: Providing students with stories of actual situations faced by managers and organisations really brings the course content to life, which I have always found increases student engagement, enjoyment and performance. There is 100 years of evidence from teaching cases within business schools that shows cases are effective. It’s a tried and tested method, which helps its popularity because teachers can have faith that if used effectively, the case method will enhance their teaching.

CRC: What is your experience with teaching with the case method so far?

Todd: I teach organizational behaviour and use cases in all my classes. Most of these cases I have written myself, or with students. The initial cases I developed were well received, so I attended case writing and teaching workshops to further develop my skills. This led to two realizations. First, I came to see that analysis of the cases largely took place in a theoretical vacuum. This seemed limiting, because I have always found theory useful for seeing situations from multiple perspectives. Second, theory, when it was applied to cases, was only given a narrow active role. It was only seen as useful if it was a ‘tool ’applied to fix or solve real-life ‘business problems’ which were generally seen in immediate financial profit and loss terms. This struck me as being too narrow. Wasn’t there more to studying management than solving business problems? And doesn’t theory have more useful purposes than being a profit-maximization tool? These experiences got me interested in delving deeper into the history of the case method and the role of theory in utilizing cases in teaching.

CRC:How important is case writing to effective teaching of Management subjects?

Todd: Of course, you can teach a great Management course without using cases, and if you use cases it doesn’t guarantee that it will be a great course. But in my experience using cases makes it more likely you will be teaching effectively.

Cases can be used in different ways, but for me they are excellent for helping students understand different theoretical perspectives. Cases are a great way to teach theory because they bring theory to life. Applying theory to real situations helps students learn the theory, but it’s more than that. It enables students to see how different theoretical perspectives can generate deeper and more sophisticated ways of looking at human behaviour in organizations.

For example, one of the cases I have written concerns the challenges facing New Zealand Police as they tried to change their culture following a government inquiry into sexual misconduct by officers. The dominant mainstream theoretical position is that leaders are powerful and provided they lead well, they can transform dysfunctional organizational cultures. But there is also more critical theory which suggests the power of leaders to change cultures is limited, especially in large, old organizations that are geographically dispersed, like New Zealand Police. So, what we have here is a theoretical debate between academics, which would probably bore students if you just taught it in the abstract. The case brings the debate to life and shows students the value of learning theory. It also helps students to critically evaluate the theories they are given. When theory does not explain well what happens in real situations, it is an opportunity to reflect on the strengths and limitations of the theory.

If students are able to view cases from multiple perspectives, they get a better understanding of the complexity of organizations, which I believe will make them better employees and better managers. Being able to analyse situations and events from different perspectives is not just an exercise in analysis and critique. It demonstrates to students there is no right answer or one best way and encourages them to think about how they might manage and lead differently.

CRC: Please share with us your experience of using critical cases and why it is important to do so?

Todd: Critical cases challenge mainstream and ‘best practice’ cases, as I’ve mentioned, and they also invite deeper scrutiny of organisations and their relationship to external stakeholders. This is important because in Brexit, the election on Trump, and the rise of nationalism in Europe and elsewhere we are seeing a fundamental challenge to a 30-year consensus around neoliberalism. This has implications for management education, because business schools that have been strongly aligned to the neoliberal worldview now risk being seen as out of step with this new political landscape. I’ve always believed business educators shouldn’t just blindly support free market capitalism but should instead seriously question its development for the good of humanity.

Critical case writing is important because it does more than train students to solve immediate ‘business problems’. It recognizes the importance of theory and a more reflective and thought-provoking case method. It takes labour relations and other social and environmental issues seriously and stimulates critical reflection on the assumptions we make about management and organisation. By developing the case method in these ways, we can better engage our students with the global challenge of building more inclusive, ethical and sustainable societies. A mission not just for the case method, but for business education as a whole. Interestingly, I’ve done some research into the origins of the case method at Harvard Business School and found that during the economic and social crises of the 1920s and 1930s, the case method was seen to be a useful way of getting students engaged with these issues.

Todd Bridgman on IBS Case Research Centre.

IBS Hyderabad’s Case Research Centre, under the leadership of Debapratim Purkayastha makes an outstanding contribution to the case method. It has produced thousands of cases which are amongst the most heavily used within business schools around the world. I’m especially pleased to see the centre has produced many excellent critical cases, which have won competitions such as the prestigious Academy of Management Darkside Case Competition. I look forward to a continuing stream of high quality and high impact cases in the future.

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