The Case Against the Case

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One day during the first quarter, Richard Gabriel came to school. Dick is a well-known researcher who likes to provoke your thinking by throwing new ideas at you.

He had been invited by Robert Burgelman to serve as an expert on open-source software (OSS) development. Robert teaches a class on high-tech entrepreneurship that is taken by a lot of former engineers. As Dick's friend, I could sit in on this otherwise closed class.

The class took its usual turn. Having read "the case", an article that describes OSS using a single illustrating example, the students started to construct a model of how to explain this rather amazing phenomenon. This is a common routine. Every day in class in Stanford, Harvard, Wharton and elsewhere, students read cases, discuss them, and come up with a shared understanding of what is going on. Next class, they discuss another case on another phenomenon.

With half an hour to go, Robert asked Dick who had remained silent to comment on what he had seen in class. Dick stood up, took his time to assemble himself, then looked at the class, and asked: "Do you always make up reality like this?"

Straight to the mark! The class was shocked. Dick went on to explain how OSS worked, largely dismantling the model the class had just developed.

We are well advised to take Dick's point serious, in my opinion. From a single exemplary illustration, the case, we make up a whole framework of how supposedly some aspect of reality works. Despite the guidance through experienced professors, I think there is quite some leverage in the students' discussion, and our understanding drifts along with the discussion. All based on one case! I'm surprised we are led to believe we can build a sound framework from just one instance.

I'm not saying I know how to solve the problem of effective teaching. But I know that a single exemplary illustration does not allow you to develop a cohesive framework of anything. Once is an event, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a pattern, at best.

Copyright (©) 2007 Dirk Riehle. Some rights reserved. (Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA.) Original Web Location: