Adam does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the case method at HBS. I didn’t figure it out as quickly as he did, although I also chose to go there because of it. I didn’t really begin to grasp the case method until I began writing cases for use in the classroom while I was doing my doctoral work. Actually, I had to spend a year writing cases before they would even let me into the doctoral program. Something to do with some courses I managed to fail while I was getting my MBA–some people seemed to think this raised a question about whether I was qualified for the program.
Anyway, the key to the case method is that the goal is to help students develop a lasting skill, not pass an exam at the end of the semester. That skill is about finding and defining a problem, deciding on an appropriate goal, and then building a plan for moving from the problem toward the goal.
On paper that looks like a trivial process. Certainly not something clever enough to build a lot of fancy theory around that can get published in the right academic journals. But it does focus on the place where a manager or leader can have the greatest potential impact – defining the agenda. Moreover, because it is seen as a skill, it’s also clear that it needs to be developed and internalized with a lot of practice.
Sure, the place can seem like a collection of arrogant SOBs, especially from the outside. But it is one of the few places I know of that is absolutely clear that it’s central mission is to create an environment where the learner, not the teached, is the center of attention.