The Misuse of Business Case Studies

The Misuse of Business Case Studies

Today every corporate website includes a section for case studies, every sales presentation ends with a series of case studies to qualify the presenter, and case studies are required reading for students across academia. Their widespread use confirms a universal acceptance of their validity in serving such purposes. Unfortunately, their misrepresentation and the misuse are widespread – and result in an inordinate waste of time, effort, and money for the overeager convert.

In the academic world, case studies are distributed to students as prerequisites for classroom discussions and to business professionals through thought leadership journals. In both instances, several important disclaimers are completely omitted, but rather important.

  1. First, a case study (although perhaps represented otherwise) is a sterile encapsulation of a specific situation. Even when not embellished, the written word does not possibly incorporate all the details and background material to provide a clear view of the real situation. This is important, as business leaders are apt to toss them about to colleagues to provoke thoughtful consideration. As the reported success was achieved under specific circumstances in a unique environment, the presented solution rarely travels well to other environments.
  1. Second, every glossy dossier pushed by investment companies includes the following disclaimer – past results are not indicative of future performance. Just because the outcome was successful in one time and place – does not mean or even indicate it will be successful elsewhere.
  1. Finally, if a case study provides a truly earth shattering concept, why is it available for distribution? Would you share a true competitive advantage or trade secret… or allow someone else to put it in print for everyone to see? In all likelihood, the value of the concept presented in a case study can (at its best) only provide information that is common knowledge or of minimal worth in today’s environment. Which brings me to another observation. Wouldn’t the most valuable case studies inform the reader about failures or about how success was achieve after numerous failed attempts? Such a case study would showcase how to avoid pitfalls and would be uniquely valuable to leaders facing similar circumstances. But who wants to put their name next to a failed endeavor? What leadership team would approve such press?

End of the day, case studies create a perception that if you do what so-and-so does, you too can be successful. But the truth in all likelihood is that there is more to the story than presented and the solution probably doesn’t translate to your unique environment. My recommendation – your time is better spent talking to your customers and mapping your offerings to their wants and needs. If the option exists, skip the case study. Even the most entertainingly written case studies are yesterday’s watered down news.

One final note, case studies are often utilized to qualify the capabilities of a tool, concept or team. When presented as proof of a capability, verify the exact tool, the exact concept, and the exact team is going to be engaged on your initiative. Otherwise the case study is just smoke and mirrors to distract the unwary buyer.