The decadent lure of the case study

When a new medicine comes to market, it takes many years to get there from its inception to fully accepted product. The clinical trials are painstakingly long, and require a large sample to gather any kind of reasonable data which informs opinion. We’re talking years, and sometimes even then, decades. Can you imagine that?

No. You can’t. I can’t. Because we’re caught up in a world where Average Joe is just as likely to share an item of news as is the mainstream media, and neither is guaranteed to give any better insight. Immediacy is the name of the game, and results matter. A product gets ‘liked’ on Facebook, or ‘retweeted’ on Twitter and we infer there must be traction to the idea of what is being sold.

We can’t wait years to find out if something works or not. It just needs to be re-tweetable.

And so, we’ve all fallen into the trap of not knowing how to discern the good from the bad.

Those clinical trials I mentioned above go through a brilliant process of discovery. They start with a particular set of chemicals, and determine how they can help the human body. The researchers then need to find willing participants to try it on. But they can’t just give the drug to all of them. It must be given to some. Others receive placebos – that is, they get tablets which have no medicinal benefit at all. And over a period of time, the patients are monitored to observe what happens to them. If there is an improvement, was it down to the drug, or some other factor?

The results from the tests will determine if the drug needs more development or if more tests are required. One round isn’t good enough. These drugs will potentially help thousands if not millions of people.

That scientific approach makes sense for the production of drugs.

At some point, out of all of those tests, the researchers will choose a couple of patients to use as case studies. People who have exhibited certain symtpoms, have been prescribed the drugs, and some outcomes have been observed. The story of that case study is embedded in the research carried out.

We seem to leave all that at the door when we talk about behavioural change, organisational change, or culture change. Instead, we seem to jump straight to the case study and forget all sense of rigour.

Not so long ago, RIM Blackberry were considered the cutting edge of disruptive technology. They apparently had all the qualities needed to move away from desk based working to working on the go. Look where they are now.

Look even more recently at Zynga, the app based gaming company, who were touted as the hottest company to try and emulate. Suddenly, they’re losing market share, and investors are losing confidence in them. Still want to be like them?

The case studies we tend to look for are those where we see apparent success, but often it’s due to a very specific set of circumstances that they’ve done so well. We tend not to look for longevity, or for success over a sustained period of time, like those drugs before they come to market.

Earlier this year at the HRD conference by the CIPD, we heard from Google about their L&D offering. I was seriously underwhelmed. They were doing nothing spectaular, they just had their brand name to ride the wave on.

And that’s the other trap we easily fall into. At conferences and the likes there will be a lot of big companies presenting their amazing case study. It’s a PR exercise is all it is. There’s no real development of thought that’s gone into the presentation. There’s no insights into human behaviour which are shared though the case study. The presenter will just present a well structured talk about a problem they faced, and how they solved it.

That’s fine to a degree. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to share the story of some organisational success I’ve experienced. But it would just be either to PR the company I’m working for or to PR myself. Some people will hear those case studies and be inspired by the solution and what it helped the company to achieve. The challenge is in realising the case study is nothing more than a well crafted story to tell a narrative. Real change comes from understanding what needs to change for your company, not how to emulate Company X.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

9 thoughts on “The decadent lure of the case study”

  1. Nice post Sukh,

    One of the key things with clinical research is that (when done well) it is also deliberately opened up to peer review, with the best research sharing all the data and allowing the expert community to validate or critique the findings. It is sometimes a bit of a blood bath but it means that flaws and errors and spurious and biased work gets challenged, new insights and connections are made, more research happens and so knowledge grows.

    Case studies are fine for reeling punters in, what i want then is some solid data that bright people can freely ferret around in and a place to discuss what it all means. We might even end up with an evidence base for some stuff.

    1. Yes, exactly. It’s important to be able to interrogate and unearth those golden nuggets, which often aren’t shared. That ‘peer review’ element is the big piece which is missing.

  2. Its about your unique company, your unique issue and your unique context.

    I had drummed into me when I did my MBA with Prof Ralph Stacey of complexity fame, not to copy what had been done before, thats were we all went wrong with Peters and Waterman. There was a belief and a fervour that if we do “x” then we will get “y”.

    Yes case studies can inform, and others successes and failures can too, but they are not prescriptions.

    Thats the challenge!

    1. And the additional challenge is that each company doesn’t recognise its own worth. They think by copying or doing things like Company X, they’ll achieve the same success. Instead what they need is to figure out what’s unique about them, as you’ve described, and build on that.

  3. I’ve been working on a post with a similar theme – the availability heuristic. The excess weight we place on just a few examples of ‘best practice’ because they are from the big few. We don’t look at the statistical evidence, or as you say the long term success / failure. The information is easy to access in our brains so we accept it, assume it is correct or more important than it is. I’m convinced that’s how things like ‘on-boarding’ take off.

    1. I’ve been thinking about the ‘availability heuristic’ and I really like that phraseology. It means that not only can we not be relied on to consider case studies in a full context, but often we just haven’t got the capacity for it because we’re already moving on to the next big thing.

  4. Good stuff Sukh. A couple of points:
    – Many innovations are developed from case studies, without them what else prompts those moments where innovative thought take place?
    – What PR is there in marketing a case study identifying failure?
    – Success is relative; a small evidence/idea/point from one case study may yield a large impact if transported into a different context.

    1. These are some really good questions, Andy, and I’m sure I don’t have the answers to them.

      I don’t know if innovations come from case studies. I think innovations come from tinkering and accidental insights.

      You have a fair point about the value of marketing failure. Actually, though, we’re in danger of perpetuating a myth that everything we do is a success when we know this is an untruth. Success only comes from repetition and persistence and crafting. Failure is inherent to that. I think there’s plenty to learn from people’s failures. As a PR exercise, wouldn’t it be interesting to learn how a company deals with those failures?

      Agreed about success being relative. I think this relates to Ian’s point above. Each business is unique, and it’s about identifying the uniqueness of the business which determines what needs to be done in the future.

  5. Good post Sukh. Case studies are great to form ideas and start as a basis, but every organisation and situation is unique. Use case studies to base thinking on, but don’t develop your whole plan or strategy on one, as you say, it doesn’t provide the beginning to end. Just a condensed version of a longer process.


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