Decision making is not about being able to arrive at the right decision. It is about being able to endure the uncertainty and ambiguity of today’s business environment. A new approach to case-based teaching tries to teach students just that.

Making qualified decisions is to many a prerequisite for being successful in their professional, as well as private, lives. Decision making is a core competency for business professionals, the importance of which only grows larger the higher one gets in the hierarchy. It therefore does not come as a surprise that preparing students for making decisions in their professional careers is one of the key goals of any business school program. However, the question of how to best teach students this competency still remains largely unanswered.

Questioning the Idea of the Right Decision

At the Humanities and Social Sciences in Management Education workshop in Copenhagen, Copenhagen Business School Assistant Professor Rasmus Johnsen and Associate Professor Morten Sørensen Thanning proposed that case-based teaching might be a viable approach to teach decision making. As such this is not a surprising statement. The case method has long been a preferred teaching method at business schools around the world for practicing decision making. But the traditional business school case method has also endured quite some criticism for being too simplistic and superficial – a characteristic that does not fit well with the increasingly complex business environment. To address this shortcoming, Johnsen and Thanning proposed a new approach to decision making and case-based teaching: an approach that draws on the philosophical ambiguity and emphasizes the importance of asking the right questions and understanding the context rather than focusing on specific and predefined decision moments.

Cases are not Real-life Simulations

Johnsen and Thanning were assisted by Professor Rob Austin from University of New Brunswick, who brings a lot of experience in teaching business cases. According to Austin, case-based teaching is basically a pedagogical way of engaging students. It is a way of achieving the so-called deep learning, which is characterized as “more meaningful, connected to prior knowledge, and able to be applied,” as opposed to surface learning. By working with cases, Austin argues, students get a personal stake in the ideas presented, which in turn makes the experience and therefore the learning outcome more memorable and applicable.

Making the learning applicable for the students is, however, not about creating real-life simulations and role plays. At least not to Johnsen and Thanning. According to them, this would make the business school little less than an expensive playpen, protecting students from the ‘real world’ until they can handle the pressure of a professional career. Johnsen and Thanning have two main arguments against this approach.

First, the distinction between business school and the ‘real world’ is a theoretical abstraction. It is in essence the same world we live in, as are the conditions under which we make decisions. It therefore seems unreasonable for business schools to charge thousands of dollars for a safe environment in which the students can give decision making a try. If business schools only wished to provide students with a bit of practice before starting their professional careers, the students would probably be better off simply getting a job and getting some actual work experience to begin with, they argue.

Secondly, the orchestrated role plays and simulations often assume that there exists a right decision that students should arrive at. But in most cases, this is an illusion. In hindsight, we might think that we can identify the right decision; but truth be told, this is often simply a matter of sensemaking. According to Johnsen and Thanning, what we are usually faced with is a situation where all possibilities have unfavorable outcomes. We rarely encounter ideal situations, while dilemmas and paradoxes seem to be ever present. Business schools that wish to provide valuable and applicable learnings for the students should therefore not focus on teaching them to arrive at the right decision, but instead seek to make the students comfortable with acting in uncertainty and making decisions in dilemma situations.

With their case method, Johnsen and Thanning wish to make students more comfortable with ambiguity and accept uncertainty as a given in their professional lives. They use philosophy to reveal some fundamental aspects of the human life but do not promote the philosophical concepts as guidelines. The students should realize the complexity that we all need to take into account when making decisions, and get acquainted with the fundamental conditions that influence our actions.

Not your typical Business Case

As an example of their new approach to case-based teaching, Johnsen and Thanning, brought in a case they had written together with a student. The case (not yet published), called Cult-Girl, is centered on the alcoholic beverage company Cult which employs young women to sell the Cult products at parties and festivals. The women have scantily clad uniforms and are encouraged to flirt with male customers in order to sell as many products as possible. The case explores the theoretical concept of self-reification (the process of commodifying oneself by neglecting personal qualities to present oneself as a tradable object) and tries to get the students to reflect on the implications of self-reifying practices in the modern workspace.

The case is definitely not your typical business school case. It wishes to engage and provoke students, and are likely to succeed, with quotes from the Cult Company and the Cult-girls such as: “The customer is our salary on two legs”; “It was always easier to sell to those who were vulnerable and alone”; and “Simply keep smiling even if a guy went far beyond my personal limits. Otherwise I might have ended up not having sold a drink, and selling was, needless to say, imperative.”

Students working with the case are not asked to apply a certain theory to the problem in order to solve it – quite the opposite actually. The students will have to assess the validity of the theory by trying to understand it through the case. With the Cult-Girl case, this entails examining whether Axel Honneth’s thoughts on self-reification, as presented in his Tanner lectures, can say something valuable about the modern work-life. It is the theory that is put to the test and challenged, not the case itself.

The discussions that arise when teaching the case are likely to be both passionate and forceful, but the teaching goal is not the outcome of these discussions. Instead, the aim is to facilitate and encourage different modes of thinking among the students. And by not giving the theory a privileged position forcing the students to think for themselves, Johnsen and Thanning try to help the students develop an understanding for the complexity of the environment they will face in their professional career – thus, teaching the students not how to make specific decisions, but how to deal with having to make decisions in uncertainty.

This post is produced in partnership with GRASP Magazine and Student Reporter and part of our joint project on Humanities and the Social Sciences in Management Education, specifically covering the Carnegie Roundtable Workshop at Copenhagen Business School. 

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