2 Reasons That AI Makes the Case Method Even More Important for MBA Students
Maria |
April 25, 2024

In a hurry? In a world where artificial intelligence can quickly supply “fact based” / “calculation based” answers, I believe that Socratic pedagogy (a.k.a. “the case method” in MBA circles) may increasingly be one of the most effective teaching methods to embrace in the future, given both its emphasis on providing ambiguous, “fuzzy” problems to solve (and thus forcing our brains to think in new ways), as well as the strong emotional component of case discussions (which helps cement a lesson in our minds).

Further explanation:

Speculation is rampant on what the explosion of AI / machine learning will mean for EVERYTHING, including for the future of business school / MBA education! For example, will one day an AI avatar – personalized to you —  be your teacher, instead of a live professor?

I recently had the good fortune to attend a small group luncheon with famed AI and neuroscience expert Dr. Vivienne Ming.  She spoke about how artificial intelligence is easily able to solve “well-posed problems” – that is, any question or challenge that is clearly defined. Where AI still stumbles though, is in solving more complicated, “ill-posed” challenges: for example, it could easily calculate for us the financial costs behind the decision to recall a potentially poisoned headache medicine from drugstore shelves… but it currently lacks the holistic problem-solving awareness and discernment needed to take less-defined factors into account, such as ethics, brand perception, etc.

“Poisoned headache medicine” isn’t a completely random example I made up out of the blue: I’m basing it on a case I read at Harvard Business School about choices that faced Johnson & Johnson after seven people died from taking tainted Tylenol pills in the 1980s. I bring it up here in part because I read that case in early 2004, and I remember the lessons from it clearly today, more than twenty years later.

I’ve always been an outspoken fan of “the case method” pedagogy. While I love it for several reasons, there are two reasons in particular that I think will help “future-proof” MBA students in the face of the approaching AI / machine learning avalanche:

1. “Cases” created for business school students are intentionally open-ended and ambiguous, which will increasingly be the only types of problems human brains will be needed for (ie, for which humans will continue to be employable).

2. The active discussion aspect of case pedagogy infuses each class with a level of emotional investment that massively magnifies levels of engagement and, subsequently, recall.

Reason #1: Case Method Ambiguity Builds Increasingly-Valuable Mental Agility and Creativity

For the first point: a “case” opens by putting you in the shoes of someone trying to make a difficult decision (the “protagonist”). What’s cool is that you, the case reader, are given all of the information that the protagonist had in real life at that moment. This could be anything: financial statements, a map of trucking routes, quotes from customer surveys, anecdotes about the protagonist’s relationship with their co-workers, or even the doubts and insecurities going through the protagonist’s mind. In other words, it tries to mimic (and thus give you practice in) what it’s like to be the actual decision-maker. But it’s also powerful for another reason: it’s up to you, and your decidedly non-NVIDIA-powered  gelatinous brain, to put the pieces together in novel ways. Maybe that P&L statement on page 3 of the case was mis-leading or inaccurate; maybe that logistics route in the case appendix was an intentional red herring; maybe the long-standing interpersonal conflicts in the manufacturing plant are the key to the entire puzzle… or maybe they are utterly irrelevant. A good business school case will throw a lot of information at you, but the information is incomplete, vague, and sometimes even contradictory (maybe on purpose)!

In a world where AI is going to be very, very good at very, very quickly retrieving concrete data and executing analyses … the task of regurgitation of facts or mere calculation will essentially lose all value. What will still be valuable? Knowing what to actually DO with those facts: which ones to emphasize, which ones to ignore, and which ones to pull from disparate sources and weave together into entirely new roadmaps. Exactly what the case method does.

Rason #2: Case Method Lessons Really “Stick” Due to the Emotional Investment from Engaging Discussions

The second reason that AI will make the case method even more useful is the power of emotion to cement lessons into our brains. In a world where an internet-connected smartphone can retrieve for us any fact, any time, anywhere, it seems to me that we’ll become even less inclined to remember what we learn in traditional classrooms (after all, why bother spending any brain-energy remembering a lesson that my phone can deliver to me in a frictionless way?).  In other types of teaching, the professor speaks for most of the time, a one-sided address to a room of passive listeners. Conversely, in a case discussion, the professor does very little talking, and instead drives a dialog amongst the students in the class. (An analogy I like is one of a classical music concert: in traditional education, the professor is the “soloist”; in a case classroom, the professor is the “conductor” and the students are the individual instruments in the symphony). In a case classroom, you MUST engage in contributing your voice to the discussion (I mean that literally; if you don’t strongly participate in discussion, you’ll get a bad grade!) – this means expressing your opinion in a room of about 90 other people who are just as intelligent as you, and who get “points” (a higher grade) if they’re able to “move the learning forward” which is a fancy way of saying “if they point out additional reasons why your idea was good, of if they eviscerate your idea and make you realize that you were utterly lost.” The grading system provides an incentive for thoughtful, novel, or critical comments.

 Because you are verbalizing your opinion in room of your peers, and because these issues are usually “fuzzy”, ambiguous ones, you can’t help but feel an emotional connection to what you say / to what you hear others say. You silently cheer when someone else backs up your point, you catch your breath when a classmate uncovers a key insight from a detail you hadn’t even noticed, you mentally smack yourself on the forehead when someone points out a flaw in your analysis. By not simply reading / thinking about the case, but openly discussing it in a room full of other smart people, a deeper emotional connection to the material is made. This is why I can remember the Tylenol case 20 years later, and is why HBS alumni the world over can remember cases even 50 years after they graduate!

The case method was built on “Socratic” principles (asking questions to foster critical thinking). It’s fascinating to me that a teaching method over 2,400 years in the making is so well-positioned to help us make sense of the digital future that’s barreling towards us!

an image showing a woman looking through binoculars into the future as she contemplates why the case method will be even more important because of ai
2 Reasons That AI Makes the Case Method Even More Important for MBA Students
Maria |
April 25, 2024


New around here? I’m an HBS graduate and a proud member (and former Board Member) of AIGAC. I considered opening a high-end boutique admissions consulting firm, but I wanted to make high-quality admissions advice accessible to all, so I “scaled myself” by creating ApplicantLab. ApplicantLab provides the SAME advice as high-end consultants at a much more affordable price. Read our rave reviews on GMATClub, and check out our free trial (no credit card required) today!