The case study method is the most popular way to teach in a business school. When you want to convey a plethora of interconnected ideas, a lecture fails to serve the purpose. In a business school setting, students are not taking away just ‘information.’ They are also taking away mental models within which they need to work in a workplace. Toward this purpose, even a seminar method is less useful. Due to this superiority of the case method, it is not surprising that case based teaching is the dominant method in business schools.
The Single Biggest Weakness of Corporate Training Programs
But when it comes to in-house corporate training, case method is rarely used. This absence of cases is the single biggest weakness of corporate training programs. In my corporate career, I went through many training programs across companies. They were great companies such as P&G, GE, and Citibank where people development is as important as building the business. As a result, these programs were best in class programs. But rarely did those programs use case method. And whatever cases cropped up in those programs were small vignettes.
Evaluating a Program
Back then, I didn’t have the ability to evaluate a training program the way I can now. Back then I didn’t know that there is a hierarchy of teaching goals in a program. I didn’t know that you need to make dozens of choices in any teaching moment. I didn’t know that you need to not only make choices in content but also in teaching methods. I didn’t know that you need to cater to multiple learning styles. All I knew was whether I liked the program or not.
But having taught at several business schools and companies, I can evaluate corporate training programs now. Most corporate training programs should aim for two goals. First, to train the participants in a domain area. Second, to socialize the employee in the workplace where this domain knowledge comes handy. Using icebreakers, breakout sessions, and lectures followed by ‘doing’ can help, but fall short of what is possible.
Mental Models: The Secret Sauce
A new recruit in any company has some degree of domain knowledge. She will learn the rest over time. But what she really needs is the mental model of the workplace. The mental model allows her to make sense of this new world she is entering now. What she needs are tools to make sense of the world. To know what is important and what is not. To know what to look for and how to make sense of what goes on. Learning on the job is essential in getting this knowledge. But a case method will speed up her socialization to a great extent.
An Imperative for Top Talent Training
When a manager moves up to middle management level, mental models become even more critical. Training of emerging top talent is not about learning how to be better functional managers. They already know that well. They need to learn the mental models from successful senior executives. War stories are helpful here but fall short of what is required. In-house cases that distil the secret sauce of the company and connects the shared values and strategy with roles is what is needed. Cases become indispensable in such situations.
Cases would enable trainers not only to teach domain knowledge but also to propagIate mental models. Although this is a great addition to training new recruits, it is essential for training top talent.
Cause of the Missing Cases
Why do people miss the fact that mental models are so important? People usually do not step out of their frames to examine it. They are rarely aware of their frames. It is something they assume another person also shares. And this is why there is hardly any attempt at sharing a frame or the mental models. The tacit assumption is that either the frame is known or that people will eventually learn the frame and the workplace mental models. And thus the emphasis is on disseminating the content rather than on sharing the mental models. I recommend flipping this model. Focus on sharing the frame first and content next. Your programs will become more effective due to this one change.
Are you using cases in your in-house training? Are these rich enough to share both the frames and the contents of the mental frames?