The Case Method Explained

Product Management by Case provides case studies for teaching software product management. It is part of our product management curriculum at FAU. The cases are provided under a Creative Commons license and are free to use. This article explains what cases are in general and how to use PM by Case specifically.

Table of contents

  1. Background
  2. How to teach cases
  3. PM by Case cases
  4. Free of charge
  5. Contributing

Background

Teaching cases are case studies from the real world (industry). Each case is typically described in a 10-20 page document. Teaching cases are the main material of an approach to teaching called “the case method”. In a teaching case, a real-world situation is described that was once faced by the protagonist of the case. In a PM by Case teaching case, the protagonist is typically a software product manager facing a difficult decision. In the case, the decision is often not included. It is up to students to come up with a recommendation what the protagonist should do. Students read the case before class and prepare for the class discussion.

The case method was pioneered in the early twentieth century at Harvard Business School and has been in use at many business schools ever since. It is a pragmatic teaching approach that allows students to learn about business domains and apply concepts in complex real-world situations rather than in simplifying lab contexts. Teaching cases are not the only teaching method, in fact, we have mostly been teaching using field projects. However, teaching cases support the in-take of concepts and frameworks that can then be applied in projects.

How to teach cases

Usually, the lecturer asks students to read the case in advance of the class and prepare for a discussion. In class then the lecturer will guide the students through the case, drilling down into the pertinent issues, asking students to argue how they would decide. At the end, students should have a clear opinion and be able to explain how and why they would decide the way they suggest.

There are many variations on how to teach with cases. The lecturer may require individual or group preparation. He or she may require a written summary before class as homework (like I do). During class, the lecturer may ask students to break out into groups for further discussion. Sometimes, cases consist of two or more parts and students will receive the later parts only in class. In order to reinforce learning, students may get to review each other’s homework to evaluate it based on their own analysis and what they learned in class.

For all cases on this site, lecturers may request teaching materials from us.

PM by Case cases

Teaching cases are mostly written by business schools, with Harvard and Stanford leading the pack. There are a large number of cases for marketing, strategy, finances, and other sundry topics. For reasons unknown to us, there are few software product management cases. In addition, most cases are written for business school students, which is a different group of students than those we usually teach. We mostly teach computer science or information systems students. For this reason, we decided to write our own set of cases. PM by Case was born!

Our cases are exclusively about software product management; they do, however, span a broad range of topics, from marketing and sales to engineering (to the extent relevant for product management). In addition, they tend to be easier to handle than most b-school cases. Still, PM by Case teaching cases are used in our Master-level course on software product management for computer science and information systems students.

Free of charge

Teaching cases are a thriving business. Each copy of a case may cost between US$ 3-5. With one case per week and 10-15 weeks in a given semester, each student in a case-based course pays anything from US$ 30-75 for the course reader. Unlike textbooks, which can be resold, course readers made from cases are really just loose paper collections. This makes it hard to sell them on to the next student generation. In the US, whose business schools invented this business, tens of thousands of students migrate to their university bookstore every semester to plunk down non-trivial amounts of money for these cases.

In Germany, public universities are free. No tuition is required or requested. Asking students to pay EUR 50 for a course reader just wouldn’t fly. For this reason, we made all PM by Case teaching cases free of charge to anyone who would like to use them. For each case, there are also free teaching materials to be used in class, but they will only be given to lecturers.

Contributing

If you find anything wrong with a case please let me know. If you have suggestions for improvement, please also let me know. You will be given appropriate credit. Thank you for helping us make PM by Case the best possible resource for teaching software product management that it can be!

 

Dirk Riehle, August 2015.

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