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CASE STUDIES AS LEARNING VEHICLES FOR THE FUTURE FOR CONSULTANTS AND MANAGERS

Maria Spindler

INTRODUCTION

The intention of the two master's degree programs in using research case studies with MSc and MBA students (see also Spindler & Bauer, 2010, 2012) is to encourage the students to develop knowledge and abilities which will serve them in the long term in their careers as organization development-consultants and managers. Students who already work as consultants or managers[1] focus as practitioners on real-life situations in the form of case studies, applying practical and theoretical perspectives.

The framework and support ensure that these practitioners have a different environment helping them to distance themselves from their own working contexts: fellow students with business backgrounds, the instructors and the programs' theoretical backgrounds all enable the researchers to step back from their own mindsets and emotional involvements and develop a critical perspective towards their own situations.

This chapter focuses on the question of what and how the research perspective of a case study can contribute to the learning of the managers and consultants and how this learning can be supported. This chapter is based on the author's[2] experience working in two programs, the MBA in communication and leadership[3] and the MSc in organization development.[4]

THEORETICAL ASSUMPTIONS FOR WORK WITH RESEARCH CASE STUDIES

Metaperspective as Provocation for Managers and Consultants

One of the reasons the concept of case studies is attractive is that managers and consultants have to deal with complex living systems (see Malik 2003; and Spindler & Steger 2008, p. 512) and learn to question strategy, leadership and corporate culture within their area of accountability and beyond. Managers and consultants are expected to deal with functionality, to have an idea where to use which structure, which style of leadership and which culture in order to reach their goals, and to know how to create and use change architectures, processes and designs in order to support innovation and transformation in organizations.

This requires:

• Maintaining an overview, acting on the metalevel rather than going too much into detail

• Supporting experts rather than telling them what to do

• Setting up the best-fitting scope of action in order to ensure a productive and appreciative workforce rather than telling them step by step what to do

• Learning as a system, team and organization: how to set up and tear down the adequate structure and leadership culture

• Finding ways to build and increase the unity of a team or organization while exploiting the variety of the different interests and expectations, and while keeping the tailor-made products and special needs of the client in mind (Spindler & Steger, 2008, p. 512).

Practitioners as Researchers of Their Own Practice

The initial concept of Kurt Lewin (1946, 1997), the German roots of qualitative research (Markard, 2000) and the Austrian action research perspective (Altrichter & Posch, 2006; Spindler & Steger 2010, pp. 52, 317) led to the conclusion that case studies could be an approach to help managers and consultants switch roles from practitioners to researchers and to widen their perspectives in order to become systematic researchers of their own management and consulting practices. The practitioner as researcher is an active party in observing his or her own learning.

A case study (Yin, R. K., 2003) here means an approach to investigate unclear and critical phenomena which the researcher is interested in. The practitioner is keen to investigate the unexplained past and present situation in order to find answers which will help both researcher and organization to learn and move forward. The research case study is used as a vehicle which gives an organizational phenomenon a face and translates it into a common and comprehensible language, thus raising the awareness of those involved and making situations and their specific phenomena visible both outside and inside the organization (e.g., for other managers and companies or consultants in similar situations). It is an effective opportunity to create both an appropriate distance and new mindsets, resulting in new opportunities to understand and act.

Storytelling as Living Access to Change and Learning for Oneself and For Others

Using the concept of storytelling should give access to the story behind the story and encourage investigation of learning within the case and about the case writer him or herself. The story should be told in a way that moves the storyteller and potential readers. To focus on changes and "lessons learned" the concept of Robert McKee (2003) is helpful. The story begins with a situation in which life is in balance and is thrown out of balance by an "inciting incident." Students are advised to tell their story within a certain timeframe in which a dramatic change forced the company to act. Providing a timeline as a graphic illustrating the main impacts and main changes clarified the students' thinking and helped them to stay in line and keep focused. With a focus on storytelling as narrative and an inductive approach, the students were advised to jump into the field, start collecting data and writing (see further the concept of storytelling of Czarniawska, 2006).

Learning From the Past for the Future

A variation of Kurt Lewin's (1946) circle serves as one of the main sources for the action research approach. The assumption is that research results will be more valuable for the researcher and the company if they have already been tested as implemented solutions for the "inciting incident." Thus the researcher tells his/her own story about the problem-solving process as the core of the case study. The resulting learning is derived from solutions already implemented and tested. The knowledge is already tested; it is not just a plan or criticism of a current situation. Thus the author can be certain that the plan has worked in that specific case and can be useful for other cases in similar contexts (see Spindler & Steger 2013 for further discussion of the topic of generalization in case studies).

Action research circle

Figure 5.1. Action research circle.

Through the systemized story including observation, interpretation, planning and implementation, the feedback from colleagues and instructors, and the reflection on theory, the past can be seen anew. Thus present and future perspectives can become different and lead to different interpretations, planning and implementing.

  • [1] Most of the students work as consultants or managers in Austria, Germany or Switzerland.
  • [2] As advisor for master's theses and as developer for case study concepts.
  • [3] At the Danube University Krems.
  • [4] At the Faculty of Interdisciplinary Research and Further Education of the Alpen-Adria University of Klagenfurt.
 
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