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Case Studies Cannot Replace Active Analysis

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AccelaWork published a case study about a company that decided to adopt a temporary policy to help train new staff members. Increased employee awareness, however, led to a permanent adoption of the change.

In one of our blog posts, our business consulting expert discussed SOP, and we outlined the story of a company that transformed workflow with a simple new document:

The team at XYZ Industries ran a fairly efficient warehouse floor, often processing as many as 60 orders per day. When new people were hired for a seasonal rush, the floor manager put together a simple paper artifact to facilitate training. That temporary fix became a major boon to productivity and was adopted as SOP—Standard Operating Procedure.

business consultants meeting

© Flickr user bpsusf

Still, as even Dilbert can attest to the link between business consultants and case studies, they do not replace direct assessment of real-world environments. These documents may provide guidance or comfort, but they can never stand in for conscious, active analysis done by stakeholders and consultants. “Case” is the key word in the phrase case study. While something may have worked in one specific situation, that doesn’t make it a one-size-fits all solution.

Simple Psychology published an article discussing some of the limitations of case studies.

The case study is not itself a research method, but researchers select methods of data collection and analysis that will generate material suitable for case studies. Amongst the sources of data the psychologist is likely to turn to when carrying out a case study are observations of a person’s daily routine, unstructured interviews with the participant herself (and with people who know her), diaries, personal notes (e.g. letters, photographs, notes) or official document (e.g. case notes, clinical notes, appraisal reports). Most of this information is likely to be qualitative (i.e. verbal description rather than measurement) but the psychologist might collect numerical data as well.

Because a case study deals with only one person/event/group we can never be sure whether the conclusions drawn from this particular case apply elsewhere. The results of the study are not generalizable because we can never know whether the case we have investigated is representative of the wider body of “similar” instances

Because they are based on the analysis of qualitative (i.e. descriptive) data a lot depends on the interpretation the psychologist places on the information she has acquired. This means that there is a lot of scope for observer bias and it could be that the subjective opinions of the psychologist intrude in the assessment of what the data means.

For example, Freud has been criticized for producing case studies in which the information was sometimes distorted to fit the particular theories about behavior (e.g. Little Hans). This is also true of Money’s interpretation of the Bruce/Brenda case study when he ignored evidence that went against his theory.

While that specific information is clearly tied to psychology, the same can be true for case studies in a business environment. While the temporary fix in our case study was good enough to become standard operating procedure, a similar method may not be effective in your organization.

We know it might be difficult to start a process of active analysis within your organization. The problems may be right in front of you, but hard to see due to the fact you’re over-familiar with the subject matter. If you feel that may be the case, we’d love to help! The team at AccelaWork will guide you in the right direction.

If you’d like to learn more about AccelaWork or if you want to be the topic of a forthcoming featured article, contact our business process consultants today. We love to help companies improve and capture the essence of change in written form.

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