The Case Study in Business Research

Buchanan, M., Iyer, R. & Karl, C.A.

The Case Study in Business Research

Anecdotal, single-case, naturalistic observations abound in the business world. They are used primarily as tools for training, education and professional development of managers, both future and current, at universities, conferences, and in-organisation skills programs, such as leadership behaviours and managing change. International management best-seller authors, such as Tom Peters, Peter Senge and Rosabeth Moss Kanter have observed organisations and their leaders ideas, actions, and lessons learned, thereby producing case studies that have inspired millions.

However, intensive methodologically sound case studies are not abundant within business literature. Academically rigorous practice or research literature, focusing on business issues or events, using the seminal and robust case-study methodology recommended by Yin (1981, 1994), is also rare. Heuristic and/or commercially successful business case studies will tell a good story worth hearing Ð an important criterion within the classic case-study approach (Dyer and Wilkins 1991) - but they may be criticised for sloppy protocols and inadequate concern for validity and reliability.

Business students and time-depleted managers (who, it is rumoured, won't read a document longer than one page,) do not care. It is the challenge then, of both practising business professionals and academic researchers in business issues, to marry the theory (flawless case study methodology) with well-grounded case study investigations which engage their readers to learn and take action.

A business researcher should be concerned about ethical issues in case study, because often a researcher is a member of the organisation, industry or field of expertise researched (for example, logistics, human resource, IT). An external academic researcher has less concerns about his or her independence. At the same time our business researcher (usually occupying a senior position in industry) is more cognisant of the ethical issues than an inexperienced post-graduate student. Like the complexity of the case itself, business researchers often end up self-regulating their own ethical issues (ethics committees aside), juggling between the need to stand back and look at the case from a pure research/academic exercise and the realities of a professional career in the industry.

Case Study Methodology

Case study involves the creation of the case in imagination (by the researcher and readers of the research report); what is and is not within the case or part of the case is determined by the invention of the study (the research methods) (Margetson 1982). A case study attempts to provide a description of events, “the lived experience”, a case study may further attempt to test or challenge theory and a case study may also attempt to develop theory. Case study research thus satisfies the three tenets of qualitative research, describing, understanding and explaining.

Yin (1981 p29) provides a checklist of the case study research design. They are:

(1) a case study's questions
(2) its propositions, if any, - what do you hope to uncover, what new idea or is it exploratory, dont know what you will find.
(3) a case study's unit(s) of analysis, for example is it about a single issue in a company or about a number of issues within the whole company (p32)
(4) the logic linking the data to the propositions; and
(5) the criteria for interpreting the findings

The strengths of case study research in business are twofold. The first lies within the triangulation of data collection and multiple analysis methods, thereby ensuring reliability and internal and construct validity (Yin 1994).

Both qualitative and quantitative sources may be used, from primary documents (in both hard and ‘soft’ copy such as Minutes and email), secondary documents (such as media reports) interviews (both structured and in-depth, as well as organisation members stories), archival records (such as organisation charts and file notes), direct and participant observation (depending upon the relationship of the researcher with the organisation, issue or event being studied,) and physical artefacts (such as trophies, framed photographs, awards, lapel pins and memorabilia). These conform directly with Yin’s oft-quoted list evidentiary sources (1981).

Properly executed with an established chain of evidence, multiple perspectives will provide the business researcher with a rich case study database from which (s)he may discern themes and notice differences, thereby enabling the ‘pattern-matching’ which can establish meaningful relationships, and link the data to propositions and theory in an inductive process via ‘explanation building’ (Yin 1994, Campbell 1975). Multiple sources of evidence may also diminish any propensity for researcher bias. Naturally, there can be a disadvantage to these extensive data collection sources - the volume may be overwhelming and lead to the ever-present danger of ‘death by data asphyxiation’ (Eisenhardt 1989, p540), as well as privacy and confidentiality concerns.

The second advantage of methodologically sound case study research is the ability of business researchers and their target audience to gain real insights into the nature of practice in fields such as information technology (for example, Tellis 1997a, Gable 1994, Benbasat et al 1987, Klein and Myers 1998), international joint ventures (for example, Parke 1993), human resource management (for example, Wright et al 1995, Teagarden et al 1995) and small business performance (for example, Chetty 1996). Case studies enable business researchers to answer the complex how and why questions which puzzle contemporary managers and students alike when curious about dynamic business phenomena such as project, personal or specific organisation success in todays turbulent global environment.

Whether a deep, holistic single-case study, or one where multiple cases have been used, the case study approach can play a pivotal role in the testing or development and evolution of business theories. In order to provide authentic and credible analytic generalisations, however, it is vital that researchers follow the seminal methodology designed by Yin (1981, 1994) with its defined protocols and robust procedures which have been successfully replicated in referenced case studies during the past eighteen years by numerous academics and business authors alike.
Categories of Case Study

A number of authors have tried to categorise case studies. From a business viewpoint, it is perhaps helpful to consider these categories against a business framework. Case studies can be categorised as (Shaw 1982):

1 Descriptive Case Studies - study of outcome
2 Analytical Case Studies - study of the process as well as the outcome.
3 Studies of Deliberation - studying process directs attention to how changes are invented and brought about, not what changes are.

Yin (1981) uses a similar description of case studies, categorising them as descriptive, explanatory and exploratory. A descriptive case study would be one that documents a particular action or series of action. Trying to explain or analyse the strategy that resulted in the particular business action would classify a study as an analytical/explanatory study. Going a step further and undertaking a case study to understand the thinking or vision behind the strategy would be classified as an exploratory study. The figure on the following page depicts this sequence.

Many researchers would like to attempt the third and most difficult case study category. The business researcher will want to build new theory, in particular at the early stages of development in a field of research such as in the one human year equals seven dogs years environment of the Internet (Nerds 2.01: A Brief History of the Internet aired on ABC, 15 July 1999).

However a thoroughly researched descriptive case study is in itself a big challenge. Imagine a case study simply describing the recent Asian financial crisis. If such a study were to be well researched, it would enable a reader of the study to form his or her own opinions as to what went wrong, what could have been done, etc. This leads to naturalistic generalisations and the formation and testing of theory, by anyone who reads the case, not just the researcher.

The challenge for the business researcher is to not jump to theory too soon, although within-case analysis is recommended by Eisenhardt (1989). Having accomplished a descriptive case study, our business researcher is now well placed to try to explain what went wrong (analytical/explanatory case study) and to explore why it occurred (exploratory case study). The complexity of businesses is captured in a case study mainly through observations and by interpretations around a particular timeframe. Stacey (1996) has described the business concept, in the figure on the following page, as a series of actions (in the external environment; as discovery, choosing and action, and in an organisation; as vision, strategy and action). Case studies can be bounded by a single action or a series of action, a particular cycle (eg, discover, choose, act) or a number of cycles. Kemmis (1982) said that case study consists in the imagination of the case and the invention of the study. A business case study researcher is free to choose his or her own study boundaries.

Another categorisation is one where multiple case studies are undertaken. Perhaps the best way of understanding the need for a single or multiple case studies is to consider the unit of analysis chosen by the researcher. A single case study using a single unit of analysis would be a critical case, a unique case or an extreme case (Yin 1981). The role of Al Dunlap as CEO of Sunbeam is a unique case (single unit of analysis, single case) while Chainsaw Al’s role as CEO over a 20 year career span involving a number of companies is an example of multiple case studies at each organisation with Mr Dunlap as the unit of analysis. His success in his earlier roles in contrast to his failure at Sunbeam highlights the many different factors involved in turning around companies.

Researching all these factors at Sunbeam is an example of a single case study (Sunbeam), but with multiple units of analysis. Expanding this research to all the companies Mr Dunlap worked with, and taking into account all the factors would be a good example of a multiple case study with multiple units of analysis. This would not be a case study for the fainthearted to undertake. The figure on the following page depicts these four categories of case studies.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Case Study


Case studies present data or evaluation data in an easily accessible format. Case studies are strong in reality, they are down to earth and certainly attention holding as they report actual behaviour - but they can be difficult to organise. Once completed, a case study forms an archive of material rich enough to admit subsequent reinterpretation. Case study is a non-disruptive research method. Often case studies are in harmony with the readers own experience and hence, the natural basis for generalisation.

A case study allows generalisations about an instance or from an instance to a class. This is a powerful feature that makes case study such an effective teaching tool. Case studies are often considered a step to action. A case study recognises the complexity and embededness of social truths. The case study researcher makes the case a case by carrying out the study. He or she transforms the situation from an object of perplexity into an object of understanding (Kemmis p100).

For our business researcher, case study research has the advantage of being able to generate novel theory from research. This emergent theory can be testable within constructs that are readily measured and results in theory that is likely to be empirically valid. 4.2 Weaknesses Case studies rely on analytical generalisations whereas survey research rely on statistical generalisations (Yin 1981 p43). This raises a whole range of biases; subjective and selective preconceptions, problems regarding the viewpoint of outsider understanding group meanings, and bias surrounding the background, agenda, interests of our business researcher. This is the same set of arguments used against most methods of qualitative research. It is said that case studies provide little basis for scientific generalisation. Is it serious research, are the findings valid? For an excellent discussion in defence of case study as a research method see Kemmis 1981.

There has been vigorous debate regarding the issue that a single case cannot be sufficient from which to generalise theory. Or, as in the case of multiple case studies, one is able to generalise to a theoretical proposition, but not to a population or universe. A final danger is that case studies can also take too long and lead to more than immersion in the data, but drowning. It is also difficult sometimes to contain the ardour of the researcher to a compact and disciplined resultant document due to their depth and/or breadth of their research.

Review of References

1. Adelman, C., Jenkins, D. & Kemmis, S. (1982) Rethinking case study: notes from the second Cambridge conference, Case Study Methods, Case Study: An Overview, Deakin University Press, Australia, pp. 1-10.

This paper is in three parts, the first of which discusses what is a case study. The authors describe case study as a study around an instance. An issue or hypothesis is given and a bounded system (the case) is selected as an instance drawn from a class. The relationship of the instance to the class is discussed, opening up the general area of making generalisations, so critical in case studies.

The second part of the paper covers the issues in actually undertaking the case study, looking at case design, the conduct of the case and the consequences of the research. As case studies look at real life situations, it exposes those studied to critical appraisal, censure or condemnation.

Finally, the third section draws attention to the advantages of case study. Cases are strong in reality, allows generalisations, recognise complexity, form rich archival material for later reinterpretation, can be a step to action and finally present research or evaluation in a more publicly accessible form than other kinds of research reports.

2. Dingwall, R. (1997) Accounts, interviews and observations, Context and Method in Qualitative Research, Miller G. & Dingwall R. (Eds.), Sage Publications, California, pp. 51-65.

Dingwall notes that there are only two basic methods of social research, asking questions and hanging about, suggesting that a third might be reading the papers. He is a strong supporter of hanging about or participant observation. His paper provides a good historical background on the topic of observation and current thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of observation, interviews and accounts, all key elements of the case study. Interviewers construct data and observers find it. Dingwall champions observation. He discusses the weaknesses of interviews but in the end agree both have the same value.

The fact that language is a social medium and the interview is a social situation means that the self presented to the interviewer is an artefact of the encounter.

The same is true of members interacting with each other, their self-presentations, their accounts of the self, are also artefacts. He proposes three tests for validity in qualitative research; can data and analysis be clearly distinguished, has the study looked at negative, contradictory evidence and does it deal with the interactive nature of social life?

3. Dukes, W. (1965) N=1, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 64, pp. 74-79.

This article will most likely be found on microfilm, testing Generation Y researchers on their mechanical literacy rather than their ability with electronic databases!

This is an important article in the construction of any complete bibliography on case study methodology.
Dukes’ work focuses on clinical studies of the behaviour of single individuals. However, the usefulness of an N of 1 in research is extended beyond these studies.

The rationale includes limited opportunity and/or situational complexity for the researcher to observe, the ability of the researcher to concentrate on one single event, issue or problem, or when uniqueness exhausts the population being studied. These reasons are highly relevant, therefore, for the business researcher who wishes to undertake a deep, one-shot case study.

4. Dyer, W. G. and Wilkins, A.L. (1991) Better stories, not better constructs, to generate better theory: a rejoinder to Eisenhardt, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 16 No. 3.pp. 613-619.

The authors respond to an article by Kathleen Eisenhardt, (see below) published in the same journal two years earlier. They criticise the multiple-case (cases study) approach espoused by Eisenhardt as highly preferable for building theory, as a hybrid form of case research, which included characteristics of hypothesis-testing research, such as sampling and controls while claiming to build theory. The risk in ‘the more cases the better’ approach for generating theory through multiple cases research, is, they believe, that that the researcher will trade-off the deep understanding of a particular social setting with the less tangible benefits of comparative insights.

Instead, it is proposed that telling a good story though a deep, insightful exemplar, versus surface case studies with thin! descriptions, will provide theory superior in accuracy. This is due to the ability of the single-case researcher to understand and describe the context of the social dynamics of the issue, event, or organisation to the extent that the reader is able to both fully understand that context, and have the kind of aha experience when we are able to identify similar dynamics in our own issues, events and organisations.

While this article does not make any significant contribution to the design, protocols or products of case study research, it is important for the very public debate generated on the different types of case studies - single versus multiple - and the methodological and theory-building rigour of each approach.

5. Eisenhardt, K.M. (1989) Building theories from case study research Academy of Management Review, Vol. 14 No. 4, pp. 532-550.

Kathleen Eisenhardt describes the building of theory, (and in particular novel theory,) by an inductive and iterative process using multiple-case studies. A detailed roadmap to executing this kind of research is provided, with the logic for each step and activity. There is no ideal number of cases proposed, although the author suggests that a study of between four to ten cases is usually effective: fewer than four cases provide too lean a database from which to generate theory, while there is the danger of drowning in the data (rather than mere immersion) if more are used.

The strengths and limitations of building theory from cases are discussed. It is important to note that the author replied to the critique of Dyer and Wilkins above, in a second article in the pages following their article of the Academy of Management Review. Her argument is that the appropriate number of cases is dependent upon the status of existing knowledge, the subject of the research and the extent to which further insights, and thereby more valid and reliable theory, may be gleaned from additional cases.

6. Gable, G.G. (1994) Integrating case study and survey methods: an example in information systems, European Journal of Information Systems, Vol. 3 No. 2, pp. 112-116.

The case for combining research methods generally, and more specifically that for combining qualitative and quantitative methods is strong ... yet research designs that extensively integrate both fieldwork (e.g. case studies) and survey research are rare.

In this article, Gable references this method as multi-method model of research. He also references a real consulting engagement to highlight the benefits that are derived from combining survey research with case studies through specific examples. In this article he discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses and potential synergies between the case study and survey method, and the interfaces between these two methods. His research context for this article is through his personal experience with the Singapore Government-sponsored Local Enterprise Computerisation Programme (LECP) aimed to encourage and assist the local businesses to become more competitive through the adoption of information technology.

Through the use of a pilot case followed by cross-case analysis of five firms, comparison of a pattern of variables, Gable describes how the proposed multi-method model is applicable for IS based research. He demonstrates delivery of specific conclusions with respect to client/consultant relationships and also cites difficulties with integration of the case study approach with survey research from the practical aspects of issues of access, availability of secondary data, budget and time pressures.

7. Kemmis, S. (1982) The imagination of the case and the invention of the study, Case Study Methods, Case Study: An Overview, Deakin University Press, Australia, pp. 89-113.

This article address the issue of justification of case study work. Is it serious research? Are the findings valid?
In the first part, Kemmis discusses case study and science and it is a general defence of qualitative research overall as being as much scientific as other forms of research. The author describes case study as naturalistic research where the only hold on the phenomenon is through the processes of observation and interpretation. This is in contrast to experimentation which involves manipulation of conditions.

The author then talks about the indeterminate nature of the case and how conceptualisation, investigation and findings are intertwined. He goes on to describe in detail the process from design, through to recognising, understanding and communicating the findings. On the one hand a very deep philosophical look at case study and, at the same time, an honest approach that presents case study with all its limitations. By doing so, the author makes a strong case justifying the value of case study as being an important research method.

8. Stake, R.E. (1994) Case Studies. Handbook of Qualitative Research, Denzin N.K., Lincoln Y.S. (Eds.), Sage Publications, California, pp. 236-247.

Case study is not a methodological choice but a choice of the object to be studied. We choose to study the case. We could study it in many ways. Stake writes a broad article on the case study method with excellent references, emphasising how to design a case study to optimise understanding of the case. He covers case design, methods of study and ways to learn from cases.

The purpose of case study is not to represent the world, but to represent the case. Stake holds in high regard the challenge of simply presenting the case well, saying that in the first instance the researcher must understand the case itself, rather than being diverted by grander visions of theory building. Thus, he describes a pure case study as a study of the particular, a bounded system.

9. Walsham, G. (1995), Interpretive case studies in IS research: nature and method, European Journal of Information Systems, Vol. 4, pp 74-81.
In this article, Walsham addresses philosophical and theoretical issues concerning the nature of interpretive case studies surrounding the use of computer-based Information Systems (IS) in organisations.

Current IS research trends in which the researcher uses case study as a vehicle to focus on the human interpretations and meanings are discussed. He contributes to the discussion on merits and demerits of interpretive versus positivist approaches to IS research. He points out that the IS researcher entering an organisation today is faced with complex and intertwined conceptual structures, layers of organisational staff involving managers, users and designers.

The IS researcher, therefore has to rely more on what Walsham describes as thick description in order to interpret the complex system as a whole and the interpretations of those individuals in the organisation. He concludes that interpretive case studies, if carried out well and written up carefully, can make a valuable contribution to both IS theory and practice. Human interpretations concerning computer-based information systems are of central importance to the practice of IS and thus to the IS researcher and provides a useful reference point for conducting and reporting IS research. p10.

Yin, R.K. 1981, Case Study Research, Design and Methods, Sage Publications, California

This is the bible for case study researchers by a well respected author who has written significant academic works on the practice of case studies and their value in testing theory. This is a how to book for case study. While the early parts of the book discuss case study as a research methodology and compares case study with other research methods, the major use of this book is for those who are going to undertake case studies. You will need your own copy! The main chapters focus on preparing for data collection, collecting evidence, analysing evidence and composing the report. Yin writes clearly and authoritatively.
One certainly needs to adopt a focused framework when talking about methods, but the reader should be aware that others have described methodology as more fluid, eg case study exists in the imagination of the researcher and the invention of the study. Nevertheless, one does need a how to book to put it all together.


Adelman, C., Jenkins, D. & Kemmis, S. (1982) Rethinking case study: notes from the second Cambridge conference, Case Study Methods, Case Study: An Overview, Deakin University Press, Australia, pp. 1-10.

Benbasat, I., Goldstein, D.K. and Mead, M. (1987) The case research strategy in studies of Information Systems MIS Quarterly Vol. 11 no.3, pp. 369-386.
Campbell, D. (1975) Degrees of freedom and the case study, Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 8, pp. 178-185.

Chetty, S. (1996) The case study method for research in small-and medium-sized firms. International Small Business Journal, Vol. 15 Issue 1, pp. 73-86.

Dingwall, R. (1997) Accounts, interviews and observations, Context and Method in Qualitative Research,

Dukes, W. (1965) N=1, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 64, pp. 74-79.


Dyer, W.G. Jr. and Wilkins, A.L. (1991) Better stories, not better constructs, to generate better theory: a rejoinder to Eisenhardt, Academy of Management Review (16:3), pp. 613-619.

Dukes, W. (1965) N=1, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 64, pp. 74-79.


Eisenhardt, K.M. (1989) Building theories from case study research, Academy of Management Review,
(14:4), pp. 532-550.

Eisenhardt, K.M. (1991) Better stories and better constructs: the case for rigor and comparative logic, Academy of Management Review, (16:3), pp. 620-627.

Gable, G. (1994) Integrating case study and survey research methods: an example in Information Systems, European Journal of Information Systems, Vol. 3 No. 2, pp. 112-126.

Kemmis, S. (1982) The imagination of the case and the invention of the study, Case Study Methods, Case Study: An Overview, Deakin University Press, Australia, pp. 89-113.

Klein, H.K. and Myers, M.D (1999) A set of principles for conducting and evaluating interpretive field studies in Information Systems, downloaded 25 June1999,

Margetson, D. 1982 Educational inquiry and action: towards a paradigm, Case Study Methods, Case Study: An Overview, Deakin University Press, Australia, pp. 115-134.

Miller G. & Dingwall R. (Eds.), Sage Publications, California, pp. 51-65.Parke, A. (1993) Messy research, methodological predispositions, and theory, Academy of Management Review, (18:2), pp. 227-257).

Shaw, K.E. (1982) Understanding the curriculum: the approach through case studies, Case Study Methods, Case Study: An Overview, Deakin University Press, Australia, pp. 55-71.

Stacey R.D. (1996) Strategic Management & Organisational Dynamics, 2nd Edition, Pitman Publishing, London

Stake, R.E. (1994) Case Studies, Handbook of Qualitative Research, Denzin N.K., Lincoln Y.S. (Eds.), Sage Publications, California, pp. 236-247.

Teagarden, M.B., Von Glinow, M.A., Bowen, D.E., Colette, A. et al (1995) Toward a theory of the best international human resources management project, Academy of Management Journal Vol. 38 No. 5, p. 1261ff.

Tellis, W. (1997) Introduction to case study, The Qualitative Report, Vol. 3 No. 2 downloaded 1 July 1999,

Tellis, W. (1997a) Application of a case study methodology The Qualitative Report, Vol. 3 No. 3 downloaded

Walsham, G. (1995) Interpretive case studies in IS research: nature and method, European Journal of Information Systems, Vol. 4, pp. 74-81.

Wright, P.M., Smart, D.L. and McMahan, G.C. (1995) Matches between human resources and strategy among NCAA basketball teams, Academy of Management Journal, Vol.38 Issue 4, p. 1052ff.

Yin, R.K. 1981, Case Study Research, Design and Methods, Sage Publications, California.

Yin, R. (1981a) The case study crisis: some answers, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 26, pp. 58-65.

Yin, R. (1994) Case Study Research, Design and Methods, (2nd ed.) Sage Publications, California.