'Teaching Business As Business'. the Role of Harvard’s Case Method in the Construction of the Modern Manager

'Teaching Business As Business'. the Role of Harvard’s Case Method in the Construction of the Modern Manager

Presentation held at the XIX World Congress of Sociology, Toronto July 2018

Session: What Is New in Professional Work? Rebuilding Professions-Organisations Ties.

Abstract: This paper explores the early days of business education with the aim of understanding how an uncoordinated and rather heterogeneous network of practitioners, practices and knowledge was institutionalized as an academic discipline and as a profession. Adopting a critical constructivist approach, this inquiry questions the managerialist ideology by exploring the material circumstances which led to its establishment in early XX Century. In particular, it focuses on the role that the Harvard Business School’s (HBS) pedagogy, the case method, had in the institutionalization of management knowledge. It is argued that HBS’ pedagogy, working at the boundary between academia and industry, was capable to translate the values of post-WWI industrial capitalism into the HBS’ curriculum. The consequences of this translation were two: 1) the neutralization of capitalist’s rationality, achieved through the constitution of a new academic field, business management; 2) the birth of a new class of experts, the managers, endowed with the exclusive control over the use of managerial rationality. Methodologically, the research relies on an historical analysis of the first twenty-two years of operation of the Harvard Business School. A qualitative content analysis of the School’s Annals reconstructs the diffusion of the case method between 1908 (HBS’ inaugural year) and 1930. The analysis is complemented with an historical inquiry into HBS’ organizational transformations which supported the production of business cases and their use as pedagogical artifacts. The results show a rapid diffusion of the case-method, especially in the aftermath of WWI. The institution of the Bureau of Business Research, the creation of the Harvard Business Review and the standardization of the pedagogy marked the birth of business education, consecrated HBS as the behemoth of this new discipline and legitimized the managers as a new class of experts.


Alberto Lusoli

July 16, 2018



    MANAGER Alberto Lusoli XIX ISA World Congress of Sociology, Toronto, July 16TH 2018
  2. A study on the institutionalization of business education as an

    academic field. I study the diffusion of the case method pedagogy in relation to historical events and institutional changes which took place at the Harvard Business School. I conclude arguing that this pedagogy had a critical impact on the definition of the modern managerial subjectivity and rationality.
  3. Content analysis of the School’s Registries from 1908 to 1930.

    Through a close reading of the School’s syllabi, I have mapped the diffusion of case method pedagogy over the first 22 years of operation of the school. The outcomes of this analysis are summarized in a timeline that you can find here:
  4. Case-method based course Traditional lecture style

  5. 1881 – Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania 1900

    – Amos Tuck School of Administration and Finance 1908 – Harvard Business School HBS was the first one to invest in the creation of a “business and management” body of scientific knowledge.
  6. HBS is founded as a department within the Faculty of

    Arts and Sciences. The five years 1908-1913 are known as the “experimental period” of HBS. Edwin Gay (right) is elected first Dean of Harvard Business School. He wanted to replicate the success of other professional Schools such as the Harvard Law and the Medical schools.
  7. “rough-and-tumble battle between men whose first concern was to look

    out for number one” (Copeland, 1958) “the only training for business was acquired at a tender age with a broom on an office or factory floor” (Gay, 1926)
  8. Most economic theories concerning the management of business, framed it

    within ideal representation of the economy (e.g. the model of perfect or imperfect competition), which were of little help for aspiring managers looking for actionable heuristics.
  9. HBS wanted to train students to solve “real problems” as

    they “come to the business executive”. Dean Gay (right), and his successor, Wallace Donham, decided to transplant the “case method” from the Law to the Business school.
  10. Originally developed in the 19th century, the case method substituted

    lectures with interactive seminars aimed at involving Harvard Law School students in the analysis of historical court cases. What was needed for the case method to be effective at teaching business, was a system for producing cases.
  11. As you can see on the timeline, because of the

    lack of cases, in the first 5 years of operation the use of the case method was limited. In 1908 and it was used only on those courses taught by Law professors or Edwin Gay himself: ▪ Commercial Law (1908) ▪ Economic Resources (1908) ▪ Insurance (1909) ▪ Industrial Organization (1910) ▪ Transportation (1911) ▪ Accounting (1911)
  12. Founded in 1911, the Bureau of Business Research (BBR) played

    a double role. ▪ served the industry through its research efforts. ▪ also supported the teaching of business by creating cases studies through on-field investigation.
  13. The BBR, became the flywheel for the diffusion of the

    case method. ▪ 1919: record enrollment in the aftermath of WWI ▪ 1920: publication of the first case-based textbooks ▪ 1925: entire curriculum based on case method teaching
  14. Paraphrasing Susan Star (1989), we can think of the HBS

    as a boundary organization connecting two different social contexts: industry and academia. The case method pedagogy translated industrial needs: ▪ efficient production processes ▪ skilled businessmen Into the needs of the HBS: ▪ Construct a body of business knowledge ▪ Provide business education at scale
  15. The translation of industrial problems into cases studies therefore entailed

    a transformation of the reality portrayed in the cases. The mediation of the case method produced real world business problems in which: ▪ The viewpoint of the business executive is privileged ▪ Students could inductively diagnose the problem and reach definite and actionable conclusions
  16. The case method allowed HBS to win the skepticism of

    academics and businesspeople and to prosper for more than a century. However, it also constructed a managerial rationality unable to question the basis of the capitalist system in which HBS was embedded and upon which it was dependent.
  17. All photos used in this presentation are either Creative Common

    or in the public domain. Photo Credits: #2, Baker library (Kim Seng) #6, Edwin Gay (Wikimedia Common) #7, Books (Patrick Tomasso) #8, Market (Jezael Melgoza) #9, Edwin Gay (Wikimedia) ALBERTO LUSOLI ALUSOLI@SFU.CA TWITTER.COM/ALBERTOLUSOLI Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)