Case research—also called case study—is a method of intensively studying a phenomenon over time within its natural setting in one or a few sites. Multiple methods of data collection, such as interviews, observations, pre-recorded documents, and secondary data, may be employed and inferences about the phenomenon of interest tend to be rich, detailed, and contextualised. Case research can be employed in a positivist manner for the purpose of theory testing or in an interpretive manner for theory building. This method is more popular in business research than in other social science disciplines.
Case research has several unique strengths over competing research methods such as experiments and survey research. First, case research can be used for either theory building or theory testing, while positivist methods can be used for theory testing only. In interpretive case research, the constructs of interest need not be known in advance, but may emerge from the data as the research progresses. Second, the research questions can be modified during the research process if the original questions are found to be less relevant or salient. This is not possible in any positivist method after the data is collected. Third, case research can help derive richer, more contextualised, and more authentic interpretation of the phenomenon of interest than most other research methods by virtue of its ability to capture a rich array of contextual data. Fourth, the phenomenon of interest can be studied from the perspectives of multiple participants and using multiple levels of analysis (e.g., individual and organisational).
At the same time, case research also has some inherent weaknesses. Because it involves no experimental control, internal validity of inferences remain weak. Of course, this is a common problem for all research methods except experiments. However, as described later, the problem of controls may be addressed in case research using ‘natural controls’. Second, the quality of inferences derived from case research depends heavily on the integrative powers of the researcher. An experienced researcher may see concepts and patterns in case data that a novice researcher may miss. Hence, the findings are sometimes criticised as being subjective. Finally, because the inferences are heavily contextualised, it may be difficult to generalise inferences from case research to other contexts or other organisations.
It is important to recognise that case research is different from case descriptions such as Harvard case studies discussed in business classes. While case descriptions typically describe an organisational problem in rich detail with the goal of stimulating classroom discussion and critical thinking among students, or analysing how well an organisation handled a specific problem, case research is a formal research technique that involves a scientific method to derive explanations of organisational phenomena.
Case research is a difficult research method that requires advanced research skills on the part of the researcher, and is therefore often prone to error. Benbasat, Goldstein and Mead (1987) describe five problems frequently encountered in case research studies. First, many case research studies start without specific research questions, and therefore end up without having any specific answers or insightful inferences. Second, case sites are often chosen based on access and convenience, rather than based on the fit with the research questions, and are therefore cannot adequately address the research questions of interest. Third, researchers often do not validate or triangulate data collected using multiple means, which may lead to biased interpretation based on responses from biased interviewees. Fourth, many studies provide very little details on how data was collected (e.g., what interview questions were used, which documents were examined, the organisational positions of each interviewee, etc.) or analysed, which may raise doubts about the reliability of the inferences. Finally, despite its strength as a longitudinal research method, many case research studies do not follow through a phenomenon in a longitudinal manner, and hence present only a cross-sectional and limited view of organisational processes and phenomena that are temporal in nature.
Key decisions in case research
Several key decisions must be made by a researcher when considering a case research method. First, is this the right method for the research questions being studied? The case research method is particularly appropriate for exploratory studies, for discovering relevant constructs in areas where theory building is in the formative stages, for studies where the experiences of participants and context of actions are critical, and for studies aimed at understanding complex, temporal processes (why and how) rather than factors or causes (what). This method is well-suited for studying complex organisational processes that involve multiple participants and interacting sequences of events, such as organisational change and large-scale technology implementation projects.
Second, what is the appropriate unit of analysis for a case research study? Since case research can simultaneously examine multiple units of analyses, the researcher must decide whether she wishes to study a phenomenon at the individual, group, or organisational level or at multiple levels. For instance, a study of group decision-making or group work may combine individual-level constructs such as individual participation in group activities with group-level constructs, such as group cohesion and group leadership, to derive richer understanding than can be achieved from a single level of analysis.
Third, should the researcher employ a single-case or multiple-case design? The single-case design is more appropriate at the outset of theory generation, if the situation is unique or extreme, if it is revelatory (i.e., the situation was previously inaccessible for scientific investigation), or if it represents a critical or contrary case for testing a well-formulated theory. The multiple-case design is more appropriate for theory testing, for establishing generalisability of inferences, and for developing richer and more nuanced interpretations of a phenomenon. Yin (1984) recommends the use of multiple case sites with replication logic, viewing each case site as similar to one experimental study, and following rules of scientific rigor similar to that used in positivist research.
Fourth, what sites should be chosen for case research? Given the contextualised nature of inferences derived from case research, site selection is a particularly critical issue because selecting the wrong site may lead to the wrong inferences. If the goal of the research is to test theories or examine generalisability of inferences, then dissimilar case sites should be selected to increase variance in observations. For instance, if the goal of the research is to understand the process of technology implementation in firms, a mix of large, mid-sized, and small firms should be selected to examine whether the technology implementation process differs with firm size. Site selection should not be opportunistic or based on convenience, but rather based on the fit with research questions though a process called ‘theoretical sampling’.
Fifth, what techniques of data collection should be used in case research? Although interview (either open-ended/unstructured or focused/structured) is by far the most popular data collection technique for case research, interview data can be supplemented or corroborated with other techniques such as direct observation (e.g., attending executive meetings, briefings, and planning sessions), documentation (e.g., internal reports, presentations, and memoranda, as well as external accounts such as newspaper reports), archival records (e.g., organisational charts, financial records, etc.), and physical artefacts (e.g., devices, outputs, tools). Furthermore, the researcher should triangulate or validate observed data by comparing responses between interviewees.
Conducting case research
Most case research studies tend to be interpretive in nature. Interpretive case research is an inductive technique where evidence collected from one or more case sites is systematically analysed and synthesised to allow concepts and patterns to emerge for the purpose of building new theories or expanding existing ones. Eisenhardt (1989) proposed a ‘roadmap’ for building theories from case research—a slightly modified version of which is described below. For positivist case research, some of the following stages may need to be rearranged or modified, however sampling, data collection, and data analytic techniques should generally remain the same.
Define research questions. Like any other scientific research, case research must also start with defining research questions that are theoretically and practically interesting, and identifying some intuitive expectations about possible answers to those research questions or preliminary constructs to guide initial case design. In positivist case research, the preliminary constructs are based on theory, while no such theories or hypotheses should be considered ex ante in interpretive research. These research questions and constructs may be changed in interpretive case research later on, if needed, but not in positivist case research.
Select case sites. The researcher should use a process of ‘theoretical sampling’—not random sampling—to identify case sites. In this approach, case sites are chosen based on theoretical rather than statistical considerations—for instance, to replicate previous cases, to extend preliminary theories, or to fill theoretical categories or polar types. Care should be taken to ensure that the selected sites fit the nature of research questions, minimise extraneous variance or noise due to firm size, industry effects, and so forth, and maximise variance in the dependent variables of interest. For instance, if the goal of the research is to examine how some firms innovate better than others, the researcher should select firms of similar size within the same industry to reduce industry or size effects, and select some more innovative and some less innovative firms to increase variation in firm innovation. Instead of cold-calling or writing to a potential site, it is better to contact someone at executive level inside each firm who has the authority to approve the project, or someone who can identify a person of authority. During initial conversations, the researcher should describe the nature and purpose of the project, any potential benefits to the case site, how the collected data will be used, the people involved in data collection (other researchers, research assistants, etc.), desired interviewees, and the amount of time, effort, and expense required of the sponsoring organisation. The researcher must also assure confidentiality, privacy, and anonymity of both the firm and the individual respondents.
Create instruments and protocols. Since the primary mode of data collection in case research is interviews, an interview protocol should be designed to guide the interview process. This is essentially a list of questions to be asked. Questions may be open-ended (unstructured) or closed-ended (structured) or a combination of both. The interview protocol must be strictly followed, and the interviewer must not change the order of questions or skip any question during the interview process, although some deviations are allowed to probe further into a respondent’s comments if they are ambiguous or interesting. The interviewer must maintain a neutral tone, and not lead respondents in any specific direction—for example, by agreeing or disagreeing with any response. More detailed interviewing techniques are discussed in the chapter on surveys. In addition, additional sources of data—such as internal documents and memorandums, annual reports, financial statements, newspaper articles, and direct observations—should be sought to supplement and validate interview data.
Select respondents. Select interview respondents at different organisational levels, departments, and positions to obtain divergent perspectives on the phenomenon of interest. A random sampling of interviewees is most preferable, however a snowball sample is acceptable, as long as a diversity of perspectives is represented in the sample. Interviewees must be selected based on their personal involvement with the phenomenon under investigation and their ability and willingness to answer the researcher’s questions accurately and adequately, and not based on convenience or access.
Start data collection. It is usually a good idea to electronically record interviews for future reference. However, such recording must only be done with the interviewee’s consent. Even when interviews are being recorded, the interviewer should take notes to capture important comments or critical observations, behavioural responses (e.g., the respondent’s body language), and the researcher’s personal impressions about the respondent and his/her comments. After each interview is completed, the entire interview should be transcribed verbatim into a text document for analysis.
Conduct within-case data analysis. Data analysis may follow or overlap with data collection. Overlapping data collection and analysis has the advantage of adjusting the data collection process based on themes emerging from data analysis, or to further probe into these themes. Data analysis is done in two stages. In the first stage (within-case analysis), the researcher should examine emergent concepts separately at each case site and patterns between these concepts to generate an initial theory of the problem of interest. The researcher can use interview data subjectively to ‘make sense’ of the research problem in conjunction with using his/her personal observations or experience at the case site. Alternatively, a coding strategy such as Glaser and Strauss’ (1967) grounded theory approach, using techniques such as open coding, axial coding, and selective coding, may be used to derive a chain of evidence and inferences. These techniques are discussed in detail in a later chapter. Homegrown techniques, such as graphical representation of data (e.g., network diagram) or sequence analysis (for longitudinal data) may also be used. Note that there is no predefined way of analysing the various types of case data, and the data analytic techniques can be modified to fit the nature of the research project.
Conduct cross-case analysis. Multi-site case research requires cross-case analysis as the second stage of data analysis. In such analysis, the researcher should look for similar concepts and patterns between different case sites, ignoring contextual differences that may lead to idiosyncratic conclusions. Such patterns may be used for validating the initial theory, or for refining it—by adding or dropping concepts and relationships—to develop a more inclusive and generalisable theory. This analysis may take several forms. For instance, the researcher may select categories (e.g., firm size, industry, etc.) and look for within-group similarities and between-group differences (e.g., high versus low performers, innovators versus laggards). Alternatively, they can compare firms in a pairwise manner listing similarities and differences across pairs of firms.
Build and test hypotheses. Tenative hypotheses are constructed based on emergent concepts and themes that are generalisable across case sites. These hypotheses should be compared iteratively with observed evidence to see if they fit the observed data, and if not, the constructs or relationships should be refined. Also the researcher should compare the emergent constructs and hypotheses with those reported in the prior literature to make a case for their internal validity and generalisability. Conflicting findings must not be rejected, but rather reconciled using creative thinking to generate greater insight into the emergent theory. When further iterations between theory and data yield no new insights or changes in the existing theory, ‘theoretical saturation’ is reached and the theory building process is complete.
Write case research report. In writing the report, the researcher should describe very clearly the detailed process used for sampling, data collection, data analysis, and hypotheses development, so that readers can independently assess the reasonableness, strength, and consistency of the reported inferences. A high level of clarity in research methods is needed to ensure that the findings are not biased by the researcher’s preconceptions.
Interpretive case research exemplar
Perhaps the best way to learn about interpretive case research is to examine an illustrative example. One such example is Eisenhardt’s (1989) study of how executives make decisions in high-velocity environments (HVE). Readers are advised to read the original paper published in Academy of Management Journal before reading the synopsis in this chapter. In this study, Eisenhardt examined how executive teams in some HVE firms make fast decisions, while those in other firms cannot, and whether faster decisions improve or worsen firm performance in such environments. HVE was defined as one where demand, competition, and technology changes so rapidly and discontinuously that the information available is often inaccurate, unavailable or obsolete. The implicit assumptions were thatit is hard to make fast decisions with inadequate information in HVE, and fast decisions may not be efficient and may result in poor firm performance.
Reviewing the prior literature on executive decision-making, Eisenhardt found several patterns, although none of these patterns were specific to high-velocity environments. The literature suggested that in the interest of expediency, firms that make faster decisions obtain input from fewer sources, consider fewer alternatives, make limited analysis, restrict user participation in decision-making, centralise decision-making authority, and have limited internal conflicts. However, Eisenhardt contended that these views may not necessarily explain how decision makers make decisions in high-velocity environments, where decisions must be made quickly and with incomplete information, while maintaining high decision quality.
To examine this phenomenon, Eisenhardt conducted an inductive study of eight firms in the personal computing industry. The personal computing industry was undergoing dramatic changes in technology with the introduction of the UNIX operating system, RISC architecture, and 64KB random access memory in the 1980s, increased competition with the entry of IBM into the personal computing business, and growing customer demand with double-digit demand growth, and therefore fit the profile of the high-velocity environment. This was a multiple case design with replication logic, where each case was expected to confirm or disconfirm inferences from other cases. Case sites were selected based on their access and proximity to the researcher, however, all of these firms operated in the high-velocity personal computing industry in California’s Silicon Valley area. The collocation of firms in the same industry and the same area ruled out any ‘noise’ or variance in dependent variables (decision speed or performance) attributable to industry or geographic differences.
The study employed an embedded design with multiple levels of analysis: decision (comparing multiple strategic decisions within each firm), executive teams (comparing different teams responsible for strategic decisions), and the firm (overall firm performance). Data was collected from five sources:
Initial interviews with Chief Executive Officers. CEOs were asked questions about their firm’s competitive strategy, distinctive competencies, major competitors, performance, and recent/ongoing major strategic decisions. Based on these interviews, several strategic decisions were selected in each firm for further investigation. Four criteria were used to select decisions: the decisions must involve the firm’s strategic positioning, the decisions must have high stakes, the decisions must involve multiple functions, and the decisions must be representative of strategic decision-making process in that firm.
Interviews with divisional heads. Each divisional head was asked sixteen open-ended questions, ranging from their firm’s competitive strategy, functional strategy, top management team members, frequency and nature of interaction with team, typical decision-making processes, how each of the decisions were made, and how long it took them to make those decisions. Interviews lasted between one and a half and two hours, and sometimes extended to four hours. To focus on facts and actual events rather than respondents’ perceptions or interpretations, a ‘courtroom’ style questioning was employed, such as ‘When did this happen?’, ‘What did you do?’, etc. Interviews were conducted by two people, and the data was validated by cross-checking facts and impressions made by the interviewer and notetaker. All interview data was recorded, however notes were also taken during each interview, which ended with the interviewer’s overall impressions. Using a ‘24-hour rule’, detailed field notes were completed within 24 hours of the interview, so that some data or impressions were not lost to recall.
Questionnaires. Executive team members at each firm were asked tocomplete a survey questionnaire that captured quantitative data on the extent of conflict and power distribution in their firm.
Secondary data. Industry reports and internal documents such as demographics of the executive teams responsible for strategic decisions, financial performance of firms, and so forth, were examined.
Personal observation. Lastly, the researcher attended a one-day strategy session and a weekly executive meeting at two firms in her sample.
Data analysis involved a combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques. Quantitative data on conflict and power were analysed for patterns across firms/decisions. Qualitative interview data was combined into decision climate profiles, using profile traits (e.g., impatience) mentioned by more than one executive. For within-case analysis, decision stories were created for each strategic decision by combining executive accounts of the key decision events into a timeline. For cross-case analysis, pairs of firms were compared for similarities and differences, categorised along variables of interest such as decision speed and firm performance. Based on these analyses, tentative constructs and propositions were derived inductively from each decision story within firm categories. Each decision case was revisited to confirm the proposed relationships. The inferred propositions were compared with findings from the existing literature to examine differences, and to generate new insights from the case findings. Finally, the validated propositions were synthesised into an inductive theory of strategic decision-making by firms in high-velocity environments.
Inferences derived from this multiple case research contradicted several decision-making patterns expected from the existing literature. First, fast decision-makers in high-velocity environments used more information, and not less information as suggested by the previous literature. However, these decision-makers used more real-time information—an insight not available from prior research—which helped them identify and respond to problems, opportunities, and changing circumstances faster. Second, fast decision-makers examined more—not fewer—alternatives. However, they considered these multiple alternatives in a simultaneous manner, while slower decision-makers examined fewer alternatives in a sequential manner. Third, fast decision-makers did not centralise decision-making or restrict inputs from others as the literature suggested. Rather, these firms used a two-tiered decision process in which experienced counsellors were asked for inputs in the first stage, followed by a rapid comparison and decision selection in the second stage. Fourth, fast decision-makers did not have less conflict—as expected from the literature—but employed better conflict resolution techniques to reduce conflict and improve decision-making speed. Finally, fast decision-makers exhibited superior firm performance by virtue of their built-in cognitive, emotional, and political processes that led to rapid closure of major decisions.
Positivist case research exemplar
Case research can also be used in a positivist manner to test theories or hypotheses. Such studies are rare, but Markus (1983) provides an exemplary illustration in her study of technology implementation at the pseudonymous Golden Triangle Company (GTC). The goal of this study was to understand why a newly implemented financial information system (FIS)—intended to improve the productivity and performance of accountants at GTC—was supported by accountants at GTC’s corporate headquarters, but resisted by divisional accountants at GTC branches. Given the uniqueness of the phenomenon of interest, this was a single-case research study.
To explore the reasons behind user resistance of FIS, Markus posited three alternative explanations:
System-determined theory: The resistance was caused by factors related to an inadequate system, such as its technical deficiencies, poor ergonomic design, or lack of user friendliness.
People-determined theory: The resistance was caused by factors internal to users, such as the accountants’ cognitive styles or personality traits that were incompatible with using the system.
Interaction theory: The resistance was not caused not by factors intrinsic to the system or the people, but by the interaction between the two set of factors. Specifically, interaction theory suggested that the FIS engendered a redistribution of intra-organisational power, and accountants who lost organisational status, relevance, or power as a result of FIS implementation resisted the system while those gaining power favoured it.
In order to test the three theories, Markus predicted alternative outcomes expected from each theoretical explanation and analysed the extent to which those predictions matched with her observations at GTC. For instance, the system-determined theory suggested that since user resistance was caused by an inadequate system, fixing the technical problems of the system would eliminate resistance. The computer running the FIS system was subsequently upgraded with a more powerful operating system, online processing (from initial batch processing, which delayed immediate processing of accounting information), and a simplified software for new account creation by managers. One year after these changes were made, the resistant users were still resisting the system and felt that it should be replaced. Hence, the system-determined theory was rejected.
The people-determined theory predicted that replacing individual resistors or co-opting them with less resistant users would reduce their resistance toward the FIS. Subsequently, GTC started a job rotation and mobility policy, moving accountants in and out of the resistant divisions, but resistance not only persisted, but in some cases increased. In one instance, an accountant who was one of the system’s designers and advocates when he worked for corporate accounting started resisting the system after he was moved to the divisional controller’s office. Failure to realise the predictions of the people-determined theory led to the rejection of this theory.
Finally, the interaction theory predicted that neither changing the system nor the people (i.e., user education or job rotation policies) would reduce resistance until the power imbalance and redistribution from the pre-implementation phase was addressed. Before FIS implementation, divisional accountants at GTC felt that they owned all accounting data related to their divisional operations. They maintained this data in thick, manual ledger books, controlled others’ access to the data, and could reconcile unusual accounting events before releasing those reports. Corporate accountants relied heavily on divisional accountants for access to the divisional data for corporate reporting and consolidation. Because the FIS system automatically collected all data at the source and consolidated it into a single corporate database, it obviated the need for divisional accountants, loosened their control and autonomy over their division’s accounting data, and making their job somewhat irrelevant. Corporate accountants could now query the database and access divisional data directly without going through the divisional accountants, analyse and compare the performance of individual divisions, and report unusual patterns and activities to the executive committee, resulting in further erosion of the divisions’ power. Though Markus did not empirically test this theory, her observations about the redistribution of organisational power, coupled with the rejection of the two alternative theories, led to the justification of interaction theory.
Comparisons with traditional research
Positivist case research, aimed at hypotheses testing, is often criticised by natural science researchers as lacking in controlled observations, controlled deductions, replicability, and generalisability of findings—the traditional principles of positivist research. However, these criticisms can be overcome through appropriate case research designs. For instance, the problem of controlled observations refers to the difficulty of obtaining experimental or statistical control in case research. However, case researchers can compensate for such lack of controls by employing ’natural controls’. This natural control in Markus’ (1983) study was the corporate accountant who was one of the system advocates initially, but started resisting it once he moved to the controlling division. In this instance, the change in his behaviour may be attributed to his new divisional position. However, such natural controls cannot be anticipated in advance, and case researchers may overlook them unless they are proactively looking for such controls. Incidentally, natural controls are also used in natural science disciplines such as astronomy, geology, and human biology—for example, waiting for comets to pass close enough to the earth in order to make inferences about comets and their composition.
The problem of controlled deduction refers to the lack of adequate quantitative evidence to support inferences, given the mostly qualitative nature of case research data. Despite the lack of quantitative data for hypotheses testing (e.g., -tests), controlled deductions can still be obtained in case research by generating behavioural predictions based on theoretical considerations and testing those predictions over time. Markus employed this strategy in her study by generating three alternative theoretical hypotheses for user resistance, and rejecting two of those predictions when they did not match observed behaviour. In this case, the hypotheses were tested using logical propositions rather than mathematical tests, which are just as valid as statistical inferences since mathematics is a subset of logic.
Third, the problem of replicability refers to the difficulty of observing the same phenomenon considering the uniqueness and idiosyncrasy of a given case site. However, using Markus’ three theories as an illustration, a different researcher can test the same theories at a different case site, where three different predictions may emerge based on the idiosyncratic nature of the new case site, and the three resulting predictions may be tested accordingly. In other words, it is possible to replicate the inferences of case research, even if the case research site or context may not be replicable.
Fourth, case research tends to examine unique and non-replicable phenomena that may not be generalised to other settings. Generalisability in natural sciences is established through additional studies. Likewise, additional case studies conducted in different contexts with different predictions can establish generalisability of findings if such findings are observed to be consistent across studies.
Lastly, British philosopher Karl Popper described four requirements of scientific theories: theories should be falsifiable, they should be logically consistent, they should have adequate predictive ability, and they should provide better explanation than rival theories. In case research, the first three requirements can be improved by increasing the degrees of freedom of observed findings—for example, by increasing the number of case sites, the number of alternative predictions, and the number of levels of analysis examined. This was accomplished in Markus’ study by examining the behaviour of multiple groups (divisional accountants and corporate accountants) and providing multiple (three) rival explanations. Popper’s fourth condition was accomplished in this study when one hypothesis was found to match observed evidence better than the two rival hypotheses.
- Benbasat, I., Goldstein, D. K., & Mead, M. (1987). The case research strategy in studies of information systems. MIS Quarterly, 11(3), 369–386. ↵
- Yin, R. (1984). Case study research: Design and methods. London: Sage Publications. ↵
- Eisenhardt, K. M. (1989). Building theories from case research. Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 532–550 ↵
- Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. New York: Aldine Pub Co. ↵
- Eisenhardt, K. M. (1989). Making fast strategic decisions in high-velocity environments. Academy of Management Journal, 32(3), 543–576. ↵
- Markus, M. L. (1983). Power, politics and MIS implementations. Communications of the ACM, 26(6), 430–444. ↵