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The Elements of a Successful Case Study

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Adults tend to learn best by example, so tell a compelling tale.

There is no single formula for a successful case study, but there are common elements to tell a compelling story that that connects with readers in a way that prompts positive action.

The beauty of case studies is they are concrete, and provides newfound knowledge in a real-world context. Adults tend to learn differently from children, acquiring new skills because they want to in order to grow and expand their knowledge and capabilities. Case studies help facilitate that growth with “hands-on” application of knowledge.

Research shows that adults learn differently. Malcolm Knowles, the famed adult educator, based his theory of andragogy on four basic premises.

  1. Adults tend to learn best when they understand why they are learning something.
  2. Adults learn best through experience
  3. Adults tend to view learning as an opportunity for problem solving
  4. Adults learn best when the subject is relevant and can be immediately applied.

That’s why case studies are so powerful – they provide knowledge based on experience that solves a problem and can be immediately applied. Hence there are common elements that are required for any compelling and successful case study:

  1. The problem – What specific issue needs to be overcome? Typically you want to state the problem in terms that your intended audience will recognize, and with which they can empathize. Remember that a good case study requires good storytelling, so your problem should create a commonly understood conflict that needs resolution.
  2. The organization – Provide a profile of the case study subject, including background, how long they have been in operation, setbacks, and other details that give the subject company character. Remember, your case study subject is the protagonist in your case study drama.
  3. Process – How did the company come to identify their problem and what steps did they take to try to solve it? This is where you get a chance to highlight your strengths over the competition without actually calling them out. Explore the characteristics of potential solutions and why they were rejected.
  4. Discovery – How did your case study topic achieve that “a ha!” moment when they encountered your solution? What led to the epiphany that you could solve the problem? This is an important part of building the drama of the case study story and the journey your customer/protagonist had to go through.
  5. Solution – Here is where you have the opportunity to show why you shine. Present your solution to the problem as a logical extension of the discovery process. Explain what features deliver the benefits the customer was seeking, but be sure to keep the tone educational and informative, and not promotional.
  6. Implementation – What steps were required to implement the solution, including dependent elements and other factors? The objective is to promote credibility by honestly revealing how much time, support, and training might be required.
  7. Results – This is where you get to make your case. Be concrete and try to provide metrics that will be compelling to the reader, e.g. savings of time, money, improved efficiency, or some other factor that affects the bottom line.

The specific elements and returns will vary based on the example, the industry, and the metrics that will be meaningful to your case study subject. However, the storyline needs to have universal appeal so the reader can identify with the problem and the solution. A skilled storyteller can help you reveal the problem, benefits, and solutions in a way that will allow your case study to appeal in a way that it will support a call to action, which is the next topic in this blog series.

Written by Tom Woolf

February 7th, 2013 at 3:59 pm

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