In this article, we unpack experiential learning and Case Method as the central methodologies of effective professional development, featuring expertise from: Karen McMillan, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Ivey Business School; Kanina Blanchard, Assistant Professor of Management Communication and General Management; Rob Austin, Professor of Information Systems; and Bryan Benjamin, Executive Director of the Ivey Academy.
In Ivey’s work with leaders and organizations, the ultimate goal is impact – changing the way that people think and act to drive growth and leadership capacity for the future. Experiential learning empowers participants to practice new skills and behaviours, building practical experience that they feel confident to apply right away at work.
“People coming back for continuous learning are going beyond just seeking how to gain knowledge; they recognize that they’re developing their leadership presence and are seeking to be better leaders in their fields,” says Kanina Blanchard, an Assistant Professor of Management Communications and General Management at Ivey. “Active, experiential learning focuses on helping individuals not only know and do better but, over time, grow as humans. Being a leader is more than what you do; it’s who you are – and the Case Method is one to help people know and do better.”
The case method of learning
The Case Method was born after the Industrial Revolution when business schools were created to train new managers. At the time, there were no textbooks to educate people on these new roles, so executives were brought into university classes to discuss business problems - an approach borrowed from other practical professions, such as law and medicine.
Since then, case learning has grown to encompass a vast library of published cases from experts at universities worldwide. Case research, writing, and teaching are at the core of Ivey Business School’s approach to learning as one of the four true Case Method schools globally. Ivey Publishing is also the world's second-largest producer of business cases, with more than 300 classroom-tested case studies added to the collection each year.
The logic behind using the case method as a learning approach is simple: cases allow individuals to learn by doing — and get multiple opportunities to examine the best course of action for each case. Cases depict real business scenarios (and their associated challenges) that have taken place in real organizations; they combine data from the business scenarios with interviews featuring the leaders who were involved in the decision or scenario. This gives a deeply-researched look into the inner workings and outcomes of tough leadership decisions.
Individuals are strongly encouraged to read through and try to come to a solution for the case on their own, planning how they personally would approach the situation outlined. Ivey faculty are expert facilitators, directing class discussions around each case and, encouraging participants to ask questions, bounce ideas off each other and challenge one another’s way of thinking so they can consider the problem from a variety of perspectives – an incredibly impactful form of learning that is absent in traditional lecture structures.
"I really enjoyed the interactive aspects of the learning. It was very engaging and different from other courses I've attended, and being able to connect and learn from my peers was one of the most beneficial parts of this experience. Hearing different takes and viewpoints on issues and having them challenge my thoughts was valuable."
— Dallas Gabriel, Participant in the QuantumShift Senior Executive Program
“It's almost like you've lived through an experience when you go through a case – you get to leapfrog from an inexperienced manager to a more experienced manager, even though it wasn’t a real-life scenario,” says Karen MacMillan, an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour and an Ivey Teacher Scholar. “It's the closest we can get.”
Even if participants never face the exact same scenario in real life, the process of solving these problems in class gives them the confidence to know they can handle any challenges that may come their way in the future.
“There is so much research around how frequently people forget everything they heard in a lecture almost instantly once they leave the class, unless they’ve had to opportunity to apply it,” says Bryan Benjamin, Executive Director of the Ivey Academy. “With the Case Method, they’re immediately thinking about ways to apply their learning to their organization and they have to apply it as part of their course projects, so the learning doesn't evaporate — it actually gets put into practice and it deepens.”
The broader experiential learning umbrella
The experiential approach to teaching goes beyond using cases, however. It also includes role-playing scenarios with peers or trained actors, simulations, action learning projects, and other resources that allow participants to engage in difficult situations and have conversations that challenge their ways of thinking in a safe space. Beyond simply learning what the best practices might look like, participants can solidify their learning by practicing the theory and skills they learned in the classroom in real-time.
Additionally, learners can receive immediate feedback from their peers and faculty. Perhaps they could alter their delivery to be more direct while practicing a difficult discussion, or they might be trying a little too hard to micromanage their teammates during a simulation. This type of active reflection allows for much greater self-awareness of their behaviours when returning to work. Learners have the opportunity to try—and potentially fail—at trying out new skills without having to fear negative consequences, allowing them to return to work with the confidence created by practical experience.
"Experiential learning through role play with professional actors brings you out of your comfort zone and allows you to learn from others. It's beneficial to read the cases, understand them through discussions, and then put that knowledge into practice."
— Tamara Spehar, Participant in the Ivey Leadership Program 2022
The Academy designs programs with learning outcomes tightly tied to application back at work. Participants are encouraged to show up to the classroom with at least one specific work challenge they’ve been struggling with. Between in-class discussions, breakout discussions with peers, and individual reflection time, participants generate a plan for how they could tackle that challenge when back on the job.
“We often hear that participants are given increased scope of responsibility and promotions after leaving the program. Elements like the action learning project, for instance, not only get them to solve a real, relevant challenge within their company, but it can help expose them to key people within their organization, which leads to an increased profile and more leadership opportunities,” adds Benjamin.
"Live simulations combined with complex cases led to interesting discussions and allowed me to learn from watching other leaders work through problems. I look forward to implementing the ideas I've gained in performance management, building culture, and persuasiveness."
— Rob Pelletier, Participant in the Ivey Leadership Program 2022
Development programs also encourage participants to think about the type of leader they want to be, and what they want the business landscape of the future to look like.
“We have a business context today that has its problems and some of those problems are manifesting in a lack of equity, as well as environmental issues. We have an opportunity as a business school and as leaders and teachers to encourage people to include responsibility for society as whole in their thinking, not just for their own bottom line,” Blanchard says. “We want to show people that there are options, there are different ways of thinking and cases that allow us to see individuals who are trying to be different – or are not trying to be different – and consider the consequences of their choices.”
"Having case studies based on real Canadian organizations made the learning concepts more tangible and relatable. The diverse perspectives from learners in different industries brought more depth to the discussions."
— Kanchan Rakhra, Participant in Finance for Non-Financial Professionals 2022
Blanchard adds that thinking and exploring is also done within a large network of other industry leaders who want to innovate and create change as well.
“It allows participants to develop networks in different sectors, with individuals who may be like-minded but coming at it from different organizations and different perspectives,” she says. “They can then go back to their own organizations refreshed, reinvigorated, and I think that’s one of the powers of the Ivey Academy.”
Creating long-term behavioral change
For those new to Ivey, the case method can feel a bit challenging at first, because it requires active participation.
“We want participants who are going to take a risk and get engaged and give us their perspective,” MacMillan says. “My favorite classes are when it’s boisterous and participants are arguing with each other and sometimes even emotional about the topic and their ideas. I always learn something from the classroom discussion, and we all leave with new perspectives.”
Graduates will often tell her it’s the learnings from those discussions they remember the most, and though the learning format of the case method is intentionally designed to help.
“I once had a participant describe the case method’s effect as ‘pouring glue on people’s brains,’” says Rob Austin, Professor of Information Systems at Ivey Business School. “First students struggle to find a solution to a real problem that’s happened in a real company; then, in the classroom, we provide them with a framework that empowers them to come up with some really great solutions. The sense of struggle individuals experience when originally trying to tackle the problem helps the framework used to solve it really stick in their minds, and they’re able skillfully use it later again when facing challenges in their careers.”
That’s why the Academy recommends participants show up prepared to their courses – it’s crucial to getting the most from the learning experience.
“One of the biggest pieces of advice I would have is to do the pre-work. If you're being asked to review cases in advance, take the time. It's part of the experience, and you’ll get out of it what you put into it,” he says.
To MacMillan, it’s a lot like choosing how you want to jump into a swimming pool. “You can put your toes in, and you'll feel the water for sure. But jumping in and immersing yourself, you come out different,” she says. “With case teaching, we’re asking you to jump in with both feet.”
"I've taken leadership courses in the past, but the Ivey Academy’s hands-on approach with real-life cases and academic insights has been exceptionally helpful. I've been able to really look at my career, consider what I want to do going forward, and apply what I've learned."
— Lisa Bokwa, Participant in the Ivey Leadership Program 2022
This article was written by Romina Maurino. Romina is a freelance journalist and writer specializing in business and finance, with clients including: The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Montreal Gazette, The Canadian Press, OPSEU, National Public Relations, Edelman Canada, and Ivey Business School.