01 Sep 2015

The Protagonist Goes Prime Time

How HBS is bringing the case method into the digital era
Re: Stefan Thomke
by April White


To create a multimedia case about IDEO’s creative process, a video crew from HBS’s Educational Technology Services followed a design team through each step of a project with Peru-based movie theater chain Cineplanet.
(Photos courtesy of Educational Technology Services)

Assistant Professor Ryan Buell sprints from the Skydeck, his gray jacket flapping, to add another student idea to the slowly growing list on the chalkboard. The Managing Health Care Delivery Executive Education class is brainstorming ways to improve the customer experience at Cineplanet, a Peruvian movie theater chain. The students’ enthusiasm is no match for Buell’s; at first, they respond tentatively and carefully to the exercise, the same one that a group from the design firm IDEO undertook in the case the students prepared for the class.

Then, the lights dim, and the camera fades-in on IDEO’s open Bay Area offices. For more than seven minutes, the class follows the IDEO designers through this concepting phase. The written case describes the process: “Designers used insights from the exploratory phase to generate hypotheses about solutions that would meet the latent needs of customers.” Onscreen, the young designers are gathered around a whiteboard creating, rearranging, and discarding brightly colored Post-it notes with black-marker scrawls—for example, “What else can you imagine eating or drinking here?” They exchange ideas casually as they build a story about the theater’s customers: a family, a group of friends, a couple. Their conversation is interspersed with videos of a Cineplanet theater in a Lima mall and interviews with Cineplanet employees.

“It looks a lot like the way we brainstorm around the dinner table,” observes one student when the lights come up. “It’s loose, it’s relaxed”—unlike the approaches taken by most of the students’ organizations.

That’s an insight into the creative process the class couldn’t have gleaned from the traditional white-paper case. “There’s so much information that comes from video,” says Buell. “Multimedia cases give you the opportunity to capture the richness of daily life.”

The first HBS multimedia case celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. A technological achievement in 1995, the “Pacific Dunlop China” case, which looks at the challenges of managing a Beijing sock factory, came packaged with a CD-ROM of short video clips. The case laid the foundation for a new type of storytelling within the confines of the tested HBS case method, but the fledgling online video technology dates it. Two decades after its debut, the state of the multimedia case at HBS is to that early endeavor what an HD flat-screen TV is to a black-and-white with rabbit ears.

The much-taught original “IDEO Product Develop-ment” case, written by Professor Stefan Thomke in 2000, has a multimedia component: It is supplemented in the classroom with a Nightline report on the company’s now-legendary process. But Buell’s new IDEO case—“IDEO: Human-Centered Service Design”—is a 20-page written case with prompts to explore the elegant accompanying online interface.

There, students are guided through 18 preparatory streaming videos, introducing the company, the team, and the client. Buell accesses a second online interface during class with images, slides, and an additional 3 videos, segueing seamlessly between Lima, the Bay Area, and Allston. “We travel with the protagonists, witnessing actual events alongside them,” says Buell of teaching multimedia cases. “Then, we reflect together on what we can learn from those shared experiences.”

In some ways the multimedia case-writing process mirrors the traditional case-writing process. Buell (MBA 2007, DBA 2012), a professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit, wanted to explore service design; an HBS classmate working at IDEO connected him with the company. Unlike traditional case writing where a scenario can often be re-created, however, a multimedia case is most compelling when a company is in the midst of a project or challenge—and while the ending is uncertain.

In the School’s Educational Technology Services group, a team of four works with the faculty to create approximately six multimedia cases a year, including the recent “Eataly: Reimagining the Grocery Store” and “BOLT: Seed Venture Capital Firm.” “The first question we ask, why should this case be a multimedia case?” says lead multimedia developer Dave Habeeb. “The best multimedia cases have something visual, something tangible that the students need to see, and they have emotional content.” In the case of IDEO, students see the interaction of the team and can feel the anxiety and exhilaration that comes with the creative process.

“Multimedia cases give you the opportunity to capture the richness of daily life.”
“Multimedia cases give you the opportunity to capture the richness of daily life.”

To create the new IDEO case, Buell, Habeeb, and senior multimedia producer Ruth Page first traveled to Lima in March 2014 to observe as the IDEO team got to know the client and conducted interviews in customers’ homes. The nimble two-person video crew had to travel light, so as not to intimidate the interviewees. “We want the technology to fade away for both the interviewee and the viewer,” says Page. A trip to the Bay Area in April captured the concepting phase, and a second trip to Peru in May, the prototyping phase. On this final trip, the video crew carried only a GoPro and a handheld video camera, so that their presence didn’t influence moviegoers as they interacted with the theater’s new amenities.

On a whiteboard in Habeeb’s editing room, the outline of the IDEO case, drawn after shooting but before editing, remains. Starting from the pedagogical goals, it sketches the narrative arc of any good movie—or any good HBS class—from problem through resolution. In all, the ETS team shot 35 hours of footage. The final case, which was first taught in October 2014 to 940 first-year MBA students, includes just under an hour of video. “Multimedia cases won’t wholly replace traditional cases,” says Buell, who edited the video side by side with Habeeb. “The ambiguity that can come from a written case is of benefit sometimes. But there are things you just can’t capture on paper.”


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