On the misuse of case studies: a case study

Our organization is committed to equality, diversity and inclusiveness. For example, Dr Clara Madeup benefitted from our ‘return to work’ programme that permitted her to come back to work after an extended 2 years maternity break. Clara is now a tenure track associate professor leading in the field of biotechnology.

How many Claras and Johns showcase success stories across our industry? More often than ever, we need to submit case studies during assessment processes, so much so that it is not unlikely to receive negative feedback if we describe our actions and outcomes carefully but without illustrating case studies.

Which is the likelihood that an organization does not have good case studies to showcase? And how likely is it that an organization decided to illustrate a failure in a case study? How representative success stories are of an organization, particularly organizations that are based on high staff turnover and competition? In fact, a few handpicked case studies can conceal otherwise worrisome statistics available within a document right alongside nice case studies.

Of course, the exclusive use of positive case studies in our websites, the brochures we use to describe how great we are, or at least we want to be, is absolutely obvious and legitimate.

I have seen case studies related to negative events within my organization only in two cases. First, introductory courses for health&safety that often provides plenty of examples of incidents with few cases discussed in detail. They are very informative because in the utter boredom of a long H&S course they actually tell you the story of not what can go wrong but what did go wrong in a lab like yours, maybe next door. Second, I had volunteered for a course designed to inform how to help victims of rape and sexual harassment. Instead of dwelling on how good our organization is, we went deep in describing which problems we have to deal with, how problematic communication can be, and how both academic and justice systems can easily fail victims. Very different situations but the illustration of what CAN and what DOES go wrong was absolutely instructive and helped focus on what we should do to prevent incidents.

During management meetings, we usually discuss what we can improve. Obviously, we do not speak about positive things only, quite the contrary. However, we do this often through rather unevocative statistics and get excited when we see progress compared to the past, or we are better than other organizations in the same area. I wished, however, organizations would focus more on the investigation of negative case studies during management meetings, of course, anonymized and taking any necessary precautions or even with the consent of colleagues involved, so that we could understand more deeply the consequences of our failures and identify better strategies to eliminate or mitigate our shortcomings.

I think we should bring a bit of the scientific method we experimentalists are so accustomed to deal with. We often learn a lot from experiments that fail for no apparent reason, and we showcase our failures to colleagues to get help and to teach less experienced how to identify solutions.

I am not really sure about how often ‘negative’ case studies are used in academic management to inform executive decisions in the broader community. In my experience not enough, probably, because the ‘negative’ case studies we should analyze are often just simply buried, swiped under the carpet, a topic for more specialist discussions reserved for those that make issues disappear.

I hope organizations will adopt more the use of ‘negative’ case studies as a tool to improve and fully understand the suffering of those who find themself in challenging situations. And I hope we are asked to produce case studies to illustrate success stories and good practices less frequently during an assessment, reserving these to public brochures.

Author: Alessandro

Please visit my website to know more about me and my research http://www.quantitative-microscopy.org

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