The human-machine division of labor is changing rapidly. It will come as a surprise to nobody that the pandemic slowed the growth of automation and modified expectations of the amount of change to that ratio in the next few years. This article suggests that the case study method, one of many experiential approaches to learning, can facilitate the development of essential cognitive skills, particularly in a remote learning setting. 

Responding to disruption 

According to survey responses collected by the World Economic Forum (“The Future of Jobs Report 2020”), in 2020 respondents expected 47% of business tasks would be automated in the following five years.  However, today machines just manage to perform 34% of all business-related tasks. This represents only a 1% increase in the level of automation since the 2020 edition of the Future of Jobs Survey. The expectations in the Future of Jobs Report 2023 are that 42% of business tasks will be automated by 2027. In some organizations the percentage will be much greater than that, but overall the improvement is falling short of expectations. 

Supporting those lowered expectations will still require accommodation in the learning and development (L&D) plans of enterprise and government organizations. On top of that, automation will continue to grow and human performance skills required for employment—including thinking skills—will increase substantially as actual jobs change. This shift will very likely show up in gaps in skill sets that employers who responded to the Future of Jobs survey in 2023 said they expect employees to have. Some skills will turn out to be best turned over to machines by 2027, while other skills for which people are better suited will remain at their current levels or progress more slowly. In addition, we can expect to discover new skill requirements for humans. These new skills will include, for example, the ability to work effectively with artificial intelligence (AI) applications. The net result is the disruption of many jobs, including changes to methods of skilling, upskilling, and reskilling, along with the plans of L&D organizations to support skill development at scale. 

Fortunately, learning design professionals and academic institutions have innovated methods and modalities in recent years to meet this challenge.  It is important to consider how to apply these innovations to meet the skill gaps in the best time possible.

Case studies are not the only approach that instructional designers can apply to this kind of development. My intention in coming months is to explore other opportunities such as virtual reality, games, simulations, microlearning, and web-based interactive computing platforms among many others. 

Skill set evolution 2023 to 2027 

According to The Future of Jobs Report 2023, analytical thinking and creative thinking are the most important skills for workers, beginning in 2023 as organizations evolve over the next five years. Analytical thinking is considered a core skill by more companies than any other skill. Creative thinking ranks second.  

Cognitive skills, the category that includes analytical thinking and creative thinking, are growing in importance more quickly than other kinds of skills. The increasing importance of problem-solving ability drives this. According to the World Economic Forum 2023 survey, creative thinking is growing in importance a bit more rapidly than analytical thinking. Notwithstanding that difference, analytical thinking is expected to account for 10% of training initiatives across all the responses to the survey, making it the higher priority of the two skill sets from 2023 to 2027. Creative thinking accounts for 8% of upskilling activity in that period, making it the second workforce development priority.  How can changes to the default approaches to teaching and learning have a positive improvement on solving this challenge?

Learning by doing

Didactic teaching and experiential teaching are two different approaches to teaching and learning. Didactic teaching is familiar to many people due to its extensive use in primary and secondary education. It is also the default that organizational leaders and decision-makers may expect, accept, and sometimes insist upon for teaching and learning. Didactic teaching is primarily lecture-based and assumes that learning is the product of teachers imparting knowledge to students.

Experiential learning takes the approach that people learn best through hands-on experiences. Experiential learning encourages learners to take an active role in their own learning process. As a way to build cognitive skills, experiential learning works, and the didactic approach is far less effective, if it works at all. Adopting the experiential model requires moving away from didactic teaching, but we can expect resistance to the change from organizational leadership, legislative bodies, and from learners themselves.

Cognitive skills grow with experience and maturity, and they can be sharpened through appropriate adoption of improved teaching and learning methods, mental exercises, and feedback. There are experiential methods that provide situational simulations of sufficient fidelity to support learning a skill safely, to provide necessary competence, and to give the learners the opportunity to practice the necessary analysis and performance. One of those methods is the Harvard Case Study Method, more simply referred to as the case study method. 

Introduction to the case study method 

Most readers are probably familiar with the way that case study exercises are conducted in classroom settings. There are links to some resources at the end of this article for readers who need them.

The instructor’s job for this method begins with inviting participants to online sessions for case study exercise. The instructor is also responsible for providing the case materials to participants in their respective locations, making sure that all of the participants are able to connect to the events, and organizing the total group into subgroups to facilitate the sessions. The details of these duties will depend on the online meeting software selected for use. 

The case study method uses narratives or stories (cases) that put the learners in a role requiring them to make a decision. Each case requires learners to consume a case narrative and some supporting information to discuss the case with other learners in their subgroup, to identify and analyze the problem in the case, to develop recommendations to address the issues, and to discuss the recommendations with other learners in the larger group. There may be ambiguity in the information provided to the learners. The decisions will involve a certain amount of difficulty. These are not obstacles to learning: the objective is to improve the learners' approach to collaborative problem solving and development of consensus skills. The objective is not to create conformance to canonical dictates.

Unlike other teaching methods, instructors must not reveal their opinions about the case, its analysis, or the recommendation. The instructor’s job is to ask students to devise, describe, and defend solutions to the problems presented by the case. The case study and instructions may be written to meet the requirements of the instructional situation as to details such as organizing the group into small groups, and the amount of time permitted for discussion. 

The case method asks learners to work together as quickly as they can to make sense of a complex problem, to arrive at a reasonable solution, and to communicate that solution in an effective way.  

Case materials 

Case materials provide learners with the information needed by the students to support learning. Participants in the session will need a copy of the case information (“the case”). You can purchase the information in booklet form by choosing a relevant case from any of the publishers listed in the next section of this article. 

You can also create a case based on your own curated clippings from business publications. As required by your organization’s policies, have your legal department review the clippings and your created case study based on them.  

As the facilitator, you are required to provide each learner with the case materials.  

Published case materials 

A number of organizations publish case materials. These organizations include: 


Here are resources for further reading on case study methods and critical thinking. 

  • Ellet, W. (2007). The Case Study Handbook: How to Read, Discuss, and Write Persuasively About Cases. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press. Link 
  • Herreid, C. F., & Schiller, N. A. (2013). Case studies and the flipped classroom. Journal of College Science Teaching, 42(5), 62-66. Link
  • Nohria, Nitin. (2021) “What the case study method really teaches.” Harvard Business Review. December 21, 2021.  Link  
  • Rebeiz, Karim S. (2011) “An Insider Perspective on Implementing the Harvard Case Study Method in Business Teaching.” Retrieved September 4, 2032 at ED527670.pdf 

At the time of this writing, none of those resources was behind a paywall.