Case studies and Battlefield Studies

‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.’ (George Santayana)

As I go on the journey from infantry officer to civilian via a full-time MBA I’m constantly seeking to identify areas of crossover between the military and the private sector.  Currently trending for me is the use of historical examples to learn from, and my interest in this has been piqued recently for several reasons.

Firstly, we are using more and more case studies in our classes. Pre-reading for a lot of modules inevitably includes some theory and one or two examples of where the theory has been applied in the real world; recent ones have included Apple’s accounting methodology, Toyota’s production systems, Southwest Airlines’ culture, and more. These are of course amongst the most well-known cases for business students, but we are in a fortunate position and able to leverage personal contacts of lecturers to enable access to more exclusive – and arguably exciting – cases; these have recently included, inter alia, having the team from BAML that worked on the Ferrari IPO talk to us, and the Morgan Stanley section that worked on the Fox / Disney/ Comcast deal – 3 days after the notorious auction actually happened. In the world of M&A this is as close to the coalface as most students will get while studying.

Secondly, there has been some criticism of Harvard Business School’s use of the case study recently in business education press, with some people believing that it is too male / US-centric, too lacking in current examples, and would benefit from more focus on learning and testing robust theory (although there are counterarguments to all of these). Like most things there is likely an Aristotlean Golden Mean, and the case study is one club in a golf bag that can be used to teach.

Finally – and this is where the military analogy emerges – I am a big proponent of making use of historical military examples to learn from.I am a particular fan of the use of Battlefield Studies (unfortunately officially abbreviated to BS), where a unit of any size will go to an actual battlefield, look at the ground, examine the history, and discuss the event –particularly with a view to drawing out lessons that can be applied in the modern context.  It can be a week-long activity or a day out; it can involve 50+ people or half-a-dozen. It normally involves an officer framing the discussion around current doctrine and theory,supported by a professional historian that knows the event inside-out.  One of my final tasks before leaving the Army was to run a week-long BS examining the Allied penetrations into Germany in late 1944, as well as take a glimpse at the famous German counter-attack that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. We framed the BS in the context of a western coalition fighting a peer / near-peer combined arms adversary in terrain that quickly varied from rolling countryside to thick woods to complex cities; the links with NATO’s current focus were obvious.

So what are the parallels?

  • The importance of Principles. Ralph Wado Emerson sums it up well: “As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.” It is highly likely that whatever challenge one is facing, someone, somewhere, sometime, has seen something similar before.  We should take care not to compare apples with oranges, but principles are principles because they can be applied in some way in any environment. Their utility is particularly stark in the military; having a set of concepts that one can lean on when tired, hungry,scared, and cold is critical.
  • Beware the arrogance of presentism. Every generation believes that it is unique.It may have unique characteristics, but that does not mean that there is nothing to be gained from previous events. When people say that the “nature of conflict” has changed based on the past couple of decades of low-intensity counter-insurgency they are wrong; the current character is different, but the underlying principles of Clauswitzian fog, friction, fear et al. ring true throughout history. I detect that there might be similar principles within business; perhaps Porter’s 5 (or 6) Forces will turn out to be the answer…
  • Proximity bias. Like the aforementioned criticism of HBS, the British Army tends to look at BSs that involve elements of either of the world wars that were fought in Europe, because resource constraints – time, finance, logistical, corporate knowledge – make these far easier to organise. We must be mindful of not sticking to our lane, and look beyond the easy cases to broaden our knowledge and experience. I once did a course with an officer from the Nigerian Army who was taking a break from fighting Boko Harem; he had plenty of examples from which to draw lessons from.
  • More input leads to more output. Time spent preparing before the study inevitably pays dividend.  I have been on BSs as a passive passenger and an active organiser; the latter requires slightly more work but delivers far greater returns in terms of learning and enjoyment. I have quickly learnt that the same rings true in business case studies, and taking the time to fully read and absorb – and then conduct secondary/ tertiary analysis – is well worth the effort.
  • The voice of experience. I mentioned earlier the ability to attract speakers that have been involved in interesting, large-scale cases, and this is critical in genuinely bringing to life some of the activity that they have been involved in(subject to NDAs). Similarly, the experience of veterans of battles that we visit in BSs is invaluable – their primary source knowledge is invaluable, and they bring clarity, colour, and insight.

In sum, the case is a wonderful tool for study. The ability to take theory – whether it’s Blue Ocean theory or the Principles of Defence –and see it acted out in practice delivers far more learning than either method would individually. The power of combinations is a real thing, and the military / private parallels are clear.