The Downside of Case Studies
| Peter Klein |
As Herbert Simon once noted, while a case study is only a sample of one, a sample of one is infinitely more informative than a sample of none. This is surely true, but cases must be used with caution, particularly when more systematic evidence is available.
A couple months back I saw a Huffington Post piece claiming that, because Lincoln Electric retains workers even during recessions, and Lincoln Electric is a profitable company, firms should not fire workers when the demand for their products declines. QED. The author laments that business schools don’t teach the virtues of a “no-layoffs” policy more generally. As evidence that business schools are corrupt or incompetent, the author shows that management experts do not, in fact, believe that such a policy is desirable.
A more troubling reason is that many professors at Harvard and other MBA schools are deeply skeptical of offering workers such a bargain.
“It’s a terribly non-optimal and inefficient policy,” says George P. Baker, the co-chair of the HBS doctoral program. “Lincoln Electric is a special case. Unless there is some other reason for having it, as part of an incentive system, you would be wrong to recommend it.”
“I’m not unsympathetic to guaranteed employment and the long-term social strengths it builds,” says James Rebitzer, Chair of the Business Policy Department at Boston University’ School of Management, “But I think there are only a very few special circumstances where a commitment to no-layoffs actually improves operating efficiency.”
Harvard students such as Corey Crowell (MBA 2009), who read the [Lincoln Electric] case just days before we met, got the message: “I just worry that the sense of a guaranteed job would create complacency . . . look at the auto industry.”
There you have it. Despite a wealth of theory and evidence that guaranteed lifetime employment is generally harmful to firm performance, if one firm follows such a policy and prospers, then all firms should do so. That business schools don’t embrace the non sequitur is “troubling.” Okey dokey.