Using Case Studies in Learning and Development Projects: A Lessons Learned Approach—Part 1

Monday, July 2, 2012

In this post, we will look at using a case study approach to support an engaging learning and development environment. The target audiences are subject matter experts, authors, curriculum developers and instructional designers who create learning and development programs for regulatory or compliance requirements, such as healthcare, banking and finance, telecommunications, utilities, food production, and cosmetics.

Figure 1: Basic Project Process



During the Planning phase of the training project, a case-study approach is worth considering if the method of knowledge transfer and understanding is learning rather than training. A case study can be ideal method when a holistic, in-depth investigation is required (Feagin, Orum, & Sjoberg, 1991).


A case study approach can be:

  • an input to lessons learned and an output from lessons learned
  • a way of encapsulating lessons learned that can be used summatively (ie, to address accountability or results) or formatively (ie, to support process improvement or change management)
  • a mode of learning lessons where people an event draw conclusions based upon the information presented—they will use their frame of reference, observations, or experience to apply the case study report to a relevant project
  • a specific instance of a lesson or series of related instances analyzed and learned to illustrate a principle
  • a synopsis of one or more actual events, based on facts, that intends to provide a summary of what happened (ie, a regulatory response to a compliance audit)
  • a form of research that may reference other sources of data or information to support findings or conclusions (ie, consumer reports indicates level of customer satisfaction)
  • a method of providing suggestions, cautions, or best practices as the result anticipated or unanticipated consequences (for example, interactions with vendors or suppliers)
  • a multiperspective analysis that may utilize a triangulated research strategy
  • a technique to uncover causation by using an exploratory approach
  • an advanced way of story-telling where people learn through metaphors
  • a form of scenario analysis that proposes “what if” conditions
  • an effective use of the critical incident technique to capture import events in time
  • a nonthreatening way to conduct an investigation and address corrective action and preventative action
  • much more

Using a case study may be advantageous for many reasons:

  • It leverages research. A case study can use findings that have been documented—Records may be available from quality assurance, quality control or operations.
  • Conclusions have been drawn. Critics have provided their review of the case—Critics should include members of senior management or functional department managers
  • Lessons learned can be extracted. What was done right, what was done wrong and what could have been done differently can be discerned—Hopefully, there is some reference to what has occurred over the project life cycle (ie, initiating, planning, executing, closing) with respect to items such as communications, cost, resources quality, risk, scope and time.

In part 2 of this post, I will discuss specific rationales, delivery methods for getting the most out of case studies, and tips on how to reference them.
For more information on Lessons Learned, see There are also additional references in the text : Thomas, W. (2011). The Basics of Project Evaluation and Lessons Learned. New York, NY: Productivity Press.

About the Author

Willis H. Thomas, PhD, PMP, CPT, earned a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI) and a Certified Performance Technologist (CPT) certification from the International Society of Performance Improvement (ISPI). He is the author of the PMI award-winning publication The Basics of Project Evaluation and Lessons Learned and The Basics of Achieving Professional Certification: Enhancing Your Credentials. He has been a featured presenter for International Project Management Day and has delivered courses to thousands of students around the globe. Thomas formerly served on the board of directors of the ATD Dallas Chapter.

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