The Use of Data in “Live” Cases to Encourage Systems Thinking and Integrative Analysis: An Exercise Linking Human Resource Programs and Financial Outcomes in Real Organizations


  • Ariel Levi
  • Hugh M. Cannon
  • Daniel P. Friesen


Inviting students to work with “live” cases provides a powerful tool for linking academic learning with real-world experience. However, live cases rarely provide students with the data they need to apply many of the analytical tools they need to master as part of their academic curriculum. This paper addresses this problem in the specific context of a live-case exercise in which students are asked to use survey and financial data to create a budget for a change program related to employee motivation. Because each case is unique, the instructor requires a method for quickly establishing a realistic budget. Our proposed method assumes that every case will share two common characteristics: diminishing increases in performance in response to increasing levels of change effort; and diminishing increases in financial gain in response to increasing levels of performance. These phenomena can be represented in the form of two general response curves, or, as shown here, in data tables relating performance to financial outcomes. The paper shows how these can be used to link programs directed at “soft” phenomena (e.g., attitudes, values, motivation-related beliefs) to financial outcomes. We demonstrate this approach with an exercise requiring students to apply the expectancy theory of motivation in a realistic organizational setting, and use data tables to decide on the type and intensity of change efforts directed at employees’ cognitions. This exercise is aimed at getting students to relate motivation to financial outcomes, and, more generally, to develop the habit of “systems thinking”—integrating different functional areas of business (management, finance, operations) that are typically taught in separate courses and housed in different business school departments.