Role-plays versus case studies: Which is better?

During my career in sales, and during my stockbroker and MBA studies, I encountered both role-plays and case studies as tools for teaching and learning. Later, as a writer who occasionally writes training content, I have the opportunity to use both. I always prefer case studies. Here’s why:

Role-plays are good in theory and they are supposed to give the learners practical experience in a safe learning environment. For example, in both my sales and stockbroker training, the role-plays we had to do were always about elements in the selling process (like how to uncover needs, how to transition, how to close, etc.).

Case studies offer a scenario (theoretical or historical) that outlines the situation and presents a problem that the learner must solve. For example, in my stockbroker studies and my MBA studies, I read numerous case studies where I had to identify the best investment portfolio mix or perform financial analysis or uncover an organizational problem.

WHY CASE STUDIES ARE BETTER
The problem is, role-plays are usually conducted by like-minded people for a single purpose and to exercise a single skill or technique. For example, the role-plays I experienced were conducted between two salespeople (one acting as the customer, the other as the seller). In role-plays about overcoming objections, both parties were already convinced of the value of the product and the person playing the customer gave half-hearted objections that were easily countered with by-the-book responses from the seller. Role-plays, you might say, are too neat and tidy. Role-plays become a way to parrot the best practice rather than develop a skills.

Case studies, on the other hand, push the learner to learn. Case studies, especially those drawn from real life, are complex and messy and sometimes there is more than one possible answer… and sometimes there are problems that cannot be solved. Case studies push the learner to go deeper, to get creative, to bring all of their skills to bear on the situation to arrive at a solution. Case studies aren’t “safe” and there is a lot of room for error. But I like them because they require all skills to be used.

IN MY DEFENSE
[Some of you might point out that role-plays and case studies teach completely different skills: That role-plays maybe teach the mechanics of a solution while case studies might offer a more theoretical application. But I disagree. Most of the occasions that I’ve encountered role-plays and case studies (and I’ve encountered them both as a learner and as a writer) they were used in similar ways: To teach a particular methodology, whether that methodology was breaking the ice, overcoming objections, analyzing a business problem, or performing financial analysis. The occasions when a role play serves a different role is when it is meant to build a skill-set through repetition. In those cases I would use the term “practice” instead of role-play.]

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR BUSINESS OWNERS?
When you develop training for your employees, consider carefully the tools you’ll use to teach them. I don’t believe that role-plays are nearly as effective as case studies.

Identify the skills or methodology you want to teach and create case studies that require those skills or methodology to solve. Add other details — sometimes to act as red herrings and sometimes as a “foothold” for your learners to use to solve the situation. Encourage creative solutions but make sure that they are paying attention to the details of the case study.

Teaching your people in a way that requires them to use all of their skills to creatively solve a problem is the best way to create an effective workforce. Case studies help you do that.

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