Researching Large Organizations: A Case Study Approach

The case study method is a valuable tool for learning about the buying process in large and complex organizations. It recognizes that such customers have many players with different agendas. In these markets, sellers must often reach out to multiple contact points with different messages, and even manage conflicts between departments in order to ensure a sale.

A case study is a qualitative research tool that provides depth and insight about an organizational buying process. More traditional qualitative research consists of focus groups or in-depth interviews, and tends to reach broadly across many organizations. In contrast, case studies gather more information on each organization in the study, with interviews and/or focus groups conducted with multiple stakeholders inside the same organization.

To illustrate, when Rockbridge studied the success factors behind large corporate meetings for a professional association, it conducted case studies to understand the dynamics between different levels inside organizations that hold meetings. At each study site, we conducted interviews with the meeting professional who planned the meetings, the meeting sponsor (typically, a senior executive who authorized the budget for the event), and attendees. By matching up the views within the same organization, it was possible to connect the perspectives and more fully understand what made meetings successful.

Case Study projects require careful planning, starting with the selection of a small set of organizations to be case studies (typically, 4 to 10). The sample may represent different perspectives for learning. For example, some case studies may be conducted with organizations that are highly successful or satisfied with a particular service, while others may be conducted with those that are unsuccessful; the contrast makes it easier to identify success factors in the report. Interviews or focus groups are arranged with multiple individuals in a case study organization – for example, an information technology study might include interviews with the management in a key functional area, end-users, IT, finance and the account executive. An interviewing team will typically gather all of the data in a single day. The team may also gather data to help understand complexity; for example, it may gather technical information or flowchart processes.

A case study analysis goes beyond traditional reporting for qualitative research by addressing the dynamics between roles in the buyer organization. In the form of a descriptive model, it explains where goals match or differ, the relative influence of different players in the decision process, and how consensus is achieved. Compared to other research methods, case study results are more relevant to companies that market high-end services to large corporations, institutions or government agencies.