At HBS, research and case development are tightly intertwined. Cases provide the opportunity for faculty to develop ideas, gain insight into nascent research questions, and illustrate theory in practice. In addition, case writing provides a vehicle for faculty collaboration and helps faculty develop research ideas across disciplines and across institutions. In this dynamic case development process, faculty may be supported by a team of researchers and case writers based at HBS Research Centers around the globe.

Opened in Buenos Aires in 2000, and now including offices in São Paulo and Mexico City, the HBS Latin America Research Center (LARC) has enabled the School to expand the volume of in-depth research and course materials that focus on Latin American companies and has helped to strengthen the School’s relationships with companies and organizations in the region. Since its inception, the LARC has supported HBS faculty in developing HBS research cases and projects that concern management and economic issues in Latin America. Today, the team consists of five senior researchers and case writers. We recently caught up with Mariana Cal, Assistant Director of research at LARC, and Fernanda Miguel, Christopher P. Torto Executive Director of LARC, who discussed how the pandemic has changed their case development practices.

Shifting Gears to Keep Cases Moving

Before the pandemic, a large part of case research took place on-site at the company being featured in the case. A team including faculty and research staff traveled to the company and worked closely with company executives during a series of intensive interviews over a very short span of time.

With the pandemic that well-established process came to a screeching halt. Case research trips already scheduled suddenly had to be canceled. When it became clear the pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon, team members gradually began re-scheduling the canceled executive meetings via Zoom—and were pleasantly surprised by the advantages.

"Conducting in-person interviews on-site was exhilarating and very informative, but it was also mentally exhausting to do them all over such a short period," explained Cal. "But when we shifted to Zoom, we had time to think between interviews. We could request a second interview. For example, we could more easily go back to the CEO and ask follow-up questions after speaking with other executives. We did not have to worry that a key executive might be out of the office during our visit. We could schedule Zoom meetings at everyone’s convenience, which was much less intrusive for the company."

A Tighter, Stronger Team

Even before the pandemic, the LARC team had begun assigning two researchers to every project. The goal at first was peer review, as partners on a project could provide feedback and a fresh perspective on each other's work. That approach turned out to be a key advantage when the pandemic arrived. At any given time, one person on a team might have to be out of the office coping with personal challenges, but the other team member could keep the project moving forward. As the pandemic progressed, everyone throughout the LARC stepped up to help colleagues.

"The first year of the pandemic was a very stressful time for all of us," explained Cal. "In Argentina and Brazil, we had very long lockdowns and had to stay at home for eight months. At some point, everyone on the team either got pulled away, went through something difficult, or lost someone. People really helped each other. We grew much closer and became a stronger, more cohesive team."

Case Development Future: A Hybrid Approach?

Through the research team’s ability to pivot, they were able to collaborate with faculty to generate 16 new cases between March 2020 and September 2021—a significant accomplishment at a time when business was anything but usual.

While Zoom-based interviews offer many advantages, the LARC team agrees that nothing will ever fully replace an on-site meeting. Faculty especially value the opportunity to immerse themselves in a new culture and context, as they sometimes write cases about countries with which they are not deeply familiar.

"We all miss the on-site visits," admitted Cal. "In-person meetings give us a chance to see things that we can’t see in a Zoom meeting—for instance, how people in the company interact. We also might have the chance to observe a company’s manufacturing or agribusiness processes. This can help us gain insight into company culture and perceive things the executives might not think to mention."

On-site meetings also provide opportunities for less formal interaction—such as a breakfast—where faculty and executives may share ideas or discuss the company or industry dilemmas. Just as important, face-to-face connections have often helped to cement valuable relationships with case protagonists. "These executives have become our friends and are often happy to attend HBS admissions or alumni events. They want to help HBS," explained Cal.

That said, the team would prefer not to lose the advantages that have come with virtual interviews. "I don’t think we will ever go back to the exact process we used before,” said Cal. “Instead, we hope to use a hybrid method with some on-site interviews and some interviews via Zoom."

"Even if we start by visiting the company in person," added Miguel, "we want to be able to conduct follow-up interviews remotely. Zoom also enables us to work more efficiently within a team. For example, two members of a research team are usually not in the same office—one might be in Mexico and the other in Argentina. This new approach enables us all to work together more effectively."

Recent Latin American Cases

About the Author

Mariana Cal is the Assistant Director of research at the HBS Latin America Research Center.

About the Author

Fernanda Miguel is the Christopher P. Torto Executive Director at the HBS Latin America Research Center.