The term “case study” brings to mind a psychologist delving into a patient's history and treatment and writing up the details, but in fact, a case study is just as likely to involve a research report of an industry or the law. It identifies a problem or need, researches its causes, presents a variety of opinions and suggests certain actions. This involves a lot of information, which is why you might want to present it along with an executive summary – an additional document, something like a mini-report, that consolidates the most important information.
Understanding an Executive Summary
Think of an executive summary as a time-saving measure. It's not necessarily for you, but for the people who are going to receive and review your study. It captures the most important information, so your readers can understand your data and conclusions in a fraction of the time it would take them to read the entire study. For example, if you’re a financial executive building the business case for planned IT acquisitions, you would bring together your management team for their input with the focus on getting funds for specific IT projects. The case explains their personal motivations and needs and their desire to be involved in high-level strategic decisions. To be accurate and credible, it must be extremely detailed. Top-level management and chief officers have a lot of issues on their plates, so they might postpone reading your full report because it’s sure to be a time-consuming project. If you prepare an executive summary to go along with your report, it's more likely to get read.
Preparing the Data
You’ll want to include enough details of your research in your executive summary to make it powerful and compelling, but brevity is key. Your summary should answer most – if not all – important questions senior management might have, yet be comparatively brief. A good place to start is with a review of your study, making note of what jumps out at you as being most important data.
Organizing the Summary
Even if your case study is 300 pages, you’ll want to keep your executive summary to 10 pages or so. If your study is shorter, your summary should be as well. You might begin with an introduction, explaining why you prepared the case study even if it was because higher-level management requested it. Explain why the study was necessary. Describe how you conducted your research. Lay out your findings, then finish with your recommendations. With most executive summaries, quoting the corresponding report word for word is a bad idea, but when you’re summarizing a case or research study, it’s considered permissible to “cut and paste” portions of your recommendation section.
Writing the Document
Not every great analytical mind also has a gift with words. If writing isn’t your strong suit, you might want to consider brain-storming with your management team for their ideas or hiring a professional writer to draft the summary for you based on your notes. If you feel confident in your abilities, remember that your summary is your first and best chance of achieving your business goals. Use language that makes it clear you believe strongly in your business case. Remember that although you know your area of expertise inside and out, your audience, often higher-level management, may have only a general overview of your particular field of specialization.
- Carnegie Mellon: Case Studies
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Healthy Aging Research Network (HAN) Case Study Report (PDF)
- University of Southern California: Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper -- Executive Summary
- Cengage Learning: Case Studies -- Overview
- Business Case Analysis: The Information Technology (IT) Business Case: Keys to Accuracy and Credibility
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.