Small Wars Journal

Case Method Problem-Solving in an Uncertain Information Environment: The Novel Coronavirus Threat

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 11:55am

Case Method Problem-Solving in an Uncertain Information Environment: The Novel Coronavirus Threat

Thomas A. Drohan

The case method of teaching and learning is used in business schools and law schools because they engage participants in active thinking about complex problems. Since the publication of Teaching and the Case Method by Christensen, Hansen and Moore in 1987, case method teaching has grown in popularity. The approach lends itself to meaningful assessment for businesses and government agencies seeking to improve effectiveness. In an uncertain, information-rich dynamic environment, open-ended learning guided by key questions can produce competitive solutions.

Why Use the Case Method?

“Teaching cases” are scenarios, real or notional, that can engage participants in learning. Properly taught, the cases create student-centered learning. Lecturing is out, facilitating targeted discussion is in. Teachers often mix both methods, but a pure case method approach is more immersive. Creating interaction among students and on point is key. This dynamic is similar to crowd-sourcing solutions in a real-time chat room devoid of trolls and bots. The approach is an appropriate fit for dealing with challenges and opportunities in complex environments.

In our sample case below, we consider “threats” — severe forms of “challenges” — that we seek to convert into opportunities. We use basic concepts that fit any operating domain. This works because our context is the all-encompassing information environment. How so? Whether operations occur in land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, or the electromagnetic spectrum, we create constructs of information to understand the how and why of behavior. Information not only gives meaning to operations. Operations are created by, and consist of, information. US joint military doctrine refutes that physical fact.

In practice, the operational environment (OE) is a sub-set of the information environment (IE). Other Five-Eye partners (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK) tend to agree, but not US joint military doctrine.  We treat information as a type of function (III), related capability (I-3) type of operation, and type of power (15) across operational environments, while leaving “strategic” matters to policy. Despite a recent call for campaigning across a competition continuum and pervasive IE, we integrate capabilities rather than effects. This combined arms combat mindset wins types of battles (non-informational), but loses complex wars. To understand and solve more-than-military problems, we need broader-than-military concepts.

We have those concepts, and they are basic information that applies across domains. Consider this. Our understanding of any environment consists of “terrain” features, habitats, layers, hardware, software, frequencies, particles, waves, and quantum-sized units such as photons. Using such reductionist approaches, we understand what we do in terms of units of information — 1, or 0, or both. But we also think holistically in terms of systems. In a densely interconnected environment, the so-called tactical operator can in an instant produce strategically significant effects. This feature leads to a crucial point about the power of case method learning that uses basic concepts.

Cyberspace and the IE in particular share basic concepts or constructs, because they are human-made or machine-made. Why is this important?

We model threats in cyberspace the way we model biological systems. For instance, concepts used to understand how attack vectors get into into cells or into software have viral similarities. Likewise, finding flaws in genes (mutations) or flaws in software (vulnerabilities), are about locating code to discover causes of effects (disease, exploit).

Because of this similarity, the case method can be an effective way to solve complex problems in cyberspace and in the broader IE. We must cut across domains to understand problems and develop solutions. Case method teaching and learning does that.

Case Method Basics

In preparing to teach with, and perhaps even write, a case, the most important principle is:

Ask questions; Don’t feed answers.

Case method is not the same as a case study. As a method of learning, the case method relies on mentoring that facilitates targeted discussion among participants. The participants do the substantive thinking. Of course, the method works if the participants actually read the case. Therefore to maximize flexibility here, this article uses a short case that can be read in the classroom by busy people that won’t do homework.

Using this approach to the case method (a “live case”), the mentor encourages participants to access open source material during the discussion. The invitation might read, Bring Your Own Mobile Device. The mentor needs to build into the discussion, time for participants to collect information as they collaboratively develop solutions to the problem. Instead of instructing known answers, a mentor facilitates the learning process by carefully selecting and asking questions. Guided by that same sheet of music, the mentor orchestrates improvised thinking.

Using The Art and Craft of Case Writing by William and Margaret Naumes as a guide, the first step is for the facilitator to determine the objective(s) of the case.  In our example, we want participants to learn (grasp and apply) how to analyze, “future-cast,” and integrate causes and effects, in order to solve a complex problem.

This approach to problem-solving is sequential and cumulative, so we can break it down:

  • First, participants discern linkages, patterns, trends, and anomalies, and anticipate emergent conditions
  • Second, they use those analyses to determine ways to influence desired change via incentives and capabilities
  • Third, they design activities that influence incentives and capabilities to create combinations of desired effects

The novel coronavirus case as outlined here is a “critical incident” (9) case. That is, it’s an open-ended problem intended to force decision-making that produces alternative courses of action.

The effectiveness of this problem-solving method relies on questions that challenge and elicit responses from participants. Depending on the experience and motivations of a particular audience, we might choose basic or intermediate learning questions that generate discussion or seek information.  Or, we might try advanced learning questions that analyze or evaluate assumptions, logic, and evidence. We make these choices based on the knowledge, skills and attitudes we want our participants to develop.

The following question typology is taken from the The ABCs of Case Teaching (48). The piece is written by talented colleagues with whom we shared the privilege of learning the case method from John Boehrer (see citation).


When you select or write a case, your choice should be informed by any key issues, theories or context you need to emphasize. A good question to ask is, what does it take to out-think and out-execute the competition?

We have selected the 2019 novel corona virus, an ongoing epidemic which as of this writing has no antivirus. It’s safer to write about historical events, of course, but that’s not our main purpose. This four-page case is urgently relevant, and filled with uncertain motives and contested facts. You can add or omit details, depending on how much time you require participants to prepare. Leaving the case as is would be an open-ended approach to solving a problem that somehow relates to your business or government agency context. Somehow?

The relevance of the session is not pre-programmed by lectures and slides. Instead, your actively engaged participants, facilitated by a mentor familiar with your organization’s learning requirements, shape the relevance. They create the somehow.

Teaching Case: The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (Updated February 2020)

In December 2019, four people showed up in a hospital in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, population 11 million.  Each patient had a fever, shortness of breath and other pneumonia-like symptoms. By February 10th (the writing of this case), the mystery virus had infected over 43,000 people of whom more than 1000 died.

Selected Events: December 2019 - February 2020

Health care professionals were aware of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003. The SARS coronavirus broke out near Guangdong, China, infecting 8000 people and killing 774. Thought to have originated in bats, the virus jumped to humans, becoming a global epidemic across 37 countries before contained through infection control practices. At the time, Communist Party officials delayed action, treating infectious diseases under the Implementing Regulations on State Secrets Law.

On December 30th, Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan Central Clinic, shared the diagnoses of new patients in an online medical school alumni chat room.

On December 31st, Chinese health officials detected a new strain of the coronavirus in a Wuhan food market. The Huanan Seafood Market sold wild and exotic animals less than a mile from the Hankou train station through which at 100,000 passengers flowed each day.

On January 1st, Chinese authorities closed the market. Local police interrogated Li Wenliang, accusing him of rumor-mongering. Li was forced to sign a statement denouncing his online alert as an unfounded rumor. Like many other health professionals in China, he returned to work to care for patients.

On January 8th, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory and level 1 travel notice (normal precautions) for a “cluster of pneumonia of unknown etiology.” This has been followed by at least weekly updates. The advisory mentioned that Chinese authorities had reported 59 cases and no deaths.

On January 9th, Chinese researchers identified a new strain of the coronavirus. The World Health Organization praised the Chinese government for its efforts: “Preliminary identification of a novel virus in a short period of time is a notable achievement and demonstrates China’s increased capacity to manage new outbreaks.” Two weeks passed with no new reports of infections.

On January 10th, Li Wenliang fell ill from the novel coronavirus.

By January 17th, the US Centers for Disease Control had established an Incident Management System, and reported the zoonotic origin of the novel coronavirus. China had reported 40 cases by then, with Thailand and Japan also reporting a few cases from citizens evacuating Wuhan.

On January 20th, Chinese officials reported 219 cases as the country headed into its annual Lunar New Year beginning January 25th. The holiday traditionally begins a 40-day Spring Festival that the Ministry of Transport estimated at 3 billion trips.

On January 21st, Chinese officials instituted a partial quarantine of Wuhan. The Vice Director of the National Health Commission reported nine deaths in China from the virus. Ten days into the festival, Wuhan media outlets reported more than 4 million trips through Wuhan via air, rail and roads, and 81 million trips via local public transportation. The first US case was reported in the US.

On January 23d, authorities “sealed the borders“ into and out of Wuhan. The mayor estimated 5 million people had already left.  A travel pattern analysis using data from China’s Baidu app roughly matched infection outbreaks in Hubei province, Chongqing, Beijing, and Shanghai. A subsequent ban on outbound trips shut down China’s 10 percent contribution to the global tourism industry. The US Department of State ordered the departure of all non-emergency US personnel and their family members from Wuhan.

On January 24th, after two reported deaths, Wuhan authorities began checking passengers’ temperatures and announced a patriotic health campaign to disinfect transportation hubs.

In contrast to how Beijing authorities initially handled the SARS outbreak, local Wuhan officials began posting updates every night. Beijing was non-proactive this time, too. The Beijing Health Commission announced it had sufficient antibiotics on hand and requested 89 public hospitals to provide outpatient treatment for fever in case of a flu outbreak during the holidays.

By January 27th, diversion and deception gained its own viral momentum as social media posts in China on Weibo emphasized false flu outbreaks in the US. Observers attributed the intent as distracting attention away from the novel coronavirus in China. Chinese officials’ claims about rapid responses, to include a fabricated hospital story, were exposed in media outlets such as Buzzfeed and National File.

From January 1st-28th, 41% of the 138 patients and health care workers diagnosed with the virus at the Zhongnan Hospital, University of Wuhan, became infected in the hospital. Patient-to-patient and patient to-care provider contact, as well as atypical symptoms, were offered to explain the initial rapid spread.

On January 29th, the US Department of State allowed for the voluntary departure of non-emergency personnel and family members of US government employees from China.

On January 30th, World Health Organization Director Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern based on advice from the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee. The US Department of State issued a level 4, Do Not Travel Advisory for China, and advised US citizens in China depart by commercial means.

On January 31st, the US Department of State ordered the departure of all family members under age 21 of US personnel in China.

Non-compliance with control measures had become a contested topic. Director of the Beijing Judicial Bureau Li Fuying announced harsh terms of imprisonment, and the death sentence in severe cases. A social media post by a judge on China’s Supreme People’s Court blamed local Wuhan authorities for their early shut-down of rumors about the virus. Local police countered that people were complaining about others spreading rumors that the mystery virus was SARS.

By February, Beijing authorities claimed to have locked down 50 million Chinese in order to contain outbreaks. The impact on global supply chains from the closing of manufacturing and services reverberated beyond China. Intermediate goods—17 percent of China’s exports—were affected. Results included a reduction in sales, income and growth for firms dependent on Chinese supplies.

On February 3d, The Africa Centers for Disease Control established a Novel Coronavirus Task Force. Given the region’s infrastructural and security challenges, the Task Force is to share information and best practices, build technical capacity, enhance policy decision making, and coordinate detection and control.

On February 6th, Li Wenliang died at the age of 34. Millions of Chinese temporarily evaded government censorship by posting the hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech in short-lived digital rebellion. In London, China's ambassador to the U.K. said his country was “fully confident in beating the virus,” and urged other nations not to overreact:

“It is of hope that governments of all countries, including the U.K., should understand and support China's efforts, avoid overreaction, avoid creating panic, and ensure normal co-operation and exchanges between countries.”

On February 7th, China’s state-run media portrayed Li Wenliang as evidence of China’s quick response,  linking his actions to President Xi Jinping’s call to fight the epidemic: “Beating this devil virus is the best consolation to the deceased.” The same day, the State Supervisory Committee announced that it was sending an investigation team to Wuhan to investigate issues relating to Li Wenliang.

Several news accounts report companies and medical researchers rushing into action. To meet the demand, a number of firms retrofitted production lines to rapidly manufacture protective masks and suits. Researchers collaborated across global networks to develop an anti-virus.

Meanwhile the WHO Director, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised China’s efforts. As many questioned whether his remarks were truth or tactic, Ghebreyesus called for global partnership built on solidarity, collaboration and evidence-based understanding. He stressed a common need for epidemic and pandemic influenza action plans, open sharing of information, and prioritization of critical supplies.

Viral Consequences

Viruses need hosts to live and propagate. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses with variable characteristics. Genome analyses indicate that the novel coronavirus is a distinct type that manifests itself in bats, or perhaps the rare pangolin. The latter is problematic as an endangered species. Because the trafficking of pangolins is illegal, tracking the virus’ hosts is more difficult. The naming of the new virus is also an issue. The so-called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) of 2012 and 2014-2017, which may have started in camels and spread to humans, arguably stigmatized the region.

Zoonotic infectious diseases are on the rise. In the case of this novel coronavirus, a study published in The Lancet calculated its reproductive factor as 2.68. This factor means that the virus doubles its reach in 6.4 days.

The same study used models to “nowcast” localized outbreaks in major cities in China, and forecast international cities vulnerable to becoming epicenters of further outbreaks. The top ten at-risk cities based on historical outbound air travel patterns are: Bangkok; Hong Kong; Seoul; Singapore; Tokyo; Taipei; Kota Kinabalu; Phuket; Macau; and Ho Chi Minh City.

Countries that have suspended travel to and from China, wholly or in part, include: Australia; Canada; Czech Republic; Egypt; Finland; France; Germany; Hong Kong; Indonesia; India; Israel; Italy; Japan; Kenya; Mongolia; Morocco; Myanmar; New Zealand; Netherlands; North Korea; Oman; Pakistan; Philippines; Qatar; Russia; Rwanda; Singapore; South Korea; Taiwan; Tanzania; Turkey; UK; US; and Vietnam.

While such measures vary with respect to location and duration, practices include restricting travel to essential business, providing health-related items, discontinuing ongoing trips, limiting travel outside of home and office, and requiring remote work.

Confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus include Canada, Cambodia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, Macao, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, Russia,  Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, UK, US, and Vietnam.

Taiwan’s case is unique. Shut out of the World Health Organization by China, many in Taiwan suspect Beijing authorities of delaying and manipulating information during the health crisis. For their part, Beijing authorities suspect Taipei will use the crisis to bolster its independence from China. Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu pressed the WHO to treat Taiwan separately from mainland China. Countries that suspended flights to and from China have included Taiwan by default, even though there were only 13 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Taiwan. World Health Organization-provided information to and from Taiwan goes through authorities in mainland China, which has caused delays in evacuating Taiwan residents from China, and has led to incorrect reporting.

In Hong Kong, the triple effect of US-China trade tensions, anti-government protests and the novel coronavirus is likely to deepen and extend a recession. Major banks have reduced their hours, public facilities have been closed, and schools have been closed. Retail sales have fallen by nearly 20 percent.

Cruise Lines International Association banned customers who travelled to China over the last two weeks. Several ongoing cruises languish offshore, as coronavirus-infected patients are evacuated to nearby ports.

China’s space industry reduced its rates of production while space-related social media put out government slogans and instructions, and express support in fighting the virus. Expace, a launch service, has temporarily halted work due to its proximity to Wuhan. Employees are being encouraged to work remotely.

As Chinese equities on the Shanghai Exchange fell 8 percent, China’s Foreign Ministry accused the US of spreading fear and not offering substantial assistance to China. China’s exports were estimated to have dropped nearly 5 percent in January from a year earlier, while imports fell 6 percent.

Japanese automobile manufacturers conveyed negative impacts of the coronavirus. Honda reported a quarterly drop in sales by 6 % and 31% decrease in quarterly profits. Toyota Motor Corporation announced an extension of its production and vehicle assembly stoppage in China by another week, through February 16th. Nissan Motor Co said earlier it was considering reopening most of its factories in China on Monday, but would wait until mid-February for facilities in and around Wuhan.

Other Japanese companies considering shifts in production toward Southeast Asia include Panasonic, Fujitsu, and Nintendo. As robotics and the internet of things technology compensate for labor shortages, small to medium-sized Japanese companies in China may also move back to Japan.

A live update on the “Wuhan Coronavirus” may be found at The current estimate of the virus’ attack rate is that each infected patient generates three to four new victims.

Case Discussion

First, a word on style. We want an atmosphere that is immersive, with thoughtful opinions firing off all over the place. In these best of circumstances, you become an artful facilitator of constructive chaos. Steering the discussion to answer your central questions, yet not shutting down innovative ideas, is a balancing act that takes practice.

The opening question should be clear, precise, simple and provocative. After asking your opening question...wait. Give the participants half a minute to respond. Leave them time to think. Get used to pauses.

Discussion Questions and Participant Tasks:

An Opening Question:

Who cares about the Novel Coronavirus?

Three Core Questions to Establish a Context.

1. Who are the major actors? Or, who cares in this case?

Depict them on a public board, actual or virtual, so all participants can see them.

2. What do the major actors want and what are their resources? Or, why do they care and what can they do about it?

Building on the preceding, depict these on the public board.

3. What are their strategies to get what they want? Or, how are they going to get what they want?

Keep building your picture of the IE. 

Now add Questions and Tasks, depending on your learning objectives.

In our case, we’re teaching participants to learn Advanced Analysis and Future-casting in the Information Environment. The gist of this approach to advanced analysis is to characterize the complexity of the IE that is relevant to our goals. The gist of our future-casting model consists of Effects, Targets, and Tools. Here is the rest of a “lesson plan of questions” to be answered and displayed by the participants:

4. Advanced Analysis I: what are the linkages among the major actors and competing ideas relevant to the case? Or, what relationships can help ___ get what they want?
Your answers to this question build upon the Core Three questions as you characterize major relationships in the IE.

5. Advanced Analysis II: What behavioral or thought patterns, trends and anomalies may be pertinent? Or, do you see any patterns here, or trends? What about anomalies?
Your answers provide context to the major relationships in the IE.

6. Future-casting I: What are your organization’s goals for the future with respect to viral threats? Or, what conditions do you want to change in the future regarding viral threats? Express and depict these in terms of conditions they want changed.
Your condition-based goals define desired Effects in terms of what to cause and what to prevent.

7. Future-casting II: What are the types of incentives and capabilities your organization, and any feasible partners, want to influence in order to change your goal-related conditions? Or, can you use incentives or capabilities to change conditions?
Your incentives and capabilities comprise Targets for you to influence.

8. Future-casting III: What activities can your organization and partners generate to influence the preceding incentives and capabilities to achieve your goals? Or, what actions can you take to persuade or induce (or dissuade or secure) your goal-related conditions?

Your activities are the Tools that you use to set conditions.

9. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your strategy, compared to those of competitors? How can you improve your strategy through this comparison?
Compare your activities, how they influence incentives and capabilities, and your goals to those of other actors with respect to the Core Three questions above. Consider how competing strategies will interact in terms of actions, reactions and counter actions.

Final Note

As participants answer these questions, they delve into the 2019 Novel Coronavirus case in real time. As we facilitate a rolling discussion, we need to keep in mind what our questions are supposed to elicit. Not specifically, but in general terms. This way we can do our best to guide the discussion without micro-directing it.  Here is what we are generally facilitating in this case:

  • Actors, resources, strategies
  • A characterization of the environment in terms of relationships and contexts  
  • Desired Effects that are preventative and causative, and that clarify conditions to change
  • Targets of will and capability to bring about the above Effects
  • Activities to influence will and capability; Tools that act upon the Targets
  • Adjustments to strategies based on anticipated interactions

The setting should a discussion space of some sort (physical or virtual) with internet access and whatever time you give them. Participants may be broken into smaller groups of at least 2, then their results briefed to the class to create broader discussions of alternative answers. This case is expected to require 2 1/2 to 5 hours to complete. That’s one to two graduate-level seminars, or one-half to one full day, assuming each question/tasks takes 15 to 30 minutes.

Keep Calm ... Case On.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Tom Drohan, Director of JMark Services Inc.  International Center for Security and Leadership, is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general and professor emeritus of military and strategic studies, USAF Academy. His 38-year career as a pilot and permanent professor included operational campaigns and commands, undergraduate and graduate-level teaching, and educational leadership. His academic experience includes B.S. in national security studies (USAF Academy), M.A. in political science (University of Hawaii), Ph.D. in politics (Princeton University), Council on Foreign Relations fellowship in Japan, mentor at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, visiting scholar at the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, and dean of the United Arab Emirates National Defense College. He is the author of American-Japanese Security Agreements (McFarland & Co., 2007), A New Strategy for Complex Warfare (Cambria Press, 2016), and various publications on security and strategy.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 6:50am

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