Writer's Studio

Kathy Paulson-Gjerde

Department of Economics

If you can't communicate, all your thoughts, ideas, innovations, and creativity stay trapped in your mind.

What do economists write?

Each person within our discipline probably has a slightly different approach. My area is labor economics. The course I teach is personnel economics, which is really a combination of labor economics and human resource management. I teach a completely case-based course which means we focus on cases instead of a textbook, and write reports and memos based on these cases.

What's a case report?

A case report is a tool for analyzing a business problem. The idea is to apply what you know about economics to a real-life scenario using a basic problem-solving process. The report is broken up into specific sections: introduction, problem statement, analysis of alternatives, and then your recommendation (which is really like your conclusion section.)

What's the point?

The main purpose of a case report is that it helps build a bridge between theory and practice. In classes, we often focus on quantitative theory using a lot of equations and graphs. It often seems like just a bunch of numbers. And students ask, "How would I actually apply this in the real world?" A case report is a chance to see those theories in action.

What is the real-world application of that?

Most students are taking economics because they're business majors who have to take economics, and most of them are going to find themselves in managerial roles someday. When they're out there working, it is important for them to make informed choices - they will be dealing with real people, real money. So in a very broad sense, a case report is a way to practice making managerial choices that students will - five, ten years down the road - have to be making.

So managers will be writing case reports?

What they will do is write memos, which is essentially the executive summary, if you will, of a case report. But the thing is, when you're out there working, your boss is not going to read a 20- to 30-page report. He's not going to sit through 50 PowerPoint slides. What he's asking for is the recommendation - the conclusion. The bottom line is, to come up with a recommendation that holds water you have to go through that case analysis process. It's a thought process more than anything. It may not even be written. But that boss - if you give him the one-page memo - will expect you to be able to explain it and justify it very quickly. And the only way to do that is if you've come up with alternative ways of solving the problem. You have to think about the pros and cons of each alternative and then come up with a recommendation in order to become reasonably confident that you're coming up with a realistic and appropriate answer. That's a problem solving process, which is what a case report really is.

What if you follow the process and reach the wrong answer?

There's never a perfect solution.  Some solutions are better than others, but there's never a perfect solution. There is never an answer.

Some problems economists solve have a very specific solution: "The answer is seven. You should price such and such at seven dollars." But in real life, when you go out there in the business community, you wrestle with decisions all the time. There is no perfect guaranteed answer that is going to work for everybody. You have to accept that. You do the best you can with the information you have at hand, you think about it from multiple perspectives, you figure out what the objective is, and you come up with a solution that most closely achieves that particular objective.

Beauty in a case report is recognizing the enormity of problems, the fact that there are no easy answers, there is no perfect solution. That opens your mind. Right? That's my goal. It's all about the process.

What are the consequences of not mastering this process of good writing in economics?

If you don't have a good decision making process backing you up, you tend to make uninformed decisions that hurt not only yourself but other people. So it can affect your ability to get a job, your ability to keep a job, and your ability to excel at a job.

The other thing is communication. You can have a great problem solving process, but if you can't communicate that to anyone so they can understand it, you're back to square one. When you say, "writing in econ," okay, I don't really think of it as "writing in econ." I think of it as writing. Writing effectively is communication. And if you can't communicate, it doesn't matter how smart you are. All your thoughts, ideas, innovations, and creativity - stay trapped in your mind.