Updated July 3rd, 2018—a week after the original post. See end of post for the update, featuring Rob Brinkerhoff’s response.

Rob Brinkerhoff’s “Success Case Method” needs a subtle name change. I think a more accurate name would be the “Brinkerhoff Case Method.”

I’m one of Rob’s biggest fans, having selected him in 2008 as the Neon Elephant Award Winner for his evaluation work.

Thirty five years ago, in 1983, Rob published an article where he introduced the “Success Case Method.” Here is a picture of the first page of that article:

In that article, the Success-Case Method was introduced as a way to find the value of training when it works. Rob wrote, “The success-case method does not purport to produce a balanced assessment of the total results of training. It does, however, attempt to answer the question: When training works, how well does it work?” (page 58, which is visible above).

The Success-Case Method didn’t stand still. It evolved and improved as Rob refined it based on his research and his work with clients. In his landmark book that details the methodology in 2006, Telling Training’s Story: Evaluation Made Simple, Credible, and Effective, Rob describes how to first survey learners and then sample some of them for interviews by selecting them based on their level of success in applying the training. “Once the sorting is complete, the next step is to select the interviewees from among the high and low success candidates, and perhaps from the middle categories.” (page 102).

To call this the success-case method seems more aligned with the original naming then the actual recommended practice. For that reason, I recommend that we simply call it the Brinkerhoff Case Method. This gives Rob the credit he deserves, and it more accurately reflects the rigor and balance of the method itself.

As soon as I posted the original post, I reached out to Rob Brinkerhoff to let him know. After some reflection, Rob wrote this and asked me to post it:

“Thank you for raising the issue of the currency of the name Success Case Method (SCM). It is kind of you to also think about identifying it more closely with my name. Your thoughts are not unlike others and on occasion even myself. 

It is true the SCM collects data from extreme portions of the respondent distribution including likely successes, non-successes, and ‘middling’ users of training. Digging into these different groups yields rich and useful information. 

Interestingly the original name I gave to the method some 40 years ago when I first started forging it was the “Pioneer” method since when we studied the impact of a new technology or innovation we felt we learned the most from the early adopters – those out ahead of the pack that tried out new things and blazed a trail for others to follow. I refined that name to a more familiar term but the concept and goal remained identical: accelerate the pace of change and learning by studying and documenting the work of those who are using it the most and the best. Their experience is where the gold is buried. 

Given that, I choose to stick with the “success” name. It expresses our overall intent: to nurture and learn from and drive more success. In a nutshell, this name expresses best not how we do it, but why we do it. 

Thanks again for your thoughtful reflections. We’re on the same page.“ 

Rob’s response is thoughtful, as usual. Yet my feelings on this remain steady. As I’ve written in my report on the new Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model (LTEM), our models should nudge appropriate actions. The same is true for the names we give things. Mining for success stories is good, but it has to be balanced. After all, if evaluation doesn’t look for the full truth—without putting a thumb on the scale—than we are not evaluating, we are doing something else.

I know Rob’s work. I know that he is not advocating for, nor does he engage in, unbalanced evaluations. I do fear that the name Success Case Method may give permission or unconsciously nudge lesser practitioners to find more success and less failure than is warranted by the facts.

Of course, the term “Success Case Method” has one brilliant advantage. Where people are hesitant to evaluate for fear of uncovering unpleasant results, the name “Success Case Method” may lessen the worry of moving forward and engaging in evaluation—and so it may actually enable the balanced evaluation that is necessary to uncover the truth of learning’s level of success.

Whatever we call it, the Success Case Method or the Brinkerhoff Case Method—and this is the most important point—it is one of the best learning-evaluation innovations in the past half century.

I also agree that since Rob is the creator, his voice should have the most influence in terms of what to call his invention.

I will end with one of my all-time favorite quotations from the workplace learning field, from Tim Mooney and Robert Brinkerhoff’s excellent book, Courageous Training:

“The goal of training evaluation is not to prove the value of training; the goal of evaluation is to improve the value of training.” (p. 94-95)

On this we should all agree!