How BAE Systems Uses Case-Based Learning to Build Agile Decision-Making Strength

BAE Systems Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of BAE Systems plc, is a top 10 defense contractor to the U.S. Department of Defense. The company delivers a full range of products and services that span electronic systems, maritime and land platforms, intelligence and support services, munitions, cyber-security, and other areas. BAE Systems’ work enables military and government customers to recognize, manage, and defeat threats. The U.S.-headquartered operations generated approximately $10 billion in 2016 sales, with 31,800 employees serving a diverse military and commercial customer base in the U.S. and internationally.

To remain a premier defense, aerospace, and security company in today’s highly complex national security market, BAE Systems needs an agile, strategic approach to leadership decision-making and the application of lessons learned to improve business performance as they address evolving shifts in government priorities and defense budgets, as well as cyclical changes in key portfolio areas.

This case study represents BAE System's submission for i4cp's Next Practice Awards. The winners will be announced in March and will share more detail on stage at the i4cp 2018 Conference: Next Practices Now  (March 26 - 29 in Scottsdale, Arizona).

Business challenge

BAE Systems faced momentous changes from 2013 to 2017:

  • A downturn in aerospace and defense sectors beginning in 2008 brought headwinds to their core business.
  • Defense spending sequestration caused volatility.
  • Execution needs changed as the organization pursued new areas to make up for downturns.
  • Appointment of a new U.S. CEO in Jan. 2014.

While BAE Systems has clear discipline for future planning and change management, it was (and is) the human capital  that required focus; they faced a talent development imperative to support the business by strengthening mid-level managers achieve greater agility and maturity in decision-making, especially amid complex, ambiguous situations in turbulent waters of change.

BAE Systems needed to build a learning culture for managers to continually learn from past successes and challenges—from real-world decisions that were made (or not made) and the implications/ramifications. The imperative was to transform “lessons learned” to “lessons applied” to inform and improve future decision-making.


Looking forward by looking back: Preparing managers for agile decision-making in complex situations through case-based learning development approach

In the defense contractor world, there are many moving parts and few clear answers. Organizations must rely on the agile judgment of their managers. But can judgment be taught? Can decision-making maturity be accelerated? Could BAE Systems create a “school of hard knocks” with immersive, situational learning to synthesize real-world decision-making in a compressed timeframe? Could decisions made in the past set the stage for improved decision-making in the future?

The Case-based Learning (CBL) initiative: A leadership development solution to transform business “lessons learned” to meaningful “lessons applied” was born from these challenges.  The initiative shifts BAE Systems from not just documenting business lessons and ramifications (a practice previously implemented within project teams) to  learning from them and applying lessons from the past to skill-up staff for decision-making in the future. This was accomplished via interactive case studies. 

Taught but not told: Experiential learning with case studies and management storytelling transform lessons learned to lessons applied

Ready-made answers are of little benefit in real-world managerial situations. Situational learning is necessary to fully appreciate the complexity and ambiguity of decisions made in BAE Systems’ business; they reframed their learning curriculum to this approach. Through participating in highly-engaging CBL programs, managers work in strategically selected small groups that tap cross-functional expertise to tackle real-world business issues via real BAE Systems’ case studies.

Participants aren’t taught in a classic sense; rather, the CBL process is immersive. Participants tackle case studies from the business as if they’re actually in the scenario, making decisions with real-time constraints and with an absence of all necessary data. Participants assess vulnerabilities and risks, ask critical questions, explore ramifications, debate outcomes, identify mitigation strategies and defend decisions. They engage in decision-making processes themselves, drawing on their own experiences. In this way, each exercise is directly relevant to participants and to the company.

Importantly, a business leader who was involved in the case leads each program, so participants gain an insider point-of-view with personal perspectives about context, customer relations, complexities, options, and actions taken.

How the need was identified/program created:

Learning professionals conducted interviews with 39 business leaders to identify the most pressing learning opportunities to support our business over a three-to-five-year horizon. 

From those conversations, core development focuses were identified in the areas of strategic decision-making, smarter risk management, and increased customer/competitor intelligence. Feedback emphasized the under-utilized opportunity to make better use of their rearview mirror. Organizations are, after all, their own best case study when it comes to business relevance regarding successes and failures. There was interest from BAE Systems’ CEO and leadership team in leveraging learning as a principle tool for driving future business success using past business lessons (good and bad) as teaching points for the future. They:

  • Began the process of converting selected BAE Systems experiences into methodically-written case studies and decision-point analyses, optimized for interactive learning.
  • Launched their first one-day pilot in August 2015.
  • Expanded the program. Today, they we offer half-day, one-day, or two-day programs.


  • Time: CBL was conceived at a time with profits down, business constricting, and managers stressed. There was a need to launch quickly to realize immediate benefit.
  • Skepticism: Some were reluctant to have past decisions revisited, or skeptical about sharing the immense information required to build effective case studies.
  • Expertise: Core to the success of CBL was the ability to develop meaningful case studies with characters and stories that engage and pique interest. They also needed to build muscle in this capacity and keep it in-house due to sensitivity and they needed to establish standards to achieve consistency in the brand of cases they were writing.
  • Distillation : The case study team had to not only distill down to specific decision-points for analysis, but also identify decisions not made to enable learning from those situations too.
  • Relevancy: Cases needed to be relevant across business sectors and managerial functions.


The big picture:

Today, the results and impact of the CBL program have seeped beyond the training room and has led to continuous process of re-examining decisions and seeking diversity of thought when evaluating opportunities. The program has been instrumental not only in fostering more mature, agile skills at the personnel level, but also in supporting the CEO and leadership team as they work to foster an ongoing business culture and rhythm of capturing, evaluating, and applying lessons. CBL results and impacts include:

  • Spill-over applications via collaboration: Multiple functions have reached out to the CBL team to leverage case-based learning in training areas such as program management, operations and business development. CBL-style cases are now being infused across dozens of training programs throughout the organization, for example, in the company’s popular “Capture Boot Camp.”
  • Expansion to senior management: Feedback from participants was so positive that the program was expanded in August 2016 to senior management levels. The CEO and/or COO lead these VP-CBLs, embodying corporate commitment from the top down to case-based learning and to applying lessons from the past to prepare for the future . 
  • Transformation to internal consultants: Having built the muscle to distill key lessons from cases, the CBL team is now called on by leaders to look at business situations and independently assess decisions that were made (or not made) to pinpoint strengths/improvement opportunities; success has transformed CBL into this new way to support the business.
  • Training the trainers: Most recently, the CBL team has been asked by leadership to train others across the organization in the art of writing case studies, so expertise can embed across the company. The first of these trainings launches in Q1 of 2018.

The numbers:

  • 40 core programs and five VP-CBLs have been run.
  • 500 mid-level managers; 90+ VPs have participated.
  • With the spill-over application of CBL cases into other functions, the total reach is much greater.


In the dynamic environment in which BAE Systems’ employees work, it’s not possible to predict what may happen; the CBL process is honing agile decision-making based on real-world past experience to improve and inform future opportunities. Importantly, the CBL approach of analyzing the business candidly and openly is fostering a culture of transparency and openness in fresh new ways.

When the team first started writing cases, many were concerned about how teams might be judged with the hindsight that case study analysis can bring—there was not an appreciation of case study as a launching point for learning. Today, three years after launch, case-based learning is infused in and appreciated by BAE Systems culture. CBL has helped transform how the workforce views their wins, losses, and decisions. Functions and teams across the company are now employing CBL techniques and expanding these techniques to other training areas to independently analyzing lessons learned on troubled programs.

As a result, there’s now an appreciation that it’s acceptable to recognize when the best decisions weren’t made or vulnerabilities fully understand. This process has helped forge a culture that recognizes that when lessons are learned from successes and failures, the organization is stronger. Through the questioning of decisions that case study analysis brings, BAE Systems is fostering a culture where it’s okay to question, to “raise a flag” early and often to ensure decision points are vetted. CBL illustrates to employees, managers, and executives that they are not afraid to look honestly at decisions and understand what can be learned from them.