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Special Edition: Executive Education

Executive education providers are adapting to ensure tomorrow’s leaders have the skills they need to succeed in business.

Spurred by technology and shaped by market forces, executive education continues to evolve and change.

Take online education, for instance. Online learning has been around for a while, but the once quite traditional forum of executive education has now opened its doors wide to tech-enabled delivery. Chunks of online masters and large pieces of education programs can now be delivered in smaller units, enabling executive education providers to create products tailored to reach the business community.

Not all providers are taking advantage of online delivery vehicles to the same extent, however. Name recognition counts for a lot as far as perceived value and capability, according to Lee Maxey, CEO of MindMax, a marketing and recruitment services company for executive education at large universities, and columnist for Chief Learning Officer. He likened it to a have-and-have-not scenario. Schools with better brands like Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Business School are growing their executive education offerings significantly. Schools with lower cache brands are not doing as well unless it’s on a local scale.

“Businesses are looking for something they can count on,” he said. “The brand of the school has a big impact on that. Local brands have an easier time and greater success connecting with the local business community, but they can’t leverage that online scale that a bigger brand school can.”

Online learning delivery is also making executive education providers rethink their core competencies and what value and effect their offerings have for participants in the marketplace. Renu Kulkarni, associate dean for executive education at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said there’s a lot of experimentation going on but not at the expense of core learning.

“It’s making us experiment to really get to how can online or MOOCs or the various flavors create an even better experience. But we also have to be careful about the business model.”

Speaking of business models, clients are requesting more custom programs from their executive education providers than they have in the past. Part of this move seems to be a desire to connect better with high potentials or executives deemed especially worthy of additional learning investment. Another part is rooted in a need to map specific competencies to core functions or areas of the business earmarked as high-growth areas, for instance.

Thanks again to online technology, custom curriculum is easier to build than ever before. Executive education providers can more easily modify existing products to meet a client’s needs. Schools are building content to meet targeted objectives, and authoring tools are making it easier to use.

SCORM, or Sharable Content Object Reference Model, is now running on many schools’ learning management systems, which boosts client’s ability to access learning. “Things are in the cloud now,” Maxey said. “If you have access to an Internet browser, you can run content. It was much harder to do that when you had to put stuff behind a firewall. It was harder to make sure that things were compatible.”

Client needs are at the forefront of most of these changes, and executive education providers are focusing on developing relationships to fulfill those needs. Maxey said long relationships are common as clients tend to stick with providers who give them what they need.

“UCLA has been working with Toyota for almost a decade,” he said, and has provided everything from off-the-shelf to custom programs for their executives. “In terms of how they should partner with them, that varies,” he said.

The viability and tenure of that relationship centers on a provider’s ability to suss out clear objectives. Companies also have to be clear when it makes sense for them to use an open-enrollment program vs. a custom one, and whether they want online learning, in person or a hybrid of both. The clearer a company is about its needs and expectations, the likelier it is to get what it wants from an executive education provider.

Maxey said schools are trying to craft content for what they think the market wants but aren’t always sure. For their part, companies should do assessments to target specific needs. “A good CLO, someone who is strategic about their organization, could make better requests.”

Clarity of purpose is key, but so is collaboration. Kulkarni said the relationships that work best focus on collaboration from the onset, even before deciding between open enrollment or custom programming. A consultative approach identifies client needs, the impetus for creating an executive education program, changes they want to create in their senior executives, and outcomes desired.

“Of course, the sweet spot for schools like ourselves is when we can take those needs, understand those needs, marry them with our faculties’ interests, and complement them with a practitioner perspective,” Kulkarni said. “When we find that match, that’s when the partnership works very, very well.”

However programs ultimately develop, Kulkarni said the bar for in-person engagements is growing steadily higher. Online education and emerging delivery options are driving change.

Regardless of delivery, several content areas are in demand: strategic leadership, leading high-performance organizations, managing change, risk management, managing volatility and personal leadership. General management skills are also a common client request. “Executives who are very strong in a functional area now want to be able to think across silos, and go from a seasoned functional executive to general manager who can think holistically,” Kulkarni said.

Executive education is also uncovering new areas of focus like neuroscience. Though not many companies are focused on it, Kulkarni said, those who do are often  focused on innovation. Cognitive learning and neuroagility are now part of the executive education conversation.

“At the University of Chicago, we are a medical and a biosciences research [organization]. We’re able to tap into that, and explore how that might be an appropriate component of how we teach,” she said.

That is the ultimate result of the ongoing executive education evolution. Both providers and their client companies continue to change.

Stay tuned for more coverage on executive education from our March 2016 issue.

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