Executive Education

A Moving Landscape

A higher education veteran talks about what’s changed, what hasn’t and what’s next in the executive education space.

As technology evolves and increasingly digital-savvy generations move up in the workplace, questions dominate the executive education space. How should executive education be changing to meet the needs of digital generations? What’s the value of a microcredential versus an MBA? Is the more traditional, face-to-face model being threatened by alternate offerings?

According to Daniel Szpiro, dean of the School of Professional Programs at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, while executive education is a moving landscape, the value of more traditional offerings hasn’t been compromised.

“Even if there’s opportunity for some hybridization, people still, when it comes to leadership skills, tend to gravitate toward a more traditional setting,” Szpiro said.

Daniel Szpiro, dean of the School of Professional Programs at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Szpiro’s career in executive education and continuing education spans more than two decades. Before joining Marist College in 2016, he was dean of the Jack Welch Management Institute, part of Strayer University. He also served as the associate dean of executive education at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Before coming to the United States, he was the director of the executive MBA programs at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. Here, he shares some of his insights.

Chief Learning Officer: How is executive education being changed by technology?

I would say that there has been some impact but not sweeping impact yet. The kind of grooming and the kind of investment that employers want to make in people who are in leadership roles already are usually focused a lot on soft skills and ones that both employers and managers gravitate toward more traditional settings to acquire.

If you go back in time, not that far — 10 or 15 years ago — the technology-facilitated training, where technology really started to make a large impact, was with relatively routine technical skills-based training. You look at organizations like Skillsoft, for example, that have a catalog even bigger today but that once upon a time had hundreds of courses that were relatively skills-based, self-paced things. So if you were a supervisor and you had a manager who needed Title IX training or sexual harassment training or training in Microsoft Excel — oh, Skillsoft has a course for that, it can be done online, somebody can do it on their own time because it’s self-paced. That was the foothold where technology-facilitated education from an employer and an employee point of view started. Not with soft skills or nuanced skills that required more discussion and interaction and would benefit from a group setting.

As technology has evolved, the scope of where it can be applied for various kinds of skills has certainly grown, and the instructional design, the pedagogy, has evolved to have more elaborate as well as synchronous and group-based learning and technology-facilitated settings. But it’s eroded a little bit of the executive education that was focused on technical areas still.

I’ll give you a concrete example. If you go back 10 years or more, one of the most popular courses offered by business schools in their open enrollment executive education portfolios was something that went under the title of Finance for Nonfinancial Managers. By definition, most managers are not financial managers. And yet, if you reach a certain level of seniority in the organization, a certain level of responsibility, you’re going to have to have some financial skills because you’ll have financial responsibilities. So, if you’re coming from marketing or HR or operations, people would often get sent on these courses that could be a weeklong residential course off at a business school somewhere. Well, ultimately those were “technical skills,” and because there’s a much bigger and more effective portfolio for those technical skills, through MOOCs or low-cost [alternatives], a lot of business schools have seen their enrollments in what was once upon a time a very popular program severely eroded.

On the other hand, probably the crown jewel of most business schools’ open enrollment —and in-company programs, for that matter — is still focused on leadership. That is something where individual managers as well as employers still tend to think of a more traditional classroom setting as being more effective.

So, in the executive education space, the continuing evolution of technology-facilitated education has had an impact, but it’s been focused in certain areas.

CLO: In what subject areas or professional functions are you seeing the highest demand for learning and training?

The range of topics for which employers and employees are seeking training hasn’t significantly changed. Certainly there’s been some new arrivals.

Not surprisingly, the topic of data analytics and business analytics is something that is still in many ways enjoying a spike in demand. The organization on the supply side for courses and even whole degree programs in that topic are relatively novel compared to the other topics traditionally offered in executive education. Because they’re new entrants in that space, there’s a spike in demand for that. Some equilibrium will be reached when it becomes a normal part of the executive education portfolio. I think analytics is something that’s going to be considered – if we move forward a generation from now — it’s going to be considered a foundational skill. You’re going to have to bring that analytical skill to everything.

At the same time, there’s other topics that peak in people’s interest and then they reach an equilibrium and people don’t talk about them the same way. For example, if you go back 15 years, there was a lot of discussion about corporate social responsibility. We don’t hear that, even that term doesn’t come up that often in conversations anymore. So that idea of CSR and courses on all of this were popular, and then their popularity declined and maybe reached an equilibrium again. Before corporate responsibility, maybe feeding into that was the whole discussion of ethics, when Enron and WorldCom were in the news. Then all kinds of courses and interest in training in ethics was very popular from employers and on the supply side, as well.

These days, innovation is a topic that’s very popular. And intrapreneurship. Once again, these are important skills, but I think there’s a certain focus on them, like ethics and corporate social responsibility that came before, that will be a flame that glows brightly for a while and then it’ll reach some sort of equilibrium.

So, there are these two trends: There’s some fundamental shifts in what the portfolio skills should be, and data analytics is probably one of those more fundamental shifts, and then there are these more timely things that pop up on the radar of people, generate some interest, and then something else replaces them five years later. It’s a moving landscape. But there’s a timeless component to it as well as a sort of contemporary interest component.

CLO: Are microcredentials and nanodegrees undercutting more traditional executive education? 

There is some discipline-specific variation. But at the moment, when I go to various conferences about executive education or continuing education, 80-plus percent of the discussion is about the supply side, about all the nanodgerees and microcredentials that are being offered. There’s very little concrete discussion these days on the demand side about whether employers care.

So, it’s easy to bring these to market, but at the end of the day, this is ultimately a more interesting question to put to employers. If you could ask an HR manager of a large organization, what weight do you put on a certification of completion for a course in Coursera? Does that give somebody an edge? Is that ever a credential that you would have in a job description, that to be a candidate, to be hired for a job, you have to have a certificate of completion from an online course provider? I don’t think we’re there yet.

In fact, one example of microcredentials, one version of it, is digital badging. In the last two years, I’ve probably been to half a dozen presentations and conferences about digital badging, and interestingly, one of the issues that people involved in this space are struggling with is how to improve claim rates. Many people take courses for which they could get digital badges and don’t bother claiming them because they think to themselves, well, who cares? So, until some employer starts saying, “To be a candidate for a job or to help with your career advancement, a microcredential helps or is required,” all we’re talking about is the supply side of it. Which is really not that interesting in the end.

So, to come back to the question, certainly a lot of universities and nonaccredited training suppliers are trying to enhance their portfolios by offering these nontraditional credentials. But there is no evidence that I’m aware of yet that they have any significant impact on career development. I’m not suggesting that they aren’t useful ways to acquire skills, but as far as a credential goes, I think the jury’s out.

CLO: Do you see microlearning courses to be a disruptor of executive education models?

I don’t see in the near- or even medium-term those things being disruptors. This isn’t really a defined category anyway — a microcredential is whatever you want to call a microcredential. Every executive education supplier is already issuing microcredentials. If you go to a one-week program at Harvard Business School on leadership, they’ll give you a certificate to hang on the wall. You’ve just got a microcredential. So, there’s nothing disruptive going on. All executive education always gave you something worth framing and hanging on the wall.

It’s really not a credential issue. It’s a format and accessibility and opportunity cost issue, if we’re talking about technology-facilitated training. I think what has changed over the years is a sense of opportunity cost when you’re thinking about the format of accessing training. One trend, for example, for a lot of business schools in executive education is if you go back not that far in the past, it was quite normal to have one-week programs at a business school, or two- or three-week programs. What has changed a lot are short programs — two days, three days. Because the opportunity cost of being away from the office, there’s a sense that it’s become greater. People don’t want to be away for that long. So that has changed the format of the delivery of what business schools are doing.

And yes, as we said at the beginning of the conversation, the technology-facilitated education that is really independent, self-paced learning has eroded some of the more technical executive education courses like the finance courses, but I wouldn’t frame it in that microcredentials specifically are changing executive education. In fact, I would turn that around 180 degrees and say executive education was in the microcredential business before people even used that phrase.

CLO: What does a classroom experience offer that a virtual experience cannot? What are the limitations of an online learning environment?

In reality, the majority of online learning environments are still asynchronous. Even though there’s all kinds of technological advents for synchronous sessions, they tend to be supplementary. The appeal of a technology-facilitated learning experience is really in its accessibility and its flexibility — that you can be anywhere and even at any time, if you move to something self-paced. When you’re talking about an asynchronous environment, there’s a certain structure to the discussions where you post something and somebody else reads it and somebody else posts it that can be very effective and can certainly create the learning outcomes that people want, but the tradeoff for all that accessibility is you remove a certain organic element to the learning.

When you’re sitting in a classroom and conversation is unfolding, that can go in various directions. Most discussions and orchestrated discussion questions in online learning are not as organic in where they might take you.

I think that the value proposition today as it’s implemented for technology-facilitated education, to really optimize that accessibility and lower the opportunity costs of access to learning, the tradeoff has been that the learning has been much more structured. That’s why you really haven’t seen technology-facilitated education eroding business schools’ leadership programs, because people want a more organic experience as they’re talking about some skill that’s harder to define. People just feel more comfortable talking about it in a face-to-face setting.

Ashley St. John is managing editor of Chief Learning Officer. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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