Executive Education, Special Report

The State of Executive Education

In times of continuous change, can an array of executive education offerings develop the skills and leadership capabilities of tomorrow?

Dave Weinstein, associate dean of executive education at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has an MBA from Stanford, which he believes to be a solid foundation for a business education, especially for someone like him. He came from a liberal arts undergraduate program and his first job was in the public sector. He said the concepts of successful business that he learned as part of his MBA program were foundational to the rest of his career.

But Weinstein’s experience was several years ago, and since then the value of an MBA has come into question. “We’re in an interesting world now where opportunity costs to leave the workforce for a year or two are high,” he said.

Executive education options are ever-increasing. To develop leaders today, executives can choose to set up custom courses with an academic institution, give employees freedom for a more self-directed approach, implement a program for certificates, badges and microcredentials or, of course, send employees off to complete the more traditional part-time or full-time MBA program.

Robin Frkal, director of the MBA program at Assumption College in Massachusetts, said an MBA continues to be a valuable degree for anyone who wants to advance in the career of business. She said an MBA gives a breadth of knowledge, which allows people to adapt more quickly to rapidly changing conditions in the marketplace.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business offers traditional executive education programs for individuals and organizations and online certification programs. Stanford’s MBA program is a two-year full-time residential course of study. The Department of Business Studies at Assumption College offers both a part-time MBA program and a full-time accelerated MBA program. The courses for both programs are available on campus, online or through a blended format. Assumption also offers a specialized MBA in Healthcare Management and a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study in Business.

The Changing MBA

Along with everything else, the model of the MBA is changing. Frkal said it’s increasingly being offered in online formats and focusing on teaching students how to learn. “Much of what you learn in an MBA program can be outdated a few years after graduation, so it’s important to instill the capabilities and a passion for ongoing lifelong learning,” she said. “That’s going to make MBA graduates valuable to businesses.” She said Assumption College equips students to maintain their skills as the world of business continues to change. “It would take students a long time to experience all that they are exposed to in our MBA program,” she said.

Weinstein said the value of an MBA in producing quality leaders has a lot to do with the focus of the program, what skills it’s trying to work on and how aggressively it works on those skills. “In a lot of MBA programs, it’s more about knowledge and areas of business fundamentals,” he said. “In those kinds of programs, you’re not going to become a better leader as a result of doing it.”

At the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Weinstein said leadership is an important aspect of the curriculum. “There’s all sorts of activities that tie back to improving them as a leader — making them better, more genuine, more purposeful,” he said.

Weinstein said if someone is simply trying fill some holes in business fundamentals, there are a lot more cost-effective and time-effective ways to do so than getting an MBA. “The true value of an MBA is left on the table unless the program is focused on turning you into a truly capable leader,” he said, adding that outside of Stanford and Harvard, few schools are focusing on leadership as one of their primary deliverables to students.

In addition to focusing on leadership in the MBA program through experiential curriculums, Weinstein said in recent years at Stanford there has also been an important focus on understanding that business is a global phenomenon and leaders must understand how to operate in a global context.

As for the online trend, Weinstein said Stanford has not stepped into the e-MBA space. “We are really focused on the traditional MBA experience because of the value of the cohort and the social aspects of learning,” he said. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a role for technology. The school is aggressively moving toward the flipped classroom model. “We’re not alone in that,” he said. “There’s a broad realization that that’s a much better learning model than the traditional model.”

Pillars of Effective Executive Education

Weinstein said Stanford’s success in executive education is due to continued dedication to the three legs of effective education.

First is content; it has to be relevant, engaging and useful. Second is social; Weinstein said learning is best done in a community, as one learns more from fellow students than one will ever learn by themselves. And third is experiential; learning doesn’t happen in a way that can be validated, and a learner needs to be able to apply what they’ve been taught.

Weinstein said in the context of traditional executive education, which is typically a high-touch, face-to-face model, it’s relatively easy to achieve all three aspects. To achieve the experiential learning goal, the programs have increasingly been forcing students out of the classroom. Several programs at Stanford have what Weinstein calls “clean mornings and dirty afternoons,” where students are in the classroom in the morning and out doing things to apply what they learned later on in the day.

Though the core concepts may be easy to achieve with the traditional model, Weinstein said the challenge is how to extend out of that traditional environment and still achieve those goals. Stanford’s online LEAD program — Learn, Engage, Accelerate, Disrupt — was their first attempt to do that. In LEAD, it’s not self-paced courses but, rather, cohort-based engagement. Students sign up for a yearlong experience that encompasses eight courses, where they work intensively with other students.

Stanford also has a virtual campus — a digital rendition of the university where groups can meet and have social engagements and lectures. Weinstein said they looked at what drove their successful outcomes in the traditional environment and tried to figure out how to use technology to create those in a virtual environment. He said it’s a lot of experimentation that improves over time; the university is on its third virtual campus in three years with the program.

What’s Trending Now

Executive education programs are moving online. A lot of organizations are producing online self-paced content to extend their brand and reach, but Weinstein said the brand value ends up being more important than the educational value because participants often don’t get much out of it or they don’t finish.

Many companies are also trying to partner with schools to help create online education experiences and portfolios. Weinstein said bringing multiple schools together can allow organizations to pick the best of multiple brands within a content area. “For a lot of schools those are invaluable because if an average to below average strength brand combines with other brands it’s going to raise the strength and the visibility of it and therefore the opportunities.” For a recognized brand such as Stanford, that’s less important.

There’s also a trend slightly away from open enrollment programs toward custom programs. In an open enrollment program, a school assembles a cohort of individuals who are interested in a particular subject matter and the program is entirely designed by the institution to best represent that subject area. In a custom program, the university works with an organization and customizes the program for the needs and challenges of that organization.

“Much of schools’ revenue has been disproportionately moving toward custom [programs] because a lot of organizations are placing a higher premium today on relevance and they believe that relevance is better achieved in the context of a custom program,” Weinstein said. He said part of the trend is recognition that executive education schools are increasingly competing against consulting firms. “Traditional exec ed institutions have tried to skirt this line between being in the education business and the consulting business, and the more customized the program is, the closer to that line it is, the more it delivers on this promise of relevance.”

Frkal questions the focus of these partnerships. “If they are focusing on broad skills or softer skills, then that might be a good thing,” she said. “But if they are very narrow and are focusing on what specific job that this particular employer needs, that may give a lot of value to the firm but not as much to the students.” Frkal said the model of employment is different these days, and employees don’t stay with one firm for their entire career. “They need skills that are going to be transferable,” she said.

Weinstein said Stanford has not moved in that direction as much as their competitors. About one-third of their business is custom and two-thirds is open enrollment. He said part of the reason they’re able to do that is the strength of their faculty brand, as a school’s brand must have the strength to be able to assemble a powerful cohort.

Weinstein also pointed out the trend of driving curriculum activities to be experiential, especially in terms of making someone a better leader. Frkal agreed she’s seen increased attention in experiential learning, specifically in full-time MBA programs. “A lot of programs are trying to get their graduates outside of the classroom, wrapping the experience with classroom knowledge and then also coaching and professional development,” she said.

At Assumption College, a large component of the full-time MBA program is a professional-level internship. Frkal said the key is incorporating the “learning to learn” cycle into the program. “Bring them back into the classroom and wrap educational experiences around the outside experiences so they can process that and actually learn from it,” she said. “The reflective piece is what is really needed for the external experiential activities to add value.”

Frkal said students are increasingly interested in part-time programs rather than full-time programs. “People don’t want to take the extra two years to get a full-time MBA degree,” she said, noting the economy as a main reason.

She also noted a trend toward certificates, badges and microcredentials. “What we learn in a business program can be outdated within a few years,” she said. “Those badges or certificate models are helpful for business leaders to return to developing a skill set or update their technical knowledge.”

But Frkal said that doesn’t mean it can replace a traditional MBA that provides essential business knowledge that she can’t envision a microcredential program providing. “Not to mention that technical knowledge is only part of what an MBA is about,” she said. “There needs to be development for interpersonal skills [too].”

The Future of Executive Education

Grayson Lafrenz doesn’t have an MBA and has started six companies since graduating college. At his latest company, Power Digital Marketing, he’s not taking the traditional approach to executive education. His company is offering its employees a 14-week free course with a “comprehensive MBA curriculum” led by company executives and guest speakers. The program has core modules ranging from business law to accounting, operations, leadership, sales and marketing.

“We hit all the core tiers we saw that were featured in legitimate college MBA programs,” he said. They then surveyed employees about what they wanted to learn in each area and identified speakers for each. A Power Digital expert leads a 101 class and an outside expert leads the 102 class. “It gives them context for how we look at it, but also they get the expert who has really deep experience, credibility and thought leadership to share with the team,” Lafrenz said.

He said a lot of students get their MBA when they don’t know what to do next, but that’s a bad investment. “I don’t think they have the context as to how they are going to apply this $100,000 degree to be that much more successful or that much better at their job or make that much more money.”

He said there are certain industries where an MBA is beneficial, such as investment banking, but for most general business people or entrepreneurs, his company’s type of program is valuable. “It’s all tied back to what they do already, so they can apply the stuff as soon as they leave the classroom.” He added that he’s seen little to no difference in his employees who have MBAs versus those who don’t.

Lafrenz said the future is an entrepreneurial approach to developing leaders and training people. “The days of these huge corporations having these incredible formal training programs are on their way out,” he said. “When the market got tougher, I saw a lot of companies cut those programs.” He said the responsibility now falls on executives and entrepreneurs to come up with ways to facilitate programs within their companies with less money and resources.

But Weinstein said the world needs places like Stanford to reach further and create programs that can deliver experiential learning at scale, with elements of social learning. He said the key is taking the school’s value propositions for small groups and extending those values to reach 50,000 students at a time. Weinstein said the challenge that excites him most about the next five years in executive education is spreading the value of the faculty and their ideas much more broadly than it is today.

“It won’t be sitting behind my computer watching videos and trying to learn something from them or listening to real-time webinars,” he said. “It’ll be taking in information, being forced to get out of my seat and apply that information, giving feedback about what happened when I applied that information, and then engaging in a debrief based on a broader sense of experiences about what likely occurred and what you could learn from it.”

He said it will require different engagement models and different platforms than we have today to be as impactful as the past few decades of traditional executive education. “It will be an entirely different animal than anything anyone is doing online today.”

Ave Rio is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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