Executive education goes flex

Traditional education models don’t necessarily fit busy schedules

The world is changing rapidly — CDs have given way to single-song downloads and the days of cable TV are waning as competitive streaming options such as Netflix offer content in a new way.

Business education is also feeling the effects of an evolving world and adapting accordingly.

The driver of this change is high expectations from business leaders, who are seeing increased stress placed on their time and capabilities. While they still desire training, they are telling educators that some aspects of the traditional teaching model have to be adjusted to fit their busy schedules.

“Our executive education participants can’t get away from their workplaces like they used to,” says Salman Mufti, associate dean and executive director of Queen’s School of Business Executive Education in Kingston, Ont.

“Education providers need to offer more choice in terms of length of courses and make sure to deliver an experience that leaders feel is worth their time away from the office.”

More than three-quarters of executives have had formal leadership training and two-thirds have had more than one month of leadership training since assuming their first leadership position, according to a 2014 survey with 400 respondents by Environics Research Group. The majority of the costs of that education are covered by their employer.

“Leaders want to continue to be educated and, in fact, seek out opportunities for high-calibre courses,” says Mufti. “But the topics they are seeking to learn about have changed dramatically.”

Leadership, strategy, innovation and execution

Recent research conducted by Queen’s School of Business reveals that while the fundamentals are still important (such as marketing and sales), there are four areas executives are particularly interested in learning about: leadership, strategy, innovation and execution.

“This is a big change. By telling us that they want to learn more about execution, that shows that leaders are involved in implementing their strategies more than ever before,” says Mufti .

While in past decades, companies instinctively turned to consultants to provide corporate strategy, the onus has shifted as organizations have realized the importance of developing people with the capability to innovate, lead and deliver strategy, and investing in their own people instead of relying on outsiders, according to Peter Chadwick, CEO and co-founder of IEDP, an independent organization that is an information source for the executive education industry.

“Firms are realizing that if you develop your own people, the strategy can be better and can be more easily aligned with the execution,” he says.

The trend is toward developing attitudes and ethical values as opposed to technical knowledge, says Chadwick, and rather than imparting factual content, which can increasingly be delivered
online, it’s about helping executives understand complex systems and interpret them intelligently, through discussion and experiential learning.

“Some banks have realized that teaching leaders about derivatives isn’t as important as teaching them how to lead ethically,” he says.

Mufti’s research further confirms that a high-quality teaching faculty that offers depth and can facilitate discussions is important to students.

“The time at a business school is where you have conversations, where you meet and learn from other people — these are the things that embed the learning,” says Chadwick.

Canadian content important

Increasingly, course content that includes Canadian case studies is the key to attracting leaders.

“For our executive education participants, reviewing a case study about Loblaw’s acquisition of Shoppers Drug Mart is much more valuable than reviewing a U.S.-based business,” says Mufti.

Equally important are courses that are specifically tailored to executives’ needs, also called “individualized experiences.” One-on-one coaches, discussions of specific and current business problems related to those particular participants, and followup all are part of the new trend towards servicing executives with an education that is practical and valuable.

“Coaching comes as part of the focus on developing the person. Even at Harvard Business School, famous for its academic case-study-led approach, they now provide a coaching element to their executive programs,” says Chadwick.

“Coaching provided by business schools in conjunction with open or custom programs is a welcome development.”

Executive participants are also asking to be teamed up with like-minded participants, says Mufti. For example, if someone is from the oil and gas industry, she wants to be paired with someone else from the same industry. This gives her a chance to focus more on sector-specific challenges.

Some business schools are offering experiential learning for executives, such as sending senior leaders to Nigeria to work on projects that expose participants to interesting and complex projects, says Chadwick.

Another positive trend is companies moving away from developing only those people
considered high-potentials because, from an employee engagement perspective, this can be demotivating, and the value of employee engagement to performance is now increasingly well-understood, he says.

As an example, one firm ran an internal university and invited high-quality speakers to do presentations, says Chadwick. Originally, the option was only offered to the top 200 people at the organization but the company has since opened it up to several thousand people, realizing there is more to gain by delivering quality education to other levels in the firm.

“Companies want to engage people right down the line — it’s an inevitable trend — and developing this wider community would appear to be a potential opportunity for business schools in the future,” he says.

Delivering what managers require and responding to that change is essential for business schools today, says Mufti.

“Delivering customized content that executives want and evolving to the changing demands — Darwin would be pleased.”

Amber Wallace is director of communications and external relations at the Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont. For more information about its executive education courses, visit www.execdev.ca.

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