Jason Cassidy is optimistic about the huge opportunities that lie ahead for business schools – albeit he says the traditional executive development model needs to undergo transformational change. At Ashridge changes are already well underway.
Launched as Ashridge Business School in 1959, Ashridge has been at the forefront of management education in the UK for over 50 years. In 2015 it operationally merged with Hult International Business School, a truly global school with campus locations in San Francisco, Boston, London, Dubai, Shanghai, and New York City. The merger allows the renamed Ashridge Executive Education to focus on its core strengths of research and executive development, while joining Hult in its mission to become ‘the world's most relevant business school to employers globally’.
With a corporate rather than academic background, US-born Cassidy has the credentials to ensure the inevitable changes brought about by the merger with Hult are both client-centric and globally focused. His career has been in business-to-business media, technology, and financial services. Prior to joining Ashridge in May 2015, he was responsible for strategy and operations at Asset International, a provider of business intelligence to the global asset management community. Previously he held senior positions at Reed Elsevier where, as witness to major industry-wide disruption, he gained valuable experience in leading organizational change.
As a non-voting spectator to Brexit, Cassidy admits to real surprise at the outcome. For him, it demonstrated a real lack of trust in businesses and their leaders, and offered up a key challenge for executive education providers globally - how could we work to rebuild that trust?
For Cassidy, this starts by considering his own personal leadership standpoint. “Absolute honesty is the key to getting trust,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of difficult decisions to make since joining Ashridge but have never shied away from having difficult conversations. To build trust you can never communicate enough, but it is essential not to sugar-coat the message.”
Since the merger with Hult, it has been important for Cassidy to establish underlying strategies for Ashridge and to set its future direction, and then to communicate this clearly through the organization and to clients.
Cassidy has focused on two key strategies from the outset: The first strategy is about building resilience in organizations. This is based on what Cassidy describes as the core philosophy for Ashridge and Hult: “The way we approach program design at Ashridge is all about preparing individual leaders to have the skills, intuition and flexibility to deal with ambiguity and difficult situations. We talk about ‘muscle memory’ and how personally you are going to react to and be prepared for any situation.” He links this to observing participants at several post Brexit seminars, held at the Ashridge and Hult London campuses, who predictably sought ‘10 steps to how to respond’. The answer of course is ‘no one knows’ – but get ready as a leader to lead your organization through the uncertainty and change that Brexit and many other disruptive forces are bound to bring.
The second key strategy is to build on Ashridge’s unquestionably strong research capabilities, developing client focused research in collaboration with Hult. Cassidy points to two core strands of research. The first is transforming behavior, which relates to the continuous improvement of organizational and personal leadership practices. Leaders rarely know which methods effectively improve individual and group performance so the team attempt to solve this issue by tackling questions such as, “How do training and enablement programs impact employees long-term?” Some current research in this area looks at people’s responses to stress using heart-rate variance monitors, the ROI of various teaching methods – from classical lecture style to fully virtual, and at the readiness of organizations to engage in leadership development.
The second research strand is creating disruption which relates to strategies: the actions that organisations take to anticipate, react to, and shape changes in markets. This includes the creation, implementation, and assessment of strategies to optimize performance, especially when operating in international markets. Ashridge and Hult will tackle questions such as, “What trends and scenarios will disrupt current markets?” and “Which strategies successfully create disruption?”
Underpinning these two key strategies is the move to align Ashridge with Hult as a truly global player. While Ashridge already has considerable overseas business, it now has the opportunity to leverage the global reach provided by Hult. It can access Hult’s global faculty and alumni networks and run programs from its six campuses around the world. That this process is already underway is witnessed by Ashridge recently running an executive program at Hult’s San Francisco campus and by the fact that Cassidy has already made three client visits to China since joining the business school.
“If your offering is not global you cannot play in this space” says Cassidy, adding that to take on the global challenge, “mind-sets at Ashridge and Hult are in the right place.” This is one reason Cassidy is optimistic about the opportunities that lie ahead for Ashridge. Another reason is his conviction that Ashridge and Hult are both uniquely well positioned to understand and adapt to the transformational changes executive education provision will undergo over the coming years, as the traditional model is disrupted by emerging technologies and the new needs and requirements of clients as they too undergo change.
In fact, Cassidy is optimistic about the opportunities that lie ahead for global business schools per se. He believes the future of executive education will be about helping leaders navigate a lifelong journey and working with organizations, not merely to provide one-off solutions, but to be there for the long-term as a partner in their development and growth. Critically, this will be enabled by the innovative deployment of digital learning technologies, underpinned by deep research into, and the development of, sophisticated pedagogy.
“Taking the widely accepted 70:20:10 learning and development ratio, alongside continuing to play in the 30% more traditional space, we think that we can enable the 70% of learning that takes place on the job with our proven methodologies and new technologies”. Cassidy adds, “Technology enabled job development and workplace solutions will become the norm, powered by greater connectivity and the use of diagnostics. Wearable technologies and even virtual and augmented reality, as they become mainstream options, will add to a mix where immersive learning will be prominent, as will blended learning, with online delivery supported by face-to-face modules and peer group sharing.”
Not only is technology pushing in this direction, so too are the pressure points felt by clients: the need to contain costs, the reluctance to spare time away from the workplace, geographically dispersed workforces, and the need to spread learning deeper into the organization.
Business school education has traditionally been for senior leaders and high-potential executives. At a time when traditional ‘command and control management’ is giving way to more democratically dispersed leadership structures, where the prerequisite is for leadership at every level, the call for sophisticated lifelong learning across and deeper into organizations will grow.
The challenge for business schools will be to educate the market about these new opportunities and to make sure clients really understand the value business schools can provide and encourage them to allocate the time to realize this value. The flipside of the opportunities provided by digitization is that these changes open up the space for increased competition. Cassidy says he sees competition from all sides – from technology providers, Google et al, management consultants, and from cheaper offerings that can undermine the credibility of all methods of learning.
There is naturally anxiety across the sector as it contemplates the changes ahead. Cassidy quotes his experience at Reed Business Information – where a decade ago industry trade shows were thought to be doomed in the digital age of videos and virtual shows. In fact, enabled by digital technology to both enhance the experience they offer and to galvanize their marketing efforts, trade shows still have a strong position today. A corollary to this is that much of this is to do with their function as a place for networking and peer-to-peer discussion – something that business schools also provide and in an even deeper way.
With its campus housed in a magnificent 18th century mansion in Hertfordshire, Ashridge is very much outward looking and future facing today. Cassidy emphasizes that, while companies will still send C-level and high-potential executives for intensive programs, a big opportunity exists for the School to spread learning to a broader constituency.
Cassidy concludes “Ashridge is well positioned, with its passion for enabling leadership development, and knowledge of pedagogy and diagnostics, to deliver executive learning globally for all levels within organizations. I think this is the way the world will go and Ashridge and Hult are keen to be at the forefront of this.”