REPORT
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Executive Education – St Gallen Report 2016

93% of organizations put leadership development as their first or second priority for future success



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The Executive School of Management, Technology and Law at the University of St Gallen has just published its second major survey on executive education. The first appeared in 2014, and this month we see how the world of executive education demand has evolved two years on.

The survey was conducted in mid 2015 and draws on 350 responses from senior executives at organizations across 13 European countries. Over 150 of the respondents were from the top management teams of their organizations, some 25 being the CEO themselves; the rest of the responses were from senior HR and L&D professionals within those organizations. The large majority of organizations were located in German speaking Europe (Switzerland, Germany and Austria), but with some input from France, Belgium and UK too. The respondent organizations were drawn from a balanced selection of sectors and business size, from below €10 million to above €10 billion.

The standout figure from the survey is that 93% of respondents have put executive leadership development as their first or second priority for their organization in terms of its future success. Even given the weighting of HR and L&D professionals, who clearly have a greater focus on this than other senior executives, this is a startling figure.

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The main drivers behind this focus on executive L&D is to continue to make their companies more efficient and more innovative, while struggling with ever-present resourcing issues as well as more specific challenges such as ‘absence of over-arching learning architecture’, ‘short-termism’, ‘changing expectations of incoming management generation’ and ‘knowledge retention’, all of which were cited by more than 60% of respondents as particular challenges. Intriguingly, the much vaunted ‘scarcity of talent’ was only an issue for 38% of respondents. This seems a more realistic assessment than we sometimes see in this kind of survey. It is not that there are not sufficiently talented people to run these businesses, but it is the complexity of executing that process in an effective way that thwarts organizations.

This is, in fact, extremely positive news for the L&D sector. If it was a genuine shortage of ‘raw material’ in the form of people with sufficient latent talent there is little that can be done about that, but optimizing the development and behaviour of that talent, if it exists, is a real opportunity.

Almost half of respondent companies believed their corporate L&D function was meeting its ‘primary objectives’ but far fewer thought it was performing to its full potential. The significant factor in creating an effective L&D impact was when there was clear C-level engagement and commitment to the initiatives. Those companies that did show such commitment rated higher in just about every analysis category than those with medium and low C-level commitment, whether that be a clear understanding of its leaders capabilities or collective behaviours, or effective use of HR analytics or other metrics.

The problem, as the survey goes on to highlight, is that the sector is still dogged by bad perceptions of the role of technology and how it can be used to enable executives’ development. Technology can – and will – transform this sector, but it needs to be better delivered and then properly embraced. This affects itself in the use of good practice in face-to-face coaching and experiential programs, which are innovative and current, but huge reticence in adopting technology based solutions for these and other learning opportunities.

The results around technology adoption are little changed from similar surveys over the last few years – the doubts and scepticism expressed is usually from a lack of experience, and anecdotal referencing, rather than actual poor direct experience. This perhaps indicates an opportunity for the L&D functions to be bolder in pushing new technology platforms upon their participants. There is though a reflection in the survey results of the dynamic, we have seen at IEDP frequently, that online courses and programs are by their very structure and naming, trying to replicate classroom processes – and these are possibly not the most attractive way to engage executive participants in the first place. Adults – and children for that matter – do not necessarily warm to formal learning, but prefer to learn informally, hence the success of experiential learning initiatives. Perhaps we shall see a move away from formal ‘pathway’ learning and more emphasis on technology based performance support approaches.

The St Gallen survey indicates that this emphasis on greater use of technology is more appropriate for those organizations that are already quite advanced in their L&D capabilities though. L&D novice organizations need to build solid foundations on traditional interventions first, they suggest.

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