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Scoping the Path Ahead for Exec Ed

After a turbulent year, new best practices for executive learning in the new normal are emerging for university-based business schools and their corporate clients


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For over a decade university-based business schools have been striving to build competence in their clients around managing the VUCA environment. The last twelve months has seen as live a road-test of that theory as anyone could have wanted or predicted—of how organizations cope with all four of the VUCA elements: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

As Bruce Wiesner, Associate Dean for Executive Education at UBC Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, notes, business schools have been on the same road-test themselves. “We are living the same disruption and challenges as our clients,” he remarks.

While businesses are reimagining the workplace of the future, and rethinking what they need from executive learning, business schools are having to respond—to evolve their understanding of what executive education delivery will look like in the coming years.

In this article we examine how the business school response to the global pandemic has progressed since the initial shock announcements and ‘stay at home’ directives which echoed around the globe in the second half of March 2020—and focus on the new practices in executive learning, that are beginning to emerge from both the client and provider sides of the sector.

The accepted view is that we will move to a new paradigm, but how different will it actually be?

How much will this pandemic-led disruption differ from previous recessions—where, when growth resumed, the content and delivery in executive education, was not much changed? The accepted view is that we will move to a new paradigm, but how different will it actually be? And how quickly will it take to emerge?

The initial outbreak

The executive education departments of large business schools around the globe were alert to the growing threat of the pandemic as it developed and spread from China and then Italy in the first two months of 2020. It is also true that the sector, along with many others, struggled with the novelty—and frankly the outlandish surreality—of a world where not only was international travel effectively prohibited, but so was leaving your front door. This meant that constructing new processes and platforms to deliver education by was initially delayed until the reality of the situation became more evident.

As the looming crisis approached there was little clarity as to how it would manifest itself. Would it be quite localised? Could some areas remain relatively unscathed? How long would it last? These were classic VUCA issues of uncertainty and ambiguity. As soon as the ‘stay at home’ directives followed, both providers and clients entered the territory of complexity and volatility.

The initial reaction from the client-side of executive learning was to see how things developed. Existing custom programs were postponed and new ones put on a backburner until some clarity emerged. Meanwhile the business school providers scrambled to move as much of their content online, as swiftly as they could. Open-enrolment programs, which were much trickier to postpone without suffering large-scale participant fallouts, were the main focus of the switch to online. As has been noted, this transition was remarkably successful, and played its part—along with the wholescale adoption of online meetings—in forging a new appreciation that ‘online was OK’.

New beginnings

Julian Birkinshaw, a senior professor at London Business School, and education management consultant, recalls that, like most other providers, the initial result of their pivot to online was requiring too much screen time for participants. At the outset, the five-day face-to-face programs became five, eight-hour days in front of the Zoom screen—with ensuing challenges in concentration and engagement. LBS decided to flip the format of their short private online courses, to 80% live, synchronous sessions, and just 20% pre-recorded—which they ran as the Ignite series from summer 2020. Lessons were being learned already, delivery methods adapted, and new best practices starting to emerge.

LBS decided to flip the format… to 80% live and just 20% pre-recorded

Bruce Wiesner saw the same challenge for UBC Sauder’s online programs. “We perhaps took for granted the peer-to-peer learning and the social experience that occurred in face-to-face programs, and underestimated how critical they were in creating the premium feel and experience that our programs are known to deliver. The strong participant feedback, both in terms of the empirical data and the research we did, highlighted that the really tough part of the virtual format is to create that premium feel, that networking, that peer-to-peer interaction that happens naturally [in traditional on-campus programs]”. Wiesner sees that this is now the continuing challenge, and the team at UBC Sauder has been focused on, “recreating that peer-to-peer networking experience for their virtual programs.” For UBC Sauder, the solution lies in a variety of places, in part with the technology, in part with some ingenuity, and in part with the addition of a few little human elements to the program.”

“This unprecedented disruption in the business world comes with great potential to change our thinking, to create leaders who can take a broader view of their responsibilities,” adds Bob Helsley, the Dean at Sauder. These two themes lie at the heart of the work being done at UBC Sauder in delivering programs that, although online, are creating that emotional engagement for participants and developing a mindset that is better attuned to the increasing complexity of the modern business world.

One successful use of technology in the virtual classroom has been the use of lightboards in video delivery. Here the faculty can continue to look into the camera (an improvement on traditional whiteboards where the instructor turns their back to class) while writing on an electronic glass screen in front of them, which displays their notes in technicolour—correctly oriented for the viewer. Lightboards are becoming more common, but still represent both an investment and a new skill for the instructors to learn—another example of new practice evolving to the needs of participants.

UBC Sauder has been focused on, “recreating that peer-to-peer networking experience for their virtual programs

The focus on technology does serve to flag-up a simple truth, that while well deployed technology is an important foundation for online delivery, the true impact of online programs is much more aligned with program design, and the skill of the faculty as instructor and facilitator. Screen time has been radically reduced from those early programs, with screen-fatigue reduced, and much greater use of breakout groups and facilitated discussion sessions, to foster that peer-to-peer learning and networking that Wiesner at UBC Sauder has focused on.

New levels of customization now possible—and sought

While the revenue from custom programs has remained largely on the table, with clients postponing programs rather than cancelling, the nature of those programs has morphed considerably.

Wiesner tells of a recent conversation with a Chief Learning Officer (CLO) at a large organization in Canada, who, in looking at their custom program, saw that their interpretation of ‘customized’ had evolved through the last 12 months. Pre-pandemic ‘customized’ meant ‘shaped to the needs of the organization’. With the opportunities of online technology now better understood, the CLO was looking at tailoring the program to each individual participant’s needs. If they could do that successfully, thought the CLO, it would certainly serve the organization well too.

This is an area of new practice in executive education that is ripe for innovation—and it will be fascinating to see how it develops. A new level of customization is being ushered in—not only designed with an organization’s goals in mind, but with new targeting, at a granular level, to the specific needs and wants of individual participants within the program. A ‘new discovery’ of the mass adoption of online learning has been that executive education can and will go much deeper and wider into organizations from this moment onwards.

Peter Hirst, Senior Associate Dean for Executive Education at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, sees their client base falling into three main groups. The first being those who were looking to ‘break the mould’ before the pandemic—clients who were seeking new technologies and formats already. “We had some companies that were ahead of the curve in how they had been wanting to use blended and live online, and those didn't really miss a beat.” The second group were more hesitant to change, and while open to discussion, were sticking to traditional formats pre-pandemic. “These clients have tended to postpone programs, waiting to see what emerges—though some are gaining more confidence in exploring newer formats now.” The third group is intriguing—those that see a really significant value in the physical bringing together of participants to meet and engage with each other. This group are putting the social engagement and the ensuing benefits of that, higher perhaps than the program content.

Hirst sees that this final group could well become a significant driver for on-campus activity in the years ahead. “In a regular work week, people will be getting together physically much less frequently in the future, so bringing people together [for reasons like executive development] is going to be at a premium,” he foresees.

Future trends and innovations

This is where providers see both the main challenge and the main opportunities lying. Hirst notes that MIT, with its access to and adaptation of cutting-edge technologies, is very well placed to accommodate most clients’ needs. He thinks the pandemic may have held back the emergence of some technologies, noting that Augmented and Virtual Reality technologies had been gaining ground pre-pandemic, but the ubiquity of Zoom and it’s like, may have slowed that progress. “Because nearly everybody uses Zoom now, perhaps Zoom has become the ‘VHS’ in this story. And, maybe some of the AR and VR, will be seen as the ‘Betamax’: even if they offer superior capabilities, the ubiquity and ‘good enough’ features of Zoom and similar platforms might win the day.”

Nevertheless, “augmented Reality is already being used in some learning contexts,” Hirst notes, while admitting some MIT ‘geekiness’. “Blending the physical and digital worlds—that's exactly what augmented reality does. It is bringing learning and training to the coalface—instead of going off somewhere and doing your learning, coming back and applying it. Boeing is an example that gets cited a lot—rather than training somebody for a year, on how to install a particular piece on an aircraft, now they can put on the AR headset, and they learn by doing it, on the live production line.”

Hirst and his peers at other business schools around the world are also well aware that putting executives on planes is going to become less acceptable in environmental terms, particularly as technologies evolve that replicate, in part, the benefits of face-to-face engagements. Equally, the option of flying faculty around the world to deliver two-hour sessions to executive groups will also be scrutinized.

A different perspective

While business schools are focusing on evolving delivery formats—having shifted ‘12 years in 12 weeks’ in their digital capabilities in the Spring of last year—their corporate clients’ perspectives have changed too, in parallel, though inevitably viewed through a differently prism.

Ian Hardie, Global VP of Learning and Development at Sephora, the largest division (by employee number) of luxury goods brand LVMH, where he was previously Group Executive Development Director, was previously Associate Dean at London Business School, so he has experience from both sides of the market. He concurs with the business school people that the pandemic has massively disrupted the delivery formats and has forced change, though he does not think that all schools were necessarily and inevitably heading that way anyway.

Hardie believes the disruption, “has forced business schools to think about new ways of working, new ways of delivering, new ways of connecting—and what their purpose really is, in a way that I don't think they were doing before.” He sees that by going predominantly online it has forced the schools to reconsider the foundations of their value, which is rooted in the creation and rigorous evaluation of new ideas through research. “The half-life of an idea is so short these days, with everything constantly changing in the business environment,” says Hardie. The time it takes for an idea to progress from publication in a journal to appearing in a program, must be dramatically shortened to fulfil the needs of that ever-changing environment.

It is clear the client side is keen to work with universities and business schools who can access new thinking much more quickly

The fact that the bio-medical researchers were able to create the vaccines and understand the viral DNA so quickly has shown that rigorous research can be done quickly. There is now an appetite for that to happen in the social sciences too. Hardie reflects that, “The old defence that university research requires a lot of time to get the rigorous results has now been disproved.” It is clear the client side is keen to work with universities and business schools who can access new thinking much more quickly. Could this provoke another stream of innovation in the sector—fast-tracking new ideas to the classroom, and the coalface?

From the corporate point of view, Hardie sees there are two fundamental needs from executive development—one: what will the program do for our organization? —and two: what will it do for the individual? More specifically, he posits, “Are these people going to go away, and come back with a new set of ideas that will bring us value? Will it make this individual more likely to stay with us? Would it make this individual a better manager and produce better results? Will they engage their team more strongly?”

For Hardie it is not just the ideas from the faculty though—it can be the sharing of experiences and insights that create the new value. This cross-fertilizing of insights from industry sectors and geographies in open programs, and across divisions in custom programs, keeps returning as a key element of the value.

Hardie was a self-admitted sceptic of online learning pre-pandemic, but has become a convert—though he stresses that it is imperative to keep things simple. For instance, for years Learning and Development professionals have been trying to weave learning more intimately into the workspace and routine. With the advent of Zoom and Teams they now have what they wished for. These platforms have become part of the workplace structure as much as a meeting room or the water-cooler. Hardie’s plea is that now managers and executives are so familiar with these platforms, we should not disrupt them with new ones, which always take time to navigate and be comfortable with. “Zoom is work. If you do a course on Zoom, you're doing learning at work. Don't create a separate place for it,” he asks. Keep it simple.

Where are the spaces where we can stitch-in more learning at work?

Hardie also sees the adoption of Zoom and Teams as a perfect opportunity to build out further, “Where are the spaces where we can stitch-in more learning at work?” The monthly management meeting or the annual conference can have some learning sessions woven into them, for example. “You're not forcing people to adopt something different—you're bringing it to them, and there is a big difference. Business schools can play an important role in that.”

New practices on the client side of executive learning

At TRATON GROUP, the heavy trucks and bus division of VW, Head of Talent Management, Marianne Ekstedt reflects that at the beginning of the lockdown they were quickly able to adapt their cross-brand talent development programs for potential and current leaders to be delivered 100% online. This was thanks to the programs already using the same online learning platform to pace and support the participants’ learning journeys, so they could expand most of their learning delivery to be done remotely now that everyone was working from home. A lot of re-scheduling needed to be done as they quickly realised the limitations around an excess of screen-time. “We changed the proportions accordingly—redistributing based on how much our people can digest at one time online,” she recalls.

TRATON’s online learning platform allowed a guided learning journey—a lasting benefit of which was that new ideas, concepts and ‘on-the-job’ assignments were shared directly into the workspace where they could be put into action immediately. The risk of new thinking being ‘left in the classroom’ was reduced. The structure of the platform encouraged greater idea sharing and feedback between the participants and the program delivery team. This has seen a significant shift in attitude towards learning—from something channelled ‘from the expert’, to something more shared and collaborative and incremental. This is an example of an unforeseen improvement in delivery which clients and providers alike, elsewhere in the sector, can seek to emulate in new practice. “I think this is here to stay,” says Ekstedt.

From something channelled ‘from the expert’, to something more shared and collaborative and incremental

Ekstedt sees that the real behaviour change occurs back in the workplace, following a program. The catalyst for change though is often ignited in the breakout rooms and discussion sessions—or even in the feed on the online learning platform—following an executive exchange or an input from an expert or professor; while having the content available to return to later is powerful too. “Participants can access content from the business schools and learning partners as well as reflections and comments from their fellow participants in their own time and at their own pace.”

Intriguingly, these are the three main elements of the well-worn 70:20:10 learning and development model, which has often foundered on the fact that the 10% of formal learning happens so far from the 70% of on-the-job learning, and the 20% of mentoring. Ekstedt’s description of how their talent development programs work suggests the online format is bringing these closer together, which is an intriguing development for the sector at large, and one that can only be beneficial to the participants and organizations involved.

There is a risk however, as Professor Birkinshaw notes, that during lockdown anyway, the frequency of manager-report feedback has reduced significantly. This could imply that the 20% (mentoring) has suffered in this way. Equally managers have tended to give people projects they are already familiar with, so there is little stretch happening in the 70% element. “They will have to explicitly build-in more of these mentoring pieces, and challenging new work assignments,” predicts Birkinshaw, “so that when they do come together in virtual or face-to-face sessions, they have that to work with.”

The path ahead

Twelve months on there is no doubt that the road travelled has been both long and at many times arduous, but the place both providers and clients now find themselves in is in many ways further developed, more established, and better road-tested than would have been the case had the pandemic not occurred. Ian Hardie questions whether this position would have been reached at all. But the general sense of being in a better place is palpable. It will take some months more to see—as the realities of the emerging work environment comes into a more stable focus post-lockdown—how future executive learning will be; but we can be sure that all aspects are changing. Not just the technology, but the content delivery and the program structures—with emerging best practices becoming embedded on both sides of the executive education equation, from the classroom to the workplace.

From the initial heads-down scramble to get everything online of a year ago, we are now better able to look up and forwards and bring into focus how things will evolve in the coming years—and some new trends are clear already; with more tailoring to the individual, more content evolution, more interaction and more opportunity to practice.



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