This is Part One in a three-article series documenting UNICON's Directors' conference 2021, with Parts Two and Three found here.
This year’s UNICON Executive Education Directors’ conference arrived at a fascinating nexus point for the industry. While the world remains in the midst of a terrible—and in some parts of the world worsening pandemic—it is also true that now, over 12 months in, the seismic and multiple disruptions set in motion by that pandemic have matured to the point where business leaders are looking forward—and therefore business education must look forward too, and evolve to meet the changing needs of organizations and individuals alike.
“Nearly every aspect of the way business gets done has changed, which means business schools must change as well,” says Caryn Beck-Dudley, President and CEO at AACSB International, in the opening session of conference.
Beck-Dudley highlights this moment as a unique point in the history of business education, and a moment, as she says, “to rethink our current education constructs and to meet and stay ahead of the needs of business. Employers and employees will demand better training and educational resources to remain relevant and competitive in the global marketplace.”
This is the opportunity as well as the challenge facing the directors of executive education at university-based business schools attending this virtual conference, and their teams around the world.
The theme of this year’s conference, hosted by the Brazilian business school Fundação Dom Cabral (FDC)—which is to look at ‘New Models in the Executive Education Industry’ both on the ‘Demand and Supply’ sides—can be viewed through this challenge/opportunity prism too. “Challenge the construct,” as Beck-Dudley urges at one point in her address.
Day 1 focuses on the ‘supply’ side of executive education, and here we see that much change and evolution has taken place already. “I think higher education has changed forever,” says Beck-Dudley, “Now is the time to step back and evaluate which changes should be lasting ones.”
“Everything was upended,” she explains, “What we thought were the necessary rules, like seat time, face to face interaction, final grades, admissions tests—those turned out not to be the rules.”
Beck-Dudley recognizes there was a great deal to be applauded in the response from business education that came next—from innovative thinking to a lot of hard work, and solutions which in many places were ‘built on the fly’. “I think and hope this has changed our mindset,” she notes, on what can be achieved within the sector.
One change Beck-Dudley highlights as undoubtedly being a change for the better, is a new emphasis on societal impact. “At AACSB we are expecting our business schools to show societal impact in their research, in their teaching, in their community outreach. The problems and issues confronting the workforce of tomorrow demand that business schools not view themselves as separate—from higher education or from society. If business schools aren’t making a difference, what are we spending our time doing?”
Analysing more deeply the impact of the pandemic on business education, Beck-Dudley sees much of the change—change that has occurred, that is on-going, and that is still required of the sector—as being in response to largescale transformation on the demand side. “Unexpected new skillsets have emerged,” she reflects, “The move to remote working has called on new demands of an executive—from agility to self-motivation, responsibility, discipline, technical acumen, time management, accountability, a deeper degree of emotional intelligence. These demands were present before, but more so now in the remote environment.”
Professor Aldemir Drummond of FDC concurs, observing that, “The more successful we are with online education, the more the environment changes from what it was one year ago.” Of this on-going transformation to the traditional constructs of business education, and the implications thereof, he adds, “In a way it is opening Pandora’s box, in the sense that we are doing things because of necessity, but that necessity is actually changing the environment itself.”
Beck-Dudley points out that while the ‘culture of connectivity’ has brought benefits, such as increased productivity—it must be viewed too as coming with a warning sign on the wrapper, and there is an urgency for all of us to gain, “a better understanding of what employees need to thrive remotely.”
On the content side, Beck-Dudley notes with interest a new trend towards the arts, culture, and collaboration, coming back to the fore in executive learning, after a period where data and AI were the absolute focus in program and curriculum design for many.
This is borne out by several speakers on Day 2 of the conference, from the corporate ‘demand’ side of executive education, with the accompanying theory that these ‘softer’ subjects, with their greater emphasis on well-being, are better suited to fostering engagement, at a time of heightened pressure for workforces the world over.
How short-term this particular trend is remains to be seen. To support businesses and business professionals effectively—and to stay relevant—program content will need to evolve and update frequently. “Many employees have been displaced from their careers and the industries they had mastered. They find themselves needing new skills quickly, so that they can re-enter or remain in the workforce,” says Beck-Dudley.
“Senior executives have new needs in content now,” Professor Drummond adds, “Before, they needed to understand the impact of technological change. Now they need to understand new business models, and make decisions to implement those new business models, under a new reality. We have to adapt the content of our programs to reflect this.” Professor Drummond considers that cross-disciplinary programs as an area of university-based executive education that could help meet this new demand.
While the ‘emergency education’ in the immediate response to the pandemic has been well-documented, further change is forecast on the format and delivery side of executive education. “Employers are looking for educational opportunities that aren’t quite the same as the traditional business school construct. Business schools are challenged to create alternative ways of learning, to essentially compete with employer led training.”
This element of challenge/opportunity cannot be met with content alone. “Delivering subject matter online is not enough,” Beck-Dudley explains, “Learners can access content anywhere. YouTube is full of content. What else does a class or professor offer?” The answer to this question is a vision that recurs again and again during conference—a vision of the executive education classroom of the future, whether online or in-person, as being, “a truly enriched, dynamic, experiential learning environment.”
“All the subject matter you can possibly want is out there,” Beck-Dudley continues, “Nobody needs to provide it for a cost—it can be obtained for free. The role of what we do in the classroom now has totally changed. That is an executive education opportunity.”
Another theme which recurs across conference is the exploration more deeply of the concept of ‘lifelong learning’—beneath the surface meaning, to analyse its real implications. “Learning is much more fluid, lasting the entire course of someone’s career. Learning is becoming constant,” explains Beck-Dudley. “A two- or four-year degree is not built to meet that need,” she says, highlighting a tension between, “the value of a business degree, and the need for more immediate upskilling.” She poses the question, “How do the two coexist? Maybe we need to rethink that model altogether.”
One area of response to this question lies in micro-credentialling, and the credentialling power of universities as well that of their competitors—another subject under the spotlight at this year’s conference. Beck-Dudley observes that it is increasingly evident the modern professional will, “require new skillsets every one to two years. Where does that leave a business school that thrives from a two- or four-year degree program?”
Professor Drummond raises another area of transformation, the implications of which are only just beginning to be assessed on both the demand and supply sides of executive education—the cascading out of learning to much larger numbers of learners, due to newly enhanced online capabilities. “Decision makers are seeing that many more people can benefit from executive education,” via the deeper, wider reach of online. “It’s a very positive change, and a new reality for us as well,” he adds.
Another trend Professor Drummond raises for discussion is the individualization of executive learning. Individualization, or personalization at the individual level, is another recurring theme at conference, driven by its increasing importance on the demand side. “One and a half years ago,” Professor Drummond recalls, “this was seen as a trend coming 5-10 years down the line. But this is happening now, with the development needs of executives becoming increasingly individualized—and by individualized we mean that some part of the program is designed for that specific executive—it is not just where different executives are sent on a different program.”
Offering further insights into the demand side of the executive education landscape, Marco Serrato of the University of Chicago and Andrew Jack, Education Editor at the Financial Times, presented preliminary results to the conference from the ‘Chief Learning Officer Survey’, as conducted in partnership by UNICON and the Financial Times (and in association with AACSB, EFMD and SHRM, who each provided support in fielding the survey).
Due to unprecedented disruption to the sector the Financial Times are not publishing their traditional executive education rankings in 2021. Clearly too much is in flux for those to provide accuracy for corporate decision makers, or value to the industry. Instead, on May 10th they will publish a special editorial in place of the rankings, along with the CLO survey results in full.
The survey aims to capture data on the provider side, but also on the demand side for executive education—in that respect very much sharing the aims of this conference. “We are doing our best to identify trends on both the business school and CLO side,” says Jack, “to capture the mood, qualitatively.”
The survey posed 28 questions about CLO needs, organizations’ needs, and market trends. There are 363 responses, from which Serrato and Jack presented the following key findings:
- 26% of CLOS consider the online learning experience to be better than in-person learning.
- 94% of CLOs think that a blend of virtual and physical formats will be the new normal.
- The shift to online formats for their learning initiatives has allowed CLOs to reach a broader group of leaders/employees within their organization (81%).
- 68% have increased their offerings of self-paced, personalized content for employees over the past 12 months.
- 84% consider that the future of executive education will be personalized, learner-driven and easily accessible.
- 47% consider that their criteria for evaluating candidates for executive education will change this year and in subsequent years.
- 52% consider their criteria for evaluating the success of executive education programs will change this year and in subsequent years.
This moment of hiatus for the Financial Times business education rankings offers an opportunity for them to be remoulded, redefined and reshaped to better reflect the transformative forces at play in the sector today—as described and explored in detail at this year’s conference.
One key area of focus for the rankings will be to look at how clients will seek to measure success in their executive education programs in the future, in view of the huge shifts in content, format, delivery, and aims and objectives.
During their presentation, Serrato and Jack take a quick snapshot from the audience on where they think the answers will lie in evaluation and assessment of executive education in the future. Some of the responses include: business impact, relevance, actionability, problem-solving value, sustainability, improved performance, changed behaviour, ideas generated, revenue generated, improved financial performance, retention and promotion, new mindsets, scalable solutions, social impact, real engagement and change, capacity to take on new challenges after the program, happier employees—and much more. In short, there are many areas of evaluation and value creation for both the demand and supply sides of executive education to explore.
“Some schools are talking about being much more embedded as an internal consultant, therefore creating and aligning training programs to specific strategic priorities and initiatives of companies,” Jack adds, also observing that, “Some mini, randomised trials,” are being carried out in the sector, “to compare cohorts of those who have gone through training programs versus those who haven’t.” Perhaps here we have a possible answer to the age-old question of ‘proving ROI’ in executive learning in a quantitative sense.
Jack notes of the CLO survey itself that it is “a first attempt”, but something that the Financial Times very much wishes to continue—in partnership with business schools and relevant bodies. In this vein, Jack welcomes, “Reflections on the survey questions, and on the definitions and terminology used, for us to feed back into our evaluations and rankings.”