Virtual Teams

What is the future of executive education?

As leading organisations including Harvard, announce that courses for at least the start of the next academic year, or maybe longer, will be delivered virtually, it raises the question of where does the value of executive education come from, now and in the future?

It’s a challenging time with many traditional campuses relying heavily on a face to face model that is no longer available. The executive education business as we know it is being hit hard and some schools may never recover.

Traditionally there has been a lot of kudos in attending the leading business schools. They usually have beautiful campuses and a major benefit is the networking that is enabled between attendees. Often attendance at these programs has been an exercise in reward and recognition as much as it has been about the learning itself. The schools have assembled prestigious groups of professors and other academics who are often research specialists in their fields.

On the other hand, as someone who has bought executive education in the past, you are paying for their facilities and they are keen to keep all delivery through their faculty and at their location. Even in the best business schools some members of faculty are good, and others are not.

Many of the training facilities they use are out of date auditorium-style lecture theatres in old buildings with fixed seating that inhibits interaction. “An auditorium is a room built to enable an audience to hear and watch performances” Wikipedia (not to participate in them).

When I was head of learning and development for Mars in Europe, I preferred to take a “cherry picking” approach. I would attend a couple of senior leadership conferences around the world and identify excellent trainers in specific key areas. I would then approach them as individuals to work on programs we put together for our people at our locations.  This was very effective, much less expensive and gave us higher quality than going to a single campus for everything. It also enabled me to brief them individually with exactly what we wanted, rather than via a faculty coordinator.

In a post-COVID world we are facing an extended period where most of the traditional benefits of the major business schools will be undermined. The “campus” experience and networking opportunity will not be the same.

Creating an engaging online learning experience is not the same as delivering a lecture. We need to be clearer, shorter and get to the learning and applications quicker. If we do not, participants will disconnect and multitask. It requires transitioning from being an academic or lecturer to being an interactive trainer.

If I were cherry picking today, I would insist on sampling a lecturer’s online work for quality and interactivity. Some will adapt well; others may just try to lecture into a camera.

I also think it’s a great time to engage individually with real specialists, not because they have a prestigious name behind them, but because they are real experts in their fields.

Virtual delivery gives us an opportunity to take significant cost out of the learning experience, in return we should invest some of this saving into improving the quality and focus of our online learning.

At the same time the need for reward and recognition of the people we send to these virtual programs will remain, so we need to build in opportunities for the learning to be visible to and sponsored by senior leaders.

As with so many roles and organizations that rely on face to face delivery, this is a time that requires reinvention. I suspect that once people get a taste for the convenience, cost effectiveness and quality of well-delivered online learning, they will not go back fully to some of the traditional models.

In the meantime, be selective and choose your specialist and ask them to demonstrate their online interactivity.

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