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Reinventing executive education

September 28, 2009

Executive education is hardly relevant to business. This is why it is always one of the first items to get cancelled in tough times, as has been the case over the last twelve months. In most organizations, executive education is not viewed by C-level executives as a transformative force for their organization. Unable to link to the strategic agenda, many senior HR people console themselves by hob-nobbing with star professors and select over-priced programs where canned teaching is provided to a small number of manager students as reward and entertainment, in exchange for cash to the school and supplementary income to its professors. From the business schools standpoint, it is a brochure-mailing and call center-selling machine that tries to put “buns on seats” on an industrial scale for hard-to-sell programs, while trying to keep professors sufficiently motivated to accept the distraction these programs represent to their research agenda.

O.K., I’ll admit this is a bit of a cynical view. But it comes from dejected love. I view executive education – “exec ed” as it is affectionately referred to in the trade – as a giant missed opportunity. Before I die, I’d like to see at least one major corporation link up with one major business school and reinvent executive education as it ought to be. So what is this “ought to be” model?

Exec ed ought to be a series of programs where the solution to vexing business issues is co-created between company managers and leading business academics. I dream of executive education programs that would be co-designed and co-taught between a few business school professors and a large number of managers in the company. These programs would not be canned modules taught by business school professors and organized along the traditional disciplines of marketing, finance, operations or leadership, with passive audiences soaking up knowledge.

These programs would bring together particular issues of interest to many people inside the company – say, how to reduce cost in the cabinet-making division of a large manufacturer of household products – with a particular set of internal company resources that could contribute to solving that issue – for example, people in the sourcing department, in manufacturing, in marketing or in legal, whether part of the cabinet-making division or not. These “new teachers” would comprise managers of the company with insights on the issue and some ability to teach what they’ve learned over the years. They would be supported by, say, one or two business school professors in design and manufacturing, who would share a few relevant frameworks and teach them how to teach.

I dream of a thousand professors creeping out of the company woodwork and becoming the transformational force of the organization. We need to inject massive leverage in exec ed. One of the main limits of executive education today is its very high cost per trained manager – in theory, managers attending exec ed programs are supposed to share their newly acquired knowledge with other people at the company, but in practice, this never happens because we do not provide them with a convenient way to cascade their learning. There ought to be tens, if not hundreds of trained managers for every intervention of business school professors, or else the exec ed market will remain what it is today, i.e., an overpriced perk for a few people the organization wants to recognize.

Creating this open market of seekers of business solutions and internal business teachers would require first setting up a process to surface the issues the company faces, and a second one to “smoke out” the would-be professors of the organization with relevant knowledge. This could initially be done through live meetings, evolving over time into some kind of electronic platform – an eBay-like system where solution seekers and would-be professors could continuously frame the issues and the available solutions to tackle them.

A few programs on either the corporate or the business schools side have made some progress in this general direction. General Electric, in the tradition of its Work-Out program, continues to bring together internal managers and executive education resources from the outside to solve specific issues. The Ross Business School at the University of Michigan is also making a commitment to co-creation in some of its classes (full disclosure: I teach in the executive education program at Ross). But by and large, the pace of change in executive education remains pathetically slow.

Everybody would win in the co-created system. Exec ed, if provided on this scale, would catch the attention of C-level executives. Senior HR people would naturally find their place at the strategic table if they became brokers between owners of business issues and capable providers of resources to solve them. Executive education managers at major business schools would find it easier to sell large-scale, recurring programs and would avoid being priced down to smithereens by corporate purchasing departments. Professors willing to submit themselves to the harsh test of business reality would become more relevant than they are today. Managers who attend those programs would be able to use what they have learned in-day-to-day life, not to mention the fact that some of them might receive personal gratification by teaching in partnership with a major business school.

As for me, I could at long last die happy, knowing that teaching has finally found its legitimate place in the business world.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2009 9:01 am

    Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  2. September 30, 2009 8:17 pm

    There is obviously a lot to know about this. There are some good points here.

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