Executive education is a popular and cost-effective option for many time-poor business professionals when it comes to bolstering knowledge and skills. Craig Donaldson looks at the latest trends in executive education and how participants can get the best return on their learning and development dollar
xecutive education is a good barometer of cor
porates’ faith in the Australian economy. Learn
ing and development budgets are often the first
to be cut in a recession, but this can be treading a
fine line for many organisations because it is lead
ers who often need help guiding the way through
tough times. Leading executive education providers
agree that the freeze on learning and development
budgets has begun to thaw, with many organisa
tions looking to selectively boost management capa
bility through executive education programs.
There was a significant slowdown in off-the-shelf
open executive education programs for individu
als during the first half of the year, according to
Paul Kirkbride, Deputy Dean, Mt Eliza Executive
Education, Melbourne Business School. However,
with the advent of the new financial year and pos
itive signs in the economy, he says sales of these
programs have increased significantly.
Customised executive education programs for
organisations – which make up at least 75 per cent
of Melbourne Business School’s revenue – have
fared better, Kirkbride says. “We’re doing roughly
the same as we did last year. I know that, through
my contacts, some providers have dropped 20 or
30 per cent here, whereas in the US it might be up
to 50 per cent.”
Rosemary Howard, executive director of
AGSM Executive Programs (part of the Australian
School of Business), says a number of clients
deferred programs during the worst of the down
turn. “Some companies haven’t invested in exec
utive and management development for a while
and they’re definitely a bit behind,” she says.
“Now that the icy conditions are thawing some
what, companies are interested and have sufficient
numbers of people for us to go in and work with
them. Rather than sending one or two people to us,
they might have 15 to 20 people at middle man
agement level who are under a lot of pressure and
they need to get their leadership skills up quickly.”
Bob O’Connor, director of corporate education
for the QUT Faculty of Business, says that the
global financial crisis has meant a clear move away
from long-term generalist programs (such as gen
eral management development programs) to
shorter, multidisciplinary workplace-blended learn
ing programs that tangibly help organisations exe
cute business strategies or solve business problems
(such as project management, managing innovation
and turning strategy into action).
Timing-wise, O’Connor says, the GFC also
coincides with the elevation of Generation X and
even early Generation Y to management positions
within corporate and government organisations.
“As pragmatic managers, these have amplified the
movement to specific programs aligned to the
achievement of business objectives,” he says.
Effective executive education
With myriad providers in the market and no formal
hurdles for entry, executive education courses can
be a mixed bag for potential participants. And given
that such programs are often not at the cheap end of
learning and development, it is important that indi
viduals and organisations be confident in securing a
good return on their executive education investment.
In the executive education market, off-the-shelf
programs are generally a less expensive option for
individuals, while customised programs for organ
isations come with a slightly higher price tag and
make up the bulk of business for executive edu
Fundamental to any good customised program
is the diagnosis and design process. “We have a
three-stage process: diagnosis, design and delivery.
While there are lots of ‘trainers’ of variable qual
ity out there, what is of increasing importance is the
amount of diagnosis done beforehand to target to
the needs of the business and the design process
itself,” says Kirkbride.
“Clients want someone who is going to work
with them, understand their business and the needs
of the individuals who need development, and
understand what they need to do in order to change
For many executive education providers, O’Con
nor says, developing specific programs
which are aligned with business objectives
remains a challenge. “Many traditional
providers are content-or-product-focused,
whereas today’s purchaser is looking for
client-focused providers that will embrace
the client’s involvement in program design,
delivery and measurement of the business
impact,” he says.
Maximum return on investment can be
measured in many ways, O’Connor says.
Two include the degree to which a pro
gram impacts on behaviour in the work
place (both the competencies utilised and
demonstrated behaviour), with the ultimate
measure being the impact that altered
workplace behaviour contributes to bot
tom line results.
“Learning transferred to the workplace
from traditional classroom instruction can
be very, very low, whereas a program built
using a workplace-blended learning
approach facilitates and even directs work
place transfer,” he says. “A workplace-
blended learning approach combines
multiple learning methodologies that can
extend over time and specifically apply the
desired learning in the workplace.”
As with most learning and development
initiatives, executive education programs
are not without their pitfalls.
Participants often undertake a program
with the best of intentions, but, Howard
says, a common problem is that learning
is not embedded and individuals fall back
into their old ways.
“You really do have to make a pact with
yourself as to how you’re going to embed,
practise and reflect on the learning,” she
says. “Learning doesn’t happen in two days
or two weeks. To really make a behavioural
shift, learning needs to be an ongoing
process. For this reason coaching is inte
gral to 90 per cent of our programs, so we
try and help people as much as we can with
putting the learning into practice.”
Top Tips for HR
To work effectively with line managers, says Bob O'Connor, director of corporate education for the QUT Faculty of Business, HR professionals need both expertise in their discipline (such as organisational behaviour and industrial relations) and multidiscipline skills relevant to the business (say, engineering management if working for an infrastructure construction company) to engage with and understand a line manager's business issues.
"HR professionals would benefit from furthering their multidisciplinary learning, increasing their relevance and value to their organisation. I recommend they seek out programs that provide practical approaches to their business challenges," he says.
Similarly, Rosemary Howard, executive director of AGSM Executive Programs, would discourage HR professionals from doing a generic management program and recommends focusing on new, middle or senior management programs so they become more aware of what it's like to work in different areas and levels of business. "Just like any other manager in an organisation, HR professionals should aspire to promotion to eventually sitting on the top team."