Educating executives

by 19 Oct 2009

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.

Industry trends

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 cation providers.

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 their behaviours.”

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.”

Common pitfalls

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."