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Effective Practices

Directions in Executive Education

“I think executive education has become confusing to the customer, both to corporations and to individuals,” says Tami Fassinger, associate dean for executive programs at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. In part, she suggests, there’s just general confusion among potential students about the differences between degree and non-degree executive education programs.

In some cases, Fassinger says, time to the EMBA was shortened, and the EMBA degree did not require the same academic rigors as “their counterparts down the hall.” That confused potential customers, she believes. Further confusion stems from how programs are administered: whereas some schools manage executive degree programs and executive education separately, others keep them under the same roof.

Fassinger says the rise of specialized, short-term executive education, offerings that might take the form of intensive five- or six-week non-degree programs or courses of just a few days’ length, have also muddied the waters. Potential students, she says, aren’t always sure about what kind of program they want or need, or whether they should pursue a degree, a certificate of completion, or simply a course here and there.

Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council, also sees a need for greater clarity about executive education. Speaking to the executive MBA degree programs that his organization represents, Desiderio says, “We want to make sure that people don’t confuse us with other offerings in the marketplace.” To that end, his association recently completed a meeting devoted to program branding.

The current economic turmoil affects executive education as much as it does the rest of graduate management education. Yet “despite all the craziness, there’s still as lot of energy in the executive education space,” Desiderio says. For example, he says, EMBA Council’s members reported that applications for 2008 were up about 33 percent compared with Council data for 2005.

A telling trend in degree programs is how they are financed. “If you were to go back 10 or 15 years, students who attended [executive MBA] programs were fully funded by corporations,” he says. Today, it’s a dramatically different story. Data from EMBA’s 2008 program survey show that 32 percent of today’s students are paying their own way, and an additional 36 percent share the cost with their companies. Another perspective on those data is that students are willing to dip into their own pockets to invest in their futures.

Desiderio also notes that executive MBA programs are more open to providing career services. That traditionally was taboo: Corporations paying for executive education didn’t want their employees to overtly look for other jobs. As Desiderio observes, however, career services offers much more than just job placement, including help managing one’s career with one’s current organization, which certainly benefits both employee and employer.

As providers of executive education continue to clarify just what it is they offer, Tami Fassinger believes that one area, specialized degree programs for working professionals, “is going to blossom.” Next year, for example, the first class will graduate in Vanderbilt’s new program for health professionals with five or more years of experience, which leads to a master’s degree in management. Fassinger describes the degree as “business fundamentals wrapped around professional execution,” and says it complements the university’s well-established MBA in health care.

To ensure that students find the kind of executive education that best suits them, Vanderbilt offers a potpourri of options that range from full MBA degree programs to specialized classes offered a la carte. Students can bundle classes, if they like, to customize a certificate program.

On the non-degree side of executive education, Fassinger says, one significant trend is in public or open-enrollment courses of relatively short duration. Short programs are getting even shorter. For executives who take these courses, Fassinger says, it’s psychologically better for them to be in their office more days than they are away. With shorter short courses, she says, “people can fly in on a Sunday night, take the course on a Monday and Tuesday, and be back in their office on Wednesday morning.” Another plus, Fassinger says, is that shorter courses are more attractive in a weak economy.

Yet another dimension of executive education is customizing programs for specific communities. Fassinger notes that today’s tight economy is driving more interest in programming in change management, realignment of strategies, and leadership coaching.

Focusing classes on real projects and problems that students bring from their workplace is another trend in executive education. Working professionals want to know, “ ‘How can I use this on Monday?’ ” Fassinger says. In addition, companies may be more open to supporting participation in a particular executive education program if they know it will result in a project deliverable. The thinking, Fassinger says, is that “ ‘I’m investing in people with hopefully many years of payback, but they are also going to be working on strategic projects that they will then be around to implement.’ ”

David Newkirk, chief executive officer for executive education at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, pursues a similar strategy. Several of Darden’s customized programs, he says, have followed a model learned from Europe that Newkirk calls “Learn-Do.” Students spend about half their time studying strategic concepts and tools. For the other half, teams focus on developing real strategies for their business.

“That’s more effective in two ways,” Newkirk says. “First of all, it’s better learning—as one of our colleagues says, ‘You’re practicing with live ammunition.’ The other thing is that you get to take something home. It’s a very good investment. We have more companies that now use us as a realistic alternative to a mid-sized consulting assignment.”
 
“The big issues in executive education are the old issues—how do you really teach leadership?” Newkirk says. “In terms of content, the big question now is, how do you help people better understand customers and their needs?”

Recognizing the out-of-pocket and opportunity costs of executive education, Darden is “shortening the on-grounds time, but extending the experience,” Newkirk says. Students, for example, prepare in advance, perhaps online, are expected to come to class ready to plunge in, and leave with post-program homework.

“We and everyone else is working on what I jokingly call ‘No Executive Left Behind,’ which is, how do we actually demonstrate the impact of what we do?” Newkirk says. Darden is working with the Center for Creative Leadership to assess the impact of what its executive education students learned several months after they complete a program.

Fassinger believes that executive education professionals can advance the field today by making programming as relevant and useful as possible—“nailing down the application and not just the theory.” They can also serve a critical role in helping potential students determine whether or not they need a degree and why. “Make sure there is a return on the education,” Fassinger says.

“People need to advance their skills,” Fassinger says. “That’s why executive education exists. At certain junctures in your career you hit new plateaus, and even if you have many degrees, the world is moving at a rate where you do need to refresh skills on a regular basis.” The challenge for professionals in executive education, she says, is to create the right mix of formats that enable executives to get the training they need, in the right format, when they need it.

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