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Executive Education

Defining the path forward for Executive Education

Long before the pandemic entered our lives, the concept of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) was fully integrated into the managerial lexicon. In our current context, this tidy shorthand to describe unpredictable circumstances has taken on more relevance than ever before. 

chemin de livres ouverts dans l'herbe en direction de l'horizon

Companies are mapping out the future of work while continuing to navigate an incalculable, VUCA-defined present - and business schools are doing the same. As Roddy Millar states in Developing Leaders Quarterly, “While businesses are reimagining the workplace of the future, and rethinking what they need from executive learning, business schools are having to respond and to evolve their understanding of what executive education delivery will look like in coming years.” 

In response to these disruptions and challenges, a new paradigm for executive education is emerging - one that will redefine what executive education programs look like well past the current COVID era. In keeping with this new paradigm, leading business schools like HEC Paris have adapted their program approach and delivery in order to help clients meet their specific challenges. Below, we take a look at some of these adaptations and how they’ll reshape executive education for decades to come. 

The move to online learning models 

With stay-at-home mandates taking hold in March 2020, both providers and clients found themselves immersed in a VUCA world. As campuses closed, business schools rapidly moved their programs online, and schools that had already embraced digitally supported learning, like HEC Paris, were at an advantage. 

It may not have always been plain sailing, but in most cases, the transition to online learning for executive education programs has been remarkably successful. As Millar notes in Developing Leaders Quarterly, it has also “played its part - along with the wholesale adoption of online meetings - in forging a new appreciation that ‘online was OK.’” 

Of course, pivoting from face-to-face programs to long hours spent in front of screens had its drawbacks. The onus was therefore on business schools to make the necessary adaptations to keep online learning sustainable, by incorporating asynchronous materials and limiting Zoom calls. Although this helped to stimulate focus and engagement, some participants still felt they were still missing out on one of the key reasons they’d enrolled in a business school in the first place - networking opportunities and the social experience that occurs naturally in face-to-face programs. Business schools, like HEC Paris, that had already prioritized online networking systems and peer-to-peer learning, were again at an advantage. 

A new emphasis on customization 

Following the move to online models of learning, customization is now playing a greater role in Executive Education than ever before. 

“A new level of customization is being ushered in - not only designed with an organization’s goals in mind, but with new targeting, at a granular level, to the specific needs and wants of individual participants within the program,” Millar states. The mass adoption of online learning means that executive education can and will go much deeper and wider into organizations from this moment onwards.” 

At HEC Paris, our custom programs have always been shaped to the specific needs of companies and their teams. Now, with the opportunities that online technology opens up, we’re able to tailor our programs even more to the individual needs of each participant. 

The quest for relevancy 

As business schools continue to focus on innovating and developing their delivery formats - having “shifted 12 years in 12 weeks in their digital capabilities in the spring of 2020,” according to Millar - many are forced to contend with the reality that updated delivery formats aren’t all they’ll need to evolve. The pandemic has increased the need for agility that some clients may not see reflected in the structured, academic world of university-based executive education programs. 

“It is clear the client side is keen to work with universities and business schools who can access new thinking much more quickly,” Millar adds. 

At HEC Paris, the cross-fertilization of insights and best practices across divisions in our custom programs engenders this kind of agility, making it an integral part of our value proposition. By combining peer-to-peer learning with the careful selection of faculty and staff who offer both empirical expertise and real-world experience, we can offer a system for learning that rises above the level of thought exercise. The best way to stay relevant, after all, is to solve real problems in real time.

Where do we go from here?

In his Developing Leaders Quarterly piece, Millar makes an interesting argument - that the pandemic has, in many ways, left business schools better off. 

“There is no doubt that the road travelled has been both long and at many times arduous, but the place both providers and clients now find themselves in is in many ways further developed, more established, and better road-tested than would have been the case had the pandemic not occurred,” he affirms. 

Although it will take some time yet to fully realize the extent to which executive learning has already changed, we can be sure of one thing - it is changing and will continue to change.

“All aspects are changing,” Millar concludes. “Not just the technology, but the content delivery and the program structures - with emerging best practices becoming embedded on both sides of the executive education equation, from the classroom to the workplace.” 


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