Executive Options

Executive education must remake itself in the face of new competitors, a changing student base, and demands for flexible program formats.
Executive Options

BEFORE BRUCE WIESNER JOINED the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business in 2010, he worked in the media industry, publishing magazines that enjoyed well-established subscriber bases and significant newsstand delivery.

“When more agile competitors came in with different delivery models, the industry changed dramatically,” says Wiesner, now the associate dean for executive education at the school in Vancouver, Canada. “We were hung up on how we liked to deliver media, when all that mattered was how the customer wanted to consume media. I think, for business schools to remain relevant, they have to understand how the customer wants to learn. We need to evolve to serve a changing market.”

While that’s true across higher education, it’s particularly applicable in the executive education segment. Says Valerie Hausman, the associate dean for executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina, “Universities no longer have a monopoly on executive education. We’re not only competing with Harvard and Stanford, but with consulting firms, executive search firms, and practitioners. It’s very much a commodity environment. The question we grapple with is, How do we stay relevant in this environment?”

For b-schools that want to compete in the executive education market, the answer seems clear, if not simple: They must design timely, relevant, accessible programming that no online competitor or single-topic provider can match. In short, they must differentiate themselves not only from the b-school down the road but also the MOOC over the internet. That means understanding how the market works now, what types of content students want to consume in what formats—and what strategies to employ to beat the competition.


Today’s new executive education competitors are “nimble, agile, consultative, innovative, and risk-taking,” says Wiesner—which means business schools must adopt some of the same traits. Schools also must be aware of and adapt to some of the key trends shaping executive education today:

Flexible delivery. “We’re seeing an increasing use of blended delivery methods, though not a complete shift to online,” says Steve Ludlow, head of executive education at the University of Reading’s Henley Business School in the U.K.

In large part, that’s in response to alternate providers who are aggressively experimenting with new technologies that range from virtual classrooms to augmented reality, says Laith Dajani, executive director of executive education at the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon. “Executive education models need to keep up with the disruptive models in education to stay relevant and impactful,” he says. Schools are trying out virtual learning formats, he says, “but probably not fast enough. It requires a lot of funding and experimentation to get it right.”

Others agree that executive education must begin to operate at least partially in the virtual space. For instance, in its open enrollment formats, the University of Navarra’s IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, is experimenting with online offerings that include MOOCs and SPOOCs (small private open or online courses). For some corporate clients, the school is providing 100 percent online courses, notes Eric Weber, associate dean and professor of accounting and control at IESE’s New York City campus.

In large part, that’s in response to alternate providers who are aggressively experimenting with new technologies that range from virtual classrooms to augmented reality, says Laith Dajani, executive director of executive education at the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon. “Executive education models need to keep up with the disruptive models in education to stay relevant and impactful,” he says. Schools are trying out virtual learning formats, he says, “but probably not fast enough. It requires a lot of funding and experimentation to get it right.” 

In addition, IESE just launched a blended executive program, “Driving Leadership Potential,” in which participants complete online modules before coming to campus for weekend residencies. For instance, before attending classes devoted to leadership, participants will complete an online module about decision making; before taking classes on business performance, they’ll complete a module about accounting.

But bringing elements of exec ed online is tricky, because one of the benefits participants seek from these programs is a chance to network with peers. For that reason, Hausman notes, all of Duke’s executive programs currently are residential, but she isn’t ruling out the possibility that future programs might include some online components. Even now, exec ed programs at Duke often include advance work that participants must complete online before showing up on campus.

“In the future, I can see us going to a modular format, where we might kick off a program over a weekend so that participants are here three days, leave for a month, and then return having completed some kind of project while they were gone,” she says.

Shorter programs. Not only are exec ed programs edging toward online components, they’re becoming shorter in length, as more individuals and organizations are reluctant to send personnel out of the office for extended periods of time, says Weber. “The days are over when you would see people go away for weeks to retool,” he notes.

Hausman agrees. In the past, Fuqua offered a four-week advanced program in management, but today the school’s longest executive education program is five days. The shortest is three. “We might experiment with two-day programs, but I’m convinced you can’t accomplish much in one day,” she says.

But Wiesner thinks micro programs are on the horizon. He recently told a client that UBC Sauder’s shortest programs last one-and-a-half days, and she replied, “That’s too long. Millennials on the management team are looking for courses that can be delivered in a few hours, perhaps in concurrent weeks.” Wiesner reports, “That was a wakeup call for us.”

UBC Sauder has experimented with micro courses in customized executive programs and is looking at including some in its open enrollment programs. “Bite-sized” courses are already available in the business management technology programs that recently moved over to Sauder from the continuing studies division; these are frequently online and aimed at younger learners who need professional development early in their careers. “This is an area where we’re learning from adult education,” Wiesner says.

Changing demographics. Those younger learners might soon become a bigger part of the executive education market, which has traditionally targeted participants in the middle of or late in their careers. Wiesner says, “In today’s world, people might be facing dramatic new challenges two or three years after graduation, so the customer for professional development is changing. Business schools need to revisit what that customer base is going to look like in the coming years.”

These twenty-somethings aren’t just looking for short, convenient programming; they actually think differently about learning and life. For instance, Wiesner heard a Gen Z speaker define a “face-to-face” meeting as any interaction that allowed her to see someone else’s face, even if it was on a phone or monitor. Therefore, b-schools must rethink the best way to configure their courses so that younger participants can learn—and network—in the ways they prefer.

The good news is that this younger consumer of executive education opens up a whole new market for business schools, which can serve students throughout their careers by offering a spectrum of products. “We can expand in a way that is complementary to what we currently do, not competing with it,” says Wiesner. (For another perspective on designing exec ed programs for younger participants, see “Exec Ed That's Anything But Old School.")

Certificates. No matter their age, exec ed participants like receiving certificates that they can share with bosses or HR departments to show they have completed educational courses. Many b-schools award certificates of completion, but they are only slowly exploring ways that participants can combine these in some fashion to create a more impressive credential or even an actual degree.

For instance, while Henley doesn’t offer what Ludlow calls a “fully flexible ‘credit accumulation,’” Ludlow can see a growing demand for it. Such stackable credit options would work best in programs that are content-heavy, he believes. But he has reservations. “The demand has to be set alongside the need to have a coherent learning journey and the benefits of working with a consistent cohort.”

Weber concurs. “IESE is moving in the direction of saying, ‘Our recommended learning journey for this kind of outcome would be consuming these kinds of programs’”—but he strongly believes that content should be curated. “People learn by associating things,” he says. “We need to see the content put within the context of achieving or doing something. So people can binge on Coursera courses and add all these certificates to their CVs, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to connect al the dots on their own.”

In a hyper-competitive market that’s filled with alternate providers, Weber continues, “I think business schools have an increased responsibility to facilitate those connections. We have to facilitate ‘aha’ moments.” New topics. Of course, potential participants won’t seek certificates to begin with if those certificates aren’t in subjects that appeal to them. Executive education is one of the areas that must be most responsive to market demand, and that market fluctuates with the economic times.

Several administrators note that perennial favorites like leadership an strategy still are among the most popular topics in executive education today. But a few other traditional courses are experiencing declining interest, says Ludlow—for instance, those devoted to specific professions and functions, such as HR or marketing.

On the other hand, the venerable discipline of supply chain management is enjoying a resurgence after a period of languishing popularity, says Weber of IESE, largely because of the impact of companies like Amazon that are so intently focused on logistics. Similarly, AUB’s Dajani notes that the ongoing emphasis on innovation means that many executives are looking for courses that will spark an entrepreneurial—or intrapreneurial—spirit within their companies.

But it’s no surprise that the subjects seeing the greatest spike in popularity are related to digital proficiency, data analytics, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For instance, Duke is debuting an open enrollment course taught by decision sciences faculty, designed to help executives manage their technical staff, learn what questions to ask, and understand how to use the data. Fuqua recently launched degree programs in data analytics and health analytics, and Hausman expects that eventually some elements of these programs will find their way into open enrollment offerings as well.

Will the digital trend last? Maybe—maybe not. Ludlow predicts that, “just like ethics and social responsibility, eventually digital will just become part of the core.”

Soft skills. Interestingly, as tech-focused courses see rising demand, the opposite is also true: Classes that explore the human side of business have become equally essential. Not only do participants want to learn about critical thinking, effective communication, and other soft skills, but they want programs that will emphasize development of the whole person. Thus, more schools are offering segments that focus on holistic health, which encompasses everything from better sleep to heightened mindfulness.

“Development of the individual’s self-awareness and self-resourcefulness is in demand in general because companies need executives who are capable of adapting quickly to change and able to lead with agility,” says Dajani of AUB.

As part of this trend, business schools also are providing participants with more opportunities to connect with coaches and mentors. “Coaching has become the No. 1 competitor to executive education,” says Weber. “Companies now spend more on coaching than they ever did on executive education.” Therefore, many schools are now offering coaching as well—both during the program and afterward.

Partnerships. As exec ed participants demand training in more varied areas of business, schools are recognizing that they can’t always provide all types of knowledge to all clients—and that sometimes it’s best to partner with other organizations. For example, when UBC Sauder has clients who are interested in mindfulness and the behavioral aspects of leadership, it can ask Humphrey Group, a Toronto-based firm that teaches leadership and communication skills, to deliver modules on those topics.

“A lot of schools worry about losing market share, so they have a kneejerk reaction of fearing the competition,” says Wiesner. “But the customer is going to seek the best solutions, so if you can work together with other providers, your offerings are much stronger.”

Henley Business School is also developing new partnerships devoted to executive education. For instance, the school will partner with the armed forces to recognize and accredit military courses, providing officers online and face-to-face opportunities to achieve BSc or MSc degrees in leadership and strategic studies. While these are degree programs, Henley considers them executive education because they are delivered primarily on a closed cohort basis. “While our normal nonqualification work has taken a hit recently, these tailored programs are showing strong growth,” Ludlow adds.

Another type of partnership is Henley’s recent collaboration with EY to design and deliver apprenticeship programs for businesses in response to a new apprenticeship levy instituted in the U.K., designed to improve the skills of the country’s workforce. Under the levy, all employers across the nation will be eligible to receive up to £15,000 (approximately US$21,300) annually to pay for apprenticeship services for their employees; much of the funding will come from large businesses, which will pay annual levies of .5 percent of their payrolls. The collaboration between Henley and EY will help businesses offer their employees educational apprenticeships, which will be delivered through a combination of traditional classes, workshops, digital learning, and on-the-job experience.

Finally, some schools are exploring alliances with other universities. For instance, says Dajani, AUB’s Olayan School is partnering with IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, to create a blended learning program for C-level executives. Dajani says, “It will address the growth-related challenges companies face and the building blocks required to prepare the organization for the next level of significant growth.”

An emphasis on impact. Whether companies are sending their employees out to receive training or individuals are joining open enrollment programs to hone their own skills, all executive education consumers are looking for practical, tangible gains. Says UBC’s Wiesner, “They want to look back six months or a year later and see that something has fundamentally changed.”

This means business schools should work with clients to devise ways to measure what kind of impact a program has had, he says. He expects this will require looking at both qualitative and quantitative metrics; he is also convinced that the measurement shouldn’t be conducted directly upon the program’s completion. “For instance, the lead instructor might sit down with the participants a year after the program to measure what impact it has had,” he suggests.


Even as business schools work to create short, hot-button, online programs that come with credentials and offer lasting impact, alternate providers are designing programs that deliver the same benefits. How can business schools differentiate themselves from the coding camps, the Google certificate programs, and the LinkedIn offerings?

The first thing to remember is that education is about more than content, says IESE’s Weber. “The content has always been available for free if you went to the library. Learning is about understanding what your goals and purposes are, what kind of journey you’re on, and that requires curation. I think that’s one way business schools can separate themselves from other providers.” Administrators point to two other differentiators that make business schools stand out from the competition:

The promise of lifelong learning. Some professional development consumers are simply looking for a quick hit on the topic of the day, but more of them realize that, if they want to stay employed, they will need to continually upgrade their skills. For them, it makes sense to develop a relationship with an institution that isn’t likely to disappear any time soon. That means schools need to develop programs that will provide ongoing educational opportunities for participants.

For instance, while Henley doesn’t have a structured lifelong learning offer, most of its programs do allow graduates to receive coaching afterward, which keeps these alums more closely tied to the school. At Duke, Hausman hears more participants asking questions like, “I’ve attended your leadership program, but what about version two and version three? Can I come back in five years and do a refresh?”

At IESE, which was founded as an institution devoted to executive education, lifelong learning has been a staple ever since the school graduated its first class. Anyone who attends an MBA program or a long-form executive program is considered an alumnus and eligible to participate in a host of ongoing educational opportunities. These include programs that are held at alumni reunion events, hundreds of short educational offerings that are provided to alumni in venues around the globe, and synchronous and asynchronous learning sessions delivered over the alumni division’s online platform. Dajani notes that, at AUB, participants of executive education programs aren’t generally considered alumni—but the school actively looks for ways to support them after they complete their programs. “The idea of creating communities of graduates is something the industry is heading toward,” he adds. “More and more, we see platforms providing community spaces where former participants can stay connected and schools can develop strategies for lifelong learning.”

The university advantage. While specialized providers can create relevant and just-in-time programming, universities can dig deeper. They can partner with other colleges on campus to design the interdisciplinary programming that many clients are looking for, and they can offer in-depth research-based programming that other providers simply don’t have the resources to put together.

“We have to ask, ‘As a school, what are we uniquely good at? What do we do that other schools aren’t doing, and how do we bring that into our executive education portfolio?’” says Hausman. For instance, she’s looking at two current MBA courses, one on CEO activism and one about women’s leadership in the age of #MeToo, and considering how these can be adapted to exec ed.

Even so, Hausman notes that she must weigh whether an unusual course topic will draw enough participants to make it feasible. She recently met with a professor in the department of psychiatry who is researching the neuroscience of leadership, and she brainstormed with other faculty in the departments of marketing and management to consider how to turn this into an executive education program. “With the limited resources we have in academia, the hardest thing is staying close enough to the market to understand what organizations need and figuring out what is broadly appealing to the market,” says Hausman.

But that deep faculty roster is a major advantage that universities have over their competitors. At UBC Sauder, the school leverages this advantage by bringing faculty members to meetings to discuss what the client’s needs and issues are before work even begins on course design. Says Wiesner, “Many clients have a good understanding of the issues they face, but they need help breaking down the underlying leadership and management development issues that underpin those challenges, and that’s where the faculty come in. It’s a different approach than saying, ‘You’ve got an issue with strategy—hey, we’ve got great strategy programs.’”

Finally, universities have a physical advantage over many competitors, particularly online providers: They have brick-and-mortar campuses. Hausman notes that even companies pursuing custom executive education want the true “university experience” that includes time in Duke buildings.

And bringing participants together in one place at one time adds an extra social dimension to the learning experience, says Weber. “Even though you can do discussions in chat rooms online, there’s still an advantage to meeting people and interacting with them in person, particularly if you’re going into the field of management. It’s during the social dimension of learning that people develop some of their softer skills, and that’s not a trivial thing.”


If university-based executive education is to continue thriving, business schools will need to stay on top of the market, take advantage of their unique strengths—and deeply explore how and why people undertake learning.

For instance, Weber explains that there are three components to learning, which IESE identifies as discover, discuss, do. “First, you have to study, concentrate, and absorb. There’s no such thing as effortless learning. Second, you have to discuss new knowledge with other people to understand how what you just learned can be turned into something actionable. And finally there’s the application of the learning. We make sure our programs incorporate these three steps.”

It’s equally important, says Wiesner of UBC, that both providers and consumers of executive education remember what it’s really about: the joy of learning. “We get so caught up in analyzing what we’re doing we forget that learning is an emotional thing,” he says. “Once people see that a program is actually helping them, they get excited about it. That emotional piece is absolutely critical. When it’s done right, it has a profound effect on multiple levels.

At Sauder, we want to know that when we leave clients, we leave them in a place where they can go forward because we’ve fundamentally changed them.” Ongoing learning is so important for tomorrow’s workers, Weber believes, that the companies that emphasize training and development will make themselves very attractive employers, especially to millennials. That’s true even in an era where lifelong employment with one organization is no longer a reality.

“Companies that invest in their talent, even when they know their talent eventually is going to leave, will do better than those that don’t,” Weber says. “If you’re known as one of the better companies in the market to train young talent, you’ll capture better talent yourself. It’s a virtuous cycle. That’s my hypothesis.”

This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2018 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].