The executive education is online

In 2016, Oxford University joined a revolution. It launched its first Massive Open Online Course or MOOC – a six-week course on understanding economic development.

It signals a trend that has changed the face of executive education. Driven by new technology, but also by demand for different access to learning, the revolution is as much about how, rather than what, the future C-suite learns.

“For the fast-rising superstars in a company, what are the chances you can hit the pause button on your life and spend £100,000 to go off for a year or two to study full time for a qualification?” asks Dr Anant Agarwal, chief executive of edX, a provider of MOOCs founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, and which is Oxford University’s new partner. “That model has been replaced by ‘just-in-time’ learning: bite-sized chunks of information that can be learnt quickly.”

Higher standards

Online courses have been around for years, but often suffered by association with the kind of learning that gave education a bad name, poorly developed distance learning courses, heir to the dubious correspondence course of the early-20th century. But this is a different kind of fish altogether, developed by world-class academics working at institutions, such as Harvard and Oxford, that need no introduction. These are courses that offer academic rigour combined with real-life experience.

“This is about the top providers in the world designing learning and work experiences that are very specific to top managers,” says Professor Maury Peiperl, pro-vice-chancellor and director of the Cranfield School of Management.

Technology, in the form of online and virtual “classrooms”, has allowed individuals to study whenever and wherever they like. “This is a game-changer,” says Rick Levin, chief executive at Coursera, a MOOC provider. “It’s the ability for the learner to acquire materials at his or her own pace – you can watch a module online as many times as you like.”

It may also change the way students engage. A study at Oxford, run by Dr Kate McClune, found an online chatroom meant students were “more willing to engage – and disagree – than in traditional tutorials”.

Dr Levin adds: “Online also makes it possible for a much deeper layer of an organisation to benefit from high-quality materials; online learning can be scaled.” So, for example, a corporate learning programme can offer an online lecture or class that can be attended by 100 people from around the world, all at the same time.

These are courses that offer academic rigour combined with real-life experience

The MBA, once seen as the top business qualification, is increasingly something for younger people, those in their 30s, who are still several notches below chief executive. Moreover, some critics argue it has limited relevance for chief executives; only 30 per cent of incoming chief executives globally in 2015 held the qualification, according to research from PwC.

“There’s no substitute for experience,” says Marco Amitrano, head of consulting at PwC. “An MBA does offer a grounding, but chief executives living in a VUCA [volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity] world need more. They need agility in their skillset.”

For many chief executives it’s less about a qualification, but about their level of preparedness for the job. Executive education is as much about mentoring or coaching as it is about imparting information or the latest research. It may be about role-playing, for example, what it means to be the public face of a company or how to deal with the press. It may be about learning the “soft” skills of negotiating or managing teams.

“It’s about helping them go somewhere they haven’t been, but will have to go,” says Professor Peiperl.

Non-financial metrics used to quantify return on executive education


The digital classroom

The short, sharp course, akin to a YouTube video, is only one part of how technology has changed executive education. In the digital world, no one is bound by geography.

“The main benefit of digital is the range of contact points it creates between individuals,” says Claire Hewitt, head of learning design, executive education, at Henley Business School. “It’s as much about how it connects us with others as how an individual uses it to consume learning.”

So, for example, each cohort of students will have a digital platform to talk to each other and to their tutors. “That means the face-to-face bit can be really focused and really made to count,” adds Ms Hewitt. “We shouldn’t underestimate the power of face-to-face classroom sessions; all our clients claim this is a key element of a blended programme.”

Peer-to-peer communication, which continues after a course has finished with well-maintained alumni programmes, is a recognisable benefit of executive education. “What matters is the mix of experience of the 40 people on that course,” says Mr Amitrano. Regular networking events and reunions are part of the draw. “It’s always a great pleasure to meet my fellows. I like to interact with them and ask them for advice,” as one alumni at the London Business School puts it.

New thinking and research now comes not only from a newsletter, but via faculty-led webinars as well.


What are you paying for?

Part of what you pay for in executive education is the curation of a programme. The great advantage of the digital age is that you can access a vast amount from the top thinkers around the world, but you need to know where and how. With a mind-boggling quantity of information out there, the skill of an academic is often to cut through the noise and ensure an individual learns what is relevant to his or her needs.

“People really want a customised and focused approach. It’s no longer about the sage on the stage, it’s about the guide by your side,” says Professor Peiperl.

It’s also about drawing together all the strands of an individual’s experience combined with the academic discipline and applying it to a current problem. Most programmes offer a mix of modules on which the whole group will work, but also modules designed for the individual student; the point is to apply the learning to issues within his or her own company.

“This is all about how you apply the learning in your own business,” says Ms Hewitt. “At CEO level people’s time is so precious; a course has to be properly bite-sized, properly structured.”

Whatever combination of short course, lecture, online, distance or face-to-face you choose, somewhere there is a course that suits you.