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The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

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The Financial Times in its annual review of business schools pointed to high growth in executive education, which has evolved to become one of the fastest-growing sectors of business study. Executive education assists forward-looking organisations to grow and transform their businesses, and to realise strategic objectives. The experiential, project based and immersive education offered by leading business schools develop the skills, qualities and attributes required of future leaders.

Many business schools offer management and leadership executive education programmes as well as client customised programmes, and partner with peer learning organisations to ensure that they are up to date with the latest thinking across the globe. Increasingly, corporate graduate programmes mimic executive education programmes in what is essentially 18 months of inhouse learning.  

The Covid-19 crisis has forced education institutions to re-evaluate their model for delivering education in a world where mobility is seriously under threat. Online education is already a long-standing feature of education, but one hindrance is that not all people have adequate bandwidth or home circumstances conducive to home study. 

In the build-up to the Covid-19 lockdown, Professor Nicola Kleyn, dean of GIBS (Gordon Institute of Business Science), released the following statement: “My previous communication indicated that students could access the GIBS campus on a limited, preauthorised basis. Given the president’s announcement on the evening of March 23 of a nation-wide lockdown, we have made a decision to close the campus with effect from 6pm on March 24 2020 until further notice.”

Henley Business School opted to switch to 100% virtual and online learning immediately. Jonathan Foster-Pedley, dean and director of the Henley Business School, said in a statement: “Today, in order to deal with the Covid-19 threat, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande, announced that all higher education institutions should close until April 15. Accordingly, Henley Business School Africa has switched to 100% online and virtual delivery immediately.

“Fortunately for our valued students, our delivery of programmes will continue seamlessly, albeit in a different format for now. We have been working hard in the last weeks in anticipation of this moment to install the right technology and platforms, train up our educators and support staff and launch our virtual learning capability. It has been working very well. We have also benefited from [the experiences of] our international colleagues in our operations in the UK, Germany, Finland, Malta and Denmark,” said Foster-Pedley.

Face-to-face and online learning: Balancing executive education

Executive training has over the years shifted towards a project-based learning approach using digital tools to simulate the real-life situations that companies face daily. Being ready to change is now arguably the most important skill that executives need to master. Recent studies suggest that there are three objectives that learning programme providers should implement:

• Build awareness and support for strategic transitions;

• Facilitate the large-scale organisational change necessary to achieve new strategic directions; and

• Build greater leadership talent.

The benefits of embedding technology into project-based learning are:

• Demonstrating mastery of real-life, complex executive business issues;

• Increasing the effectiveness of learning by facilitating interactions with peers and academic faculties;

• Emphasising personalised education, as opposed to a traditional one-size-fits-all method; and

• Creating simulated practical tasks to allow learners to draw on their specific skills and expertise.

The ingredients of a successful technology-enabled learning approach are problem-solving and team collaboration, with a strong focus on teaching critical skills, such as innovation methods and business strategies. Online delivery is certainly a way for business schools to expand their reach, both geographically and in the academic domain. E-learning can facilitate customisation to meet clients’ needs, and it can make it possible for learners to work together without having to leave the office. However, e-learning components in education have not completely supplanted traditional learning yet — and there is no reason to think this will happen soon.

What are executive courses?

Executive education programmes vary, and the decision as to what one chooses should therefore be informed by one’s interests, time constraints and desired learning outcomes. There are short-term courses ranging from two to three days; three-week courses such as the Global Executive Development programme offered at GIBS Business School, which include one week of travel, as part of their strong focus on mixed learning methods; and the full MBA.

Executive education programmes are largely divided into customised courses, which are tailor-made for each client’s specific needs; and open courses based on flagship, standard programmes that the business school offers. Executive education programmes offer insights based on research and practical expertise on how to run a successful business by finding ways to make the most of one’s local resources and to discover new opportunities for growth.

When choosing a school to enrol in for an executive education programme, the individual will want to ensure that the school is cutting edge in terms of the research it produces around business strategies and methods of innovation. A course should equip the learner with the necessary managerial skills to respond to change; and it should boast the latest thinking in business excellence, design thinking, big data, strategic management and methods of innovation.

The theoretical education received from universities prepares students for the workplace. Executive education, on the other hand, is aimed at preparing leaders for the workplace, and are targeted at individuals who are already advanced in their careers. The programmes consequently tend to be more practical in what and how they teach.

The future of work is lifelong learning

At its latest AGM, the World Economic Forum issued a paper describing how:

  • Automation and the gig economy are radically changing how we work;
  • How we learn must keep pace with these new technologies;
  • We need learning to be cross-disciplinary, personalised and focused on human skills; and
  • Together, government and the private sector can future-fit education.

“One study, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), estimated that about 14% of jobs across its member countries are highly automatable and another 32% will be radically transformed by technological progress. To add to that, consider how the rise of the gig economy in recent years has challenged traditional work structures. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, 20-30% of the working-age population in the United States and the European Union is engaged in technology-enabled and on-demand, independent work; a number that is expected to grow.

“While some jobs will become automated and others will change significantly because of technology, we also recognise that new markets, industries, and jobs will be created — some of which we cannot even imagine today. In this fast-paced economy, learning should be seen as a lifelong endeavour for individuals at every stage of their career. How should higher education and its partners be adapting in order to provide the workforce [with] the foundational competencies and skills they’ll need, both now and into the future?

“As entire new industries are created and traditional ones expand and contract significantly, the skills needed to keep up are evolving at a faster rate than ever before. Educators and higher education leaders must approach skills competency with a flexible growth mindset that will serve students well across the global, knowledge-based economy, and throughout their careers. There is an undeniable need to train the next generation in emerging digital competencies and to be fluent in designing, developing or employing technology responsibly. At the same time, 21st century students must learn how to approach problems from many perspectives, cultivate and exploit creativity, engage in complex communication, and leverage critical thinking. With a future of work that is constantly evolving, these non-automatable ‘human’ skills are foundational, and will only increase in value as automation becomes more mainstream.”

Some 14% of jobs in OECD member countries are highly automatable and 32% will be radically transformed. (Image courtesy of OECD Employment Outlook 2019)
Some 14% of jobs in OECD member countries are highly automatable and 32% will be radically transformed. (Image courtesy of OECD Employment Outlook 2019)

Many people will have to create their own jobs

The future of education requires breaking down the barriers that exist between education and the real world in the era of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Fred Swaniker, co-founder of the African Leadership Academy and African Leadership University, emphasised that a key requirement to thriving in a fast-paced society is lifelong learning and the ability to acquire new skills quickly. 

“It starts with a recognition among all educators that the world is changing. To prepare people for the future, you need to design an education system that is forward-looking and not backward-looking. In today’s world of artificial intelligence, robotics and the 4IR, you have to prepare people for uncertainty and promote agility and adaptability.

“It means encouraging flexibility rather than specialisation. It requires training and retraining teachers, as well as redesigning education systems and curricula. Instead of learning to memorise facts and figures, students need to ‘learn how to learn’ and how to solve problems.”

Changes are needed at every level: “You have to infuse things like entrepreneurship into the curriculum because with the disruption that’s going on, many people are going to have to create their own jobs. We may end up in a world in which people are more likely to be autonomous contractors than to have a secure job lasting for a lifetime. We need to completely reframe the system of education based on where the world is going, instead of continuing to do the same thing over and over again.

“Education used to be a one-shot game, now it has to be a lifelong game. You don’t just get educated once. You need to go in-between learning and work. You have to bring professionals into the classroom to teach. You have to work on projects for real organisations from the beginning, and you have to go out into the environment, into communities. You have to understand the real problems that people are facing so you can shape your learning around those problems rather than just look at a textbook.

“You need to envision multiple scenarios, telling yourself: ‘If the world shifts like this, fine; if it doesn’t, what’s my plan B, my plan C, my plan D?’ Education should set you up to be flexible rather than forcing you into a box.”

Fred Swaniker, co-founder of the African Leadership Academy and African Leadership University. (African Leadership Academy and African Leadership University)
Fred Swaniker, co-founder of the African Leadership Academy and African Leadership University. (Photo courtesy of African Leadership Academy and African Leadership University)

South Africa: value of an MBA

In the Financial Time’s Global MBA index for 2020, it reports troubled times for some full-time MBAs, with 52% of MBA courses covered in the survey reporting declining applications, compared with 40% for whom numbers increased.

“This has produced fragmentation, or … regional islands of education. Applicants are picking just one or two schools rather than three or four, and are staying closer to home in these choices,” it reported.

Despite this, the established elite schools in the upper reaches of the ranking have managed to maintain their solid hold on the global MBA market.

In the 2020 ranking, Harvard Business School has overtaken the Stanford Graduate School of Business to be ranked the top full-time MBA in the world, followed by the University of Pennsylvania: Wharton, up from fourth position previously.

A key part of the Financial Time’s analysis of MBAs is including the weighted average salary graduates have earned over the last three years, and the percentage increase this represents on their salaries from before doing the MBA.

Salary increases among the MBA graduates range from R1.3-million to R3.2-million a year, with increases ranging between 58% and 216%.

# School % increase

1 Harvard Business School 110

2 University of Pennsylvania: Wharton 107

3 Stanford Graduate School of Business 117

4 INSEAD 101

5 CEIBS 187

6 MIT: Sloan 119

7 London Business School 105

8 Columbia Business School 115

9 HEC: Paris 133

10 University of Chicago: Booth 123

11 Northwestern University: Kellogg 109

12 University of California at Berkley: Haas 110

13 IESE Business School 119

14 Yale School of Management 12815 National University of Singapore Business School 148

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