A new kind of learning

How area colleges are adapting to the future C-suiters

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Wisconsin is being challenged like never before by an aging workforce, and when that soon-to-retire demographic — in most cases baby boomers — involves C-suiters the question becomes: Where will future leaders come from?

Savvy businesses may already have a succession plan in place, but many do not. A recent study from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development predicts that in the next 10 years the state will need to add or replace as many as 1 million workers. Knowing that, programs have been implemented to retrain and match workers in jobs for the future, but just as important is attracting and retaining the younger set, those under 30 who don’t necessarily want to fit into the same mold as their parents but who may one day be running companies. Are they out there? Will they have the determination to earn the big jobs?

How people learn has always been at the forefront of college curriculums. In this discussion about executive education, one thing is clear: Education as many of us knew it is a thing of the past, as institutions try to accommodate a new breed of student.

Advising the educators

“If you went to college 20 or 30 years ago, you’d be surprised now because you’ll see small-group tables, computers, and white boards for presentations,” reports Kim Hollman, business management instructor at Madison College. “The delivery of the material and the development of that knowledge has changed significantly over the years.”

Several times a year, Madison College taps into an advisory board comprised of local and state employers to help determine how its curriculum can better churn out the workers businesses are looking for. Programs are revised every year or two with the focus being active learning versus lectures.

“We’re preparing future managers, supervisors, and executives by giving them more real-life applications in the classroom,” Hollman says.

The technical school has offered online and accelerated courses for years, but growing demand is also forcing change as students seek convenience and flexibility in how and when they study. The students fit a different profile as well, Hollman notes. “I’d say the majority of our students are not in the 18 to 21 age group.” The recession had a lot to do with that, she explains, noting an influx of returning, working adults.

Madison College offers courses in a variety of formats: online, accelerated (earn three credits in six to eight weeks), and the traditional 16-week course. Distance learning is also available through Telepresence, which connects students across multiple campuses. “From an employer’s standpoint, Telepresence is a great thing because students work with people who are not even in the same location as they are in, and they work in groups even though they might be physically located in three different cities.”

The technology used in online courses allows educators to appear “live” to maintain the classroom feel. “In almost all online courses, there is a healthy amount of discussion and group work occurring,” says Hollman, who records herself every week giving instruction or feedback. “Just because I have an online class doesn’t mean I’m not calling [my students] and talking to them.”

Hollman says the advisory board companies are seeking individuals who are aware of industry trends, can work in groups, and apply critical thinking. They want employees who can be more persuasive, present an unbiased argument, and sell their thoughts. They’re also frustrated by a lack of good writing skills.

In response, Madison College has significantly increased the amount of written and oral communication skill sets it is providing its students, many of whom are older working adults who may be changing careers or just getting back into the workforce.
“The advisory boards help us keep the pulse on what the needs are today and what they will be in the future. We’re continually changing the curriculum to meet those needs.”

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Balance and focus

Edgewood College surveys its grad students and alumni to measure their satisfaction with its programs. Focus groups have also been conducted. Flexibility rings all the bells, the research shows, but the college is going a step further in its MBA program to focus on how students are learning.

“We realigned the course sequencing to match up with the balanced scorecard,” reports Pat Hallinan, director of assessment and graduate advising in the school of business. The balanced scorecard, she explains, is a way to look at an organization from a different set of factors. It’s a management and measurement tool the college has been tweaking for a while. Edgewood focuses on four tracks: money (accounting and financial), employee (ethics/management), processes (quantitative methods/operations/IT), and customer (ethics, organizational behavior).

Students will take a course in accounting, for example, and then a course in corporate finance to follow the money sequence. Or, for the employee track, they’ll take an ethics course followed by organizational behavior. The customer track provides communications followed by marketing, and those in the processes track will take an IT course followed by statistics and operations. “It wasn’t that we were making dramatic changes in the courses we had taught, but it was all about having students take them in a very specific order to make better sense.”

It’s a newer approach to learning, and two tracks — money and employee — have just been implemented.

Hallinan says some of Edgewood’s MBA programs tend to be better suited for those with past or current job experience. She’s witnessed young students, frustrated at not finding a job in the current marketplace, applying to grad school for lack of other options. In those situations, solid business internships are encouraged.

Age changes expectations, she admits, and like any of the colleges, Edgewood College students run the gamut in age ranges. “Looking at millennials, those kids really want to do meaningful things. They’ll want to be concerned with the triple bottom line — shareholders, employees, community. They’ll also bring different things to the table, and that’s good.”

Some, however, tend to shy away from traditional business careers such as public accountancy. One accounting concentration adds an additional 15 credits to the MBA program. Occasionally, students balk at the extra time and work it would take.

“'Why would I do that?’” they wonder, despite her explanation that it would broaden their understanding and marketability. A career is a journey, she notes, and needs buy-in from all concerned.

The question is: If some students don’t want to do the hard work now, will they ever do the hard work required of a CEO?

There still are plenty of students willing to accept the challenge, Hallinan insists, but as a generation? “I don’t know,” she admits. “The generation coming in may not want to be the same kind of CEOs that there were in the past, but there still are some very hard workers out there who are very thirsty to learn and figure things out.”

High-potential potential

Steve King is the executive director at the Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional and Executive Development, located in the Fluno Center.

He’s noticed larger organizations focusing more on succession management as they prepare people for executive roles.

“I think the biggest change in the last 15 to 20 years has really come in the space where organizations are significantly more sophisticated about the identification of high-potentials in their organizations,” he says, “and the determination of how those high-potentials will move through their executive ranks and how they will be developed as they move through them.”

The companies he speaks of are selecting and paying for their employees to acquire new competencies so they can advance in the organization, he says. “When they hire someone and that person proves to have high-potential, they become a pretty important asset. If that asset were to leave, it would cost them a lot of money.”

Whether companies are trimming or bolstering their training budgets, King doesn’t know. But they are changing how they distribute training dollars, he says. “Years ago, people were sent to training programs — in many cases to be fixed. There was a problem, or they weren’t performing well. Send them to a class and maybe they’ll do better. Now, what they realize is that the dollars are better spent on their high-potentials.”

Meanwhile, the university is keenly aware of the competition coming from for-profit colleges, he says. Adding virtual programs is one response, but the business school also developed KDBIN, an acronym designed to better plan its curriculum and focus on what the students want. It stands for Knowledge, Doing, Being, Inspiration, and Networking. KDBIN comes at a time when universities everywhere are being asked to adjust to technology changes and budgetary cuts, but King views it as an essential change in mindset. “This model has challenged everyone in the business school to broaden our view of how we can create an experience that is more robust.”

As students demand more at-home and experiential learning, will a college degree remain as relevant in the future? King says large organizations will drive that decision ­— those that have traditionally put college degrees above experience when sorting the wheat from the chaff. “They also lose a lot of talent that way,” he admits.

“If the world were to shift and large organizations decided they no longer cared about degrees anymore, things would change.”

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Customized training leads way in executive education

From his perch at Madison College, Dennis Wessel sees more business organizations reaching out for help in developing supervisory and management skills, both on the operational and strategic sides.

Wessell is the director of business and industry services and external programming at Madison College, where leadership development has become one of the college’s most sought-after programs. “We work with business and industries throughout the area to design programs and customized leadership training for them,” he says. “It’s one of [Madison College’s] best-kept secrets,” he jokes.

What might not be secretive is that such programs are becoming inside jobs. Businesses receive customized training in the confines of their own spaces over the course of days or weeks through Leadership Academies designed especially for them.

Operational training might include frontline or mid-management training, coaching employees, employee development, situational leadership, effective communication, or managing conflict.

On the strategic side, training can include developing strategic initiatives, aligning an organization’s structure, or analyzing financial statements.

“Many people already have degrees, some may not, and some are family-owned businesses. We take them from where they are today to where they need to be tomorrow,” Wessel says.

Programs are typically a half-day long and always pertinent to their industry or challenges. They’ve been particularly popular in the manufacturing, health care, financial services/insurance, and government sectors, but any company can benefit.

“Leadership skills are transferable across industries,” Wessel states. “We bring basic leadership skills in a pertinent, practical approach. Recently, we met with a company that has grown from $12 million to $60 million, and they’ve grown so rapidly they’re outgrowing their ability to successfully manage.”

Another observation is that the workforce has become more operational and less managerial, though not by choice. “As organizations downsized during the recession, more work was shouldered by fewer people.” They became the doers, rather than the thinkers or strategists. “But what does that say for the long-term strategic direction of where you want to go? To be a successful organization, you need a successful leadership team.”

The same applies to entrepreneurial companies that have become successful with just one product, he says. “There comes a time when you outgrow that small nucleus and you have to develop a structure to support where you want to go, whether you’re a profit or nonprofit business.”

Companies select and pay for the individuals they feel would benefit from the Academy and work with Wessel to design a suitable program. “Organizations are growing and expanding and trying to find good people. Once you find them, you want to keep them, and a large part of that is having the right structure and the people and leadership in place.”

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