Exec Ed: Align Course with Strategic Vision

Jim Woodrum, director of mid management development for the UW-Madison School of Business, refers to our present economic situation as, "The New Normal," but ambitious executives are still trying to figure out how to navigate their careers through a period that hardly feels like the norm.

With any luck, the New Normal won't last for very long, but since a return to the "old normal" isn't likely anytime soon, it's time to start thinking about building a skill base that allows you to demonstrate "keeper" value in any environment. As Woodrum notes, there is a ton of guesswork involved, especially when it comes to pinpointing the diverse mix of skills that will be required and what the economy will look like when the nation emerges from the recession.

"It's a funny [strange] environment," Woodrum said. "We went through something similar in the early 1980s."

While we survived the early '80s, the emerging economic picture is anybody's guess. In the view of educators interviewed for this look at executive education, there is one constant: the importance of investing in staff development, whatever your misgivings and especially as individual employees are being asked to do more for their downsized organizations.

David Dies, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Higher Education Approval Board, said companies often fail to invest in executive education because they fear a corporate version of the "brain drain," where highly trained employees leave after the company invests in their development.

"Those [employee departures] may be a possibility, but if you don't invest in your workforce, there are probably greater consequences to be had," Dies said. "So you need to be investing and you need to be providing those kinds of opportunities."

In this look at recessionary executive education, IB look at trends and motivations for executive development. More importantly in this cost-conscious business environment, we explore how to know your business organization is getting its money's worth.


According to our experts, executive professionals in this environment should pounce on opportunities to diversify their skills. Strategic business skills are likely to take on added importance, but the more practical skills centered on productivity and project management — skills that enable workers to better compete and be more productive — continue to be in vogue, especially in organizations that allow new skills to be applied immediately.

Employers continue to tell executive trainers that they place a premium on people who communicate effectively, work well in teams, and think critically enough to solve complex problems. "They [executives] are seeing the need to add to their skill sets and their knowledge base to really make them more valuable to their organizations," said Briana Houlihan, Madison campus director for the University of Phoenix. "The key to it is that they have to be able to fit it into their lives, and they want faculty within the classroom who are going to give them some real-world application that they can take back and apply to their companies right now because they really need to add that value immediately."

'The real question is, can you apply it back at the ranch?" agreed Bob Rodriguez, director of corporate training for Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. "In other words, do you have a culture in your organization that allows for those changes? Do you have a staff that understands, that has the right mindset?

"There are just so many other factors other than the concept that I'll go back and I'll use it right away. Maybe you can, maybe you can't."

Woodrum said executive educators are still seeing demand for traditional management courses. "My guess is some of the reasons we still see demand there is that when things are good, it's easy to not deal with some of the difficult situations and difficult conversations that are required," he said. "But when things are more challenging, all of the sudden you realize that you're required to step up to the plate."

As for what's on the plate for specialized programming, Woodrum cited discussions around sustainability issues — business sustainability and environmental sustainability in combination, but especially environmental. Increasingly, executive education staffs are developing sustainability curriculums for businesses interested in going green without losing green. "Basically, it's how to profitably be a better steward of the environment, with the emphasis on profitably," Woodrum said. "The idea of dealing with environmental sustainability issues just for the sake of doing it isn't where the marketplace is going. It's about how can I make money while simultaneously doing this?"

Another trend also is a sign of the times: consumers appear to want executive education in smaller chunks. Woodrum said the idea of asking your boss to go away for a couple of weeks, or even a week, is being replaced by "asking to go away for a couple of days."

As a result, institutions like Edgewood College offer more one- and two-day workshops, which are hardly its bread and butter. "We do it to expose people to our faculty and add value to our corporate partnerships," said Dr. Scott Campbell, dean of the Edgewood College School of Graduate and Professional Studies.


Online Blend

There still are adults who swear they learn best in a face-to-face environment, but most of our experts believe the Internet will continue to be used in combination with face-to- face instruction, with the Internet being the predominant vehicle for project collaboration and content delivery, and management instruction being handled onsite.

One official thinks it's possible to offer an entire executive education curriculum on Web-based delivery formats because that's what single moms and other types of adult students increasingly want. Online classrooms are available anywhere Internet access exists, connecting them to fellow students and faculty support, and giving students the ability to electronically submit coursework without being in the physical classroom. Content delivery tools like video and podcasts help institutions appeal to professionals who not only crave but require work-life-education balance, and to professors who find value in reaching students simultaneously through online video.

"In the Madison area, our students are more heavily women than they are men," Houlihan noted. "Quite a few single moms that go to school here find it really beneficial to stay home in the evenings, and sign on to their classes after putting their kids to bed."

Once the economy regains some traction, Jon Aleckson, CEO of the Madison-based Web Courseworks, believes more executive education will be delivered via online games. While developing games and simulations to educate has been placed on the back burner, Aleckson said efforts like the University of Texas at Austin's Acton MBA program are branding themselves around game-based learning. Whether it's for pricing or customer segmentation simulation, Aleckson believes these games engage the learner more than reading text, but it takes organizations some time to get there.

Aleckson believes those who insist on maintaining some level of face-to-face training, including instructors who believe their self interest lies in it, are somewhat dismissive of the profound impact of social networking vehicles like Facebook, Twitter, and the one he says has the most potential from a business-to-business standpoint — LinkedIn. Those social networks should be providing them with clues into the potential educational value of online gaming, especially those of the "massively multi-player role playing" variety.

"The first reaction is, 'Let's try to duplicate face-to-face online,'" Aleckson said, describing the usual transition. "That is where you get the Webinar with the instructor talking on line. That is the lowest form of it, and it's very easy to do.

"Then they want learner activity and online discussions, Web 2.0 online discussions. Then they may, if they can finance it, start putting in interactive activities, and on the high end of that would be some type of online game, but we're not getting a lot of calls for that now. We are getting calls based on the need to convert these face-to-face activities online."

Value Proposition

The value of executive education has been called into question, particularly the sometimes maligned MBA degree, and this decade's corporate scandals leave many wondering whether business ethics are even a focus of institutions when they are training business leaders. "To a degree, it's a valid criticism," said Campbell, who cited the need to avoid program commoditization as a real challenge for Edgewood and other executive education programs.

In the end, our experts believe that institutions offer more value if they can help position your staff, and therefore your organization, for the inevitable turn around. The better ones use their connections in private industry to shape their curriculums because co-developing programs with corporate partners can only help a program's relevance.

At the onset of the nation's economic crisis, Woodrum said the temptation was to quickly implement some kind of "getting through tough times" class. He said the UW-Madison executive education staff resisted that temptation in order to focus on creating classes that will be relevant to the post downturn environment.

"Our customers are asking us to make sure that there is kind of focused, practical material that they get out of the class," Woodrum said. "In other words, if I'm going to ask, in this difficult time, for the opportunity to go to the university and take some training, I want to be absolutely sure that when I come back, I can point to three things I'm doing differently or the tools and technologies that I picked up.

"In essence, I want to more easily make the business case as to why the program was worth it."

Rodriguez (Great Lakes Higher Education Corp.) said the key to getting your money's worth out of executive education does not involve precise measurements of return on investment. That's impossible to measure, he said, but organizations can evaluate whether executive education is aligned with their strategic vision.

"We feel that executive education does not start with the executive," Rodriguez said. "We need to have continuity in our training that focuses on what's really important to our company. What we are trying to do is provide education and training that supports our company vision, our values, and our strategies.

"The word I would use is alignment. As long as it's aligned with the strategy, now you can sort of measure that."

To derive full value, Rodriguez also said executive education should be about much more than simply educating executives, it also should be about getting executives to do some of that educating, too. In other words they teach from executive training as much as they learn from it, which transmits their knowledge to different organizational levels.

No Getting Around It

Dies believes that most organizations eventually realize that they need to "grow their own," and most employees appreciate the opportunity to bond with an organization. That bond, strengthened by professional development opportunities, might be enough for them to resist the temptation to go somewhere else because they value a mutually beneficial relationship with their employer. "When they find those individuals with the talents that fit well within their organization, they are willing to make that type of an investment," Dies said. "It's one of those things that, yes, it may be possible that somewhere down the road they find an opportunity because of that enhanced education. But generally employees, and I think particularly in this kind of economic climate, would see that as an advantage, that the employer is willing to invest in them."