“It wasn’t just the buffet lunches.”
For Russell Miller, Director of Learning Solutions and Innovation at Imperial College Business School, the return in demand for on-campus executive training isn’t all that surprising.
“People have undoubtedly missed the relationship-building and networking elements of in-person learning of the past few years, and so this is quite probably the key driver of the resurgence we’re witnessing.”
The COVID-19 pandemic saw numbers for Imperial’s virtual courses overtaking on-campus executive courses, with virtual participation in 2020-21 reaching record levels. But the 2021-22 academic year has seen a sharp spike in demand for face-to-face Executive Education, from a wide range of programs including Finance, Innovation, Leadership, Strategy, and Health.
While Miller acknowledges that a revival in the appetite for traditional Exec Ed – on-campus, in-person teaching – was inevitable, he’s quick to highlight the ground made by online learning in recent years to answer its critics. “Online learning flourished during the pandemic and many of those who were perhaps sceptical of its efficacy have now experienced first-hand that it doesn’t have to be the poor relation,” he says.
Imperial College Business School is recognized as one of the leading institutions for digital learning, establishing an award-winning Edtech Lab in 2005 and offering an online MBA that is ranked #2 in the world by the Financial Times.
Miller goes as far to suggest that the bar may have even been raised for on-campus teaching, noting that participants on traditional Exec ed courses now come to expect “sophisticated blended elements using many of the technologies that became everyday learning tools during the pandemic.”
For Lewis Sheldrake, an executive education participant at Imperial, the school met those lofty standards, noting the outstanding facilities at the business school’s South Kensington campus, which, Sheldrake notes, sits “in the epicentre of science, technology and innovation”.
But for Sheldrake, a former member of the British Armed Forces, it was the environment that the in-person delivery fostered that really made his time with Imperial so valuable. “The in-person programme helps foster an environment of active participation and collaboration which is difficult to otherwise replicate,” he says.
For Imperial’s Russell Miller, meanwhile the vision for the future of executive education is clear. “It’s about ensuring that programme participants get the best of all worlds. Building knowledge, skills and behaviours through the use of online, virtual and in-person modes will be key to that,” he says.
Much like Imperial, Harvard Business School has seen a surge in demand for virtual study options during the pandemic. In fiscal 2021, executive education pivoted to an all-virtual portfolio. Not content in simply surviving in a new, distance-required environment, however, HBS innovated, designed, and delivered 70 virtual Comprehensive Leadership Programs and Topic-Focused Programs for more than 4,400 global participants. Participation across all executive education programmes at HBS in 2021 was 20% higher than the previous fiscal year.
When asked in the fall of 2010, ‘When will Harvard Business School enter the arena of online education?’ the then dean of HBS, Nitin Nohria answered unequivocally, “Not in my lifetime.” With characteristic humility, Nohria has since admitted he was wrong and is enormously proud of the online courses the school has created. The school’s commitment to expanding its online offerings – executive programmes or otherwise – is clear to see.
Revenue for HBS’ online courses and programmes hit $76 million in fiscal 2021. A record, and likely aided by the pandemic restrictions in place, the school also saw unprecedented student numbers on online programmes, as 39,566 learners enrolled on HBS’ online courses.
Patrick Mullane, the Executive Director of Harvard Business School Online and Executive Education (and a contributor here on Forbes) is focused on making the best use of the on-campus experience with the online experience.
“To be clear, I think there will always be the two extremes, the on-campus learning experience… and the completely online experiences where the faculty are not interacting with you live,” he explained, when addressing the future of online education in an HBS Online webinar.
Mullane is optimistic about the scope for innovation within the educational delivery space, noting that, “in between those two extremes, there is a huge universe of things that can be done and that is where we are going to spend our time exploring in the next couple of years.”
Looking to the future of education, and the role of online learning, Mullane cites ‘convenience’ as a factor accounting for much of the popularity of online delivery. “We hear from a lot of folks that it has much to do with convenience,” Mullane says.
In-keeping with Imperial’s Miller, HBS Online’s executive director references a shift in attitudes towards digital delivery. But, for Mullane, it could be a case of generational change: “…there are generations that are being born that are just more comfortable with many aspects of their life being done in a remote way,” he says.
Reflecting on the remarks made by HBS’ former dean, Mullane is quick to flag that Nitin Nohria “realized the error of his ways pretty quickly.”
In many ways, the pandemic has catalysed this change in mindset. After all, whether at Imperial in or HBS, restrictions put in place forced providers to think on their feet. But as Imperial College Business School’s impressive bounce-back figures for on-campus exec ed confirms, there is a clear resurgence in demand for face-to-face business courses.
For Kai Stenzel, Chief Market Officer at Germany’s Mannheim Business School, rising demand for in-person executive training isn’t all that surprising. He believes the face-to-face element of executive education is indispensable.
“Executive education is all about taking people out of a familiar environment and creating an inspiring space to learn. In our view, this is not entirely possible with purely online formats, since important parts of interpersonal communication cannot be conveyed as effectively as with in-person learning,” he says.
While Stenzel is hesitant to over-emphasize online delivery going forward, he’s quick to highlight the array of choice available at Mannheim, noting that “online delivery has become an established part of our portfolio, and it will remain so.”
But, for Stenzel, participants getting the most out of the executive programmes on offer at Mannheim, thanks to the immersive environment available on-campus, makes face-to-face learning unparalleled in its value. “Anyone who is still answering e-mails, taking part in meetings, or preparing a meal on the side will not achieve the desired learning success, and this is ultimately money and time wasted both for participants and their employers.”
According to Vittorio Chiesa, Chairman at POLIMI Graduate School of Management in Italy, incorporating technology into its educational offering has long-since been recognised as a game-changer. “Technology is a major engine of change, and digitalization infiltrates across all sectors,” he says.
POLIMI has made technology a core pillar upon which it stands, curtesy of FLEXA, “an AI-infused career coaching digital tool that POLIMI has been offering to students and alumni for years,” Chiesa affirms. Among an array of other technologies, courses, initiatives and new facilities, the Milan-based institution has quite literally woven technology into the very fabric of the school. And, having partnered with the likes of Microsoft for this endeavour, POLIMI has worked tirelessly to create an online learning environment as close to the real thing as possible.
From Imperial and HBS to Mannheim and POLIMI, senior staff all prescribe an approach to executive education that optimises the “best of both worlds”, stressing the importance of choice, and highlighting the value of a blended approach to learning. “Platforms such as FLEXA, are not substitutes for traditional education programmes, but a complement to it,” Chiesa concludes.
Much like Chiesa, Patrick Furu, Director of Customised Design at Aalto University Executive Education, in Finland, recognizes the need for technologically savvy professionals in an increasingly digitally-intensive world. “There is a growing need to educate and reskill the workforce to keep up with the accelerating development of new technologies, organisational forms and industry transformation.”
For Furu, it’s not simply a case of being able to keep pace and remain as effective an operator as possible in this fast-changing world of work – it’s about survival. “Failing to be curious and not following the recent developments in digital technologies is a recipe for deterioration,” he says. “Considering the speed with which technological development is escalating, that deterioration is faster than we think.”
With the business environment in a state of seemingly-permanent flux, curtesy of technological innovation, what can professionals do to stay ahead of the curve? According to Furu the answer is simple – constant learning. “This is no longer accomplished through one-off courses,” he claims. Aalto has made its stance on remote executive training clear: upskill or fall behind the curve – it’s now or never.
According to Dirk Buyens from Vlerick Business School in Belgium, participants on on-campus executive programmes are experiencing “a honeymoon period”, much like the one they experienced when first working from home in the first wave of the pandemic. But, for Buyens, Director of Open Executive Education Programmes at Vlerick, appetite for on-campus education never truly waned:
“For executives at least, face-to-face learning has always been the best way to learn. Since they have been able to come to the campus again they have been making the most of it.”
“And for providers, online capabilities have improved – that’s for sure. But actual demand for face-to-face learning never really changed – the covid pandemic only skewed this. The pendulum has now swung back to face-to-face and people are happy to be back in-person,” he says.
The desire, Buyens notes, for on-campus learning is simply a casualty of bandwidth, or lack thereof. “Executives are busy people; they have very little time to take away from their work to actually reflect on wider challenges and how they are able to tackle these. Learning in-person, on-campus allows executives this time away with little other distraction.”
Buyens concedes that despite the discernible value of an on-campus environment to executive training, hybrid learning mustn’t be underappreciated. He cites the convenience it affords participants, as well as it likely being in-keeping with the approach taken by many organizations looking to partner with schools for their executive programmes.
The UCL Global Business School for Health is developing a lot of partnerships with organisations in the health care industry to offer in-depth and specialized courses. And, for Cristina Lai, Executive Education Manager, much of this has been aided by the flexibility that hybrid learning affords.
“I’m encouraged by how agile we can be post-pandemic in switching from online to in-person teaching and vice versa; we can react and adjust to the ever-evolving demand, delivering high-class content without compromising quality. We are fortunate that technology can provide choices for clients that fit their training budgets and needs.”
Demand for face-to-face learning at UCL GBSH, the world’s first business school entirely dedicated to health, is inevitably high. But software continues to become more advanced, and Lai is optimistic about the future of online learning in executive education.
“The quality of the online delivery by our academic staff using various software platforms has led to clients telling us that they often forget they are online as they are so immersed in the learning environment.”
The feedback Lai and her colleagues have received reflects both the quality of the school’s executive training, and also says a great deal about essentials for today’s market for executive education – flexibility, customization, personalization.
Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy in Austria eloquently summarizes the current mood among students.
“Individualization is celebrating its joyous revival.”
The Dean of the WU Executive Academy is cutting in her assessment of traditional ways of working. “Working from nine to five is an antiquated relic from the past,” she says. “Hybrid work is the new normal.”
So what does that mean for business schools? For Stöttinger, it’s about preparing these individuals for this ‘new normal’. But, she adds, this involves so much more than simply readying those for a more digitally intensive world of work. “We also bring together senior-level managers with younger participants (Gen Z).”
Stöttinger is firm in her belief that the interaction is mutually beneficial. “The more junior participants benefit from the breadth of experience on the course, while the more senior professionals undertaking the program can stay up-to-date on the latest technologies and practices,” she adds.
And in a working world that is demanding more from all involved – across all sectors, organizations and echelons – preparing those in the C-suite for the challenges of tomorrow today is no more important than doing so for those in the early stages of their careers.
As for the importance of executive education in this day and age, Stöttinger borrows a phrase from Albert Einstein. “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”