Industries Education

Students want executive education to align with strategic goals

Companies and individual students want to align courses with strategic goals

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

When Tom McCormick decided to leave a career in the high-tech industry after 20 years to start a company, he knew he needed to refresh his general business knowledge. So he made plans to enroll in some executive education courses. Instead of just signing up, however, the 42-year-old sat down with executive education program officials at the University of Richmond.

“I wanted some real specifics on whether the courses were going to give me the benefits I felt I needed before I invested the time or the money,” says McCormick, whose new business, Top Notch Richmond, screens and certifies companies for customer service quality.

McCormick met with Richard Coughlan, senior associate dean of the executive education program at the UR Robins School of Business, and several faculty members. They discussed his background, his business, his goals and what he hoped to achieve with additional education. UR officials recommended that McCormick enroll in its mini-MBA and management certificate programs, while considering an elective on managing diverse teams.

“I’m plenty busy, so I’m not just looking for something to fill up my Monday nights,” McCormick says. “I really needed to know that, at the end of the day, taking these courses was going to give me the knowledge required to be more effective in running and growing my business.”

Executive education officials say that this proactive approach is becoming a trend. Individuals and companies are looking for a lot more than just a way to pump up a résumé or spend down a training budget.

“People are really cautious with their time and their resources and they want to make sure they’re getting long-term value out of whatever time or money investment they make,” says Roy Hinton, associate dean of executive programs for George Mason University’s School of Management. “We’re seeing a certain amount of intensity there among both individuals and companies when they’re questioning us and choosing course content that says, ‘I want to exercise some real authority about where this learning experience is going.’”

Long-term goals, short-term resources
Many people approaching UR officials for an upfront consult are unemployed or underemployed. They realize that, in seeking new employees, many companies want more than a traditional set of specialized skills.

“Their business environments are changing so rapidly that some of these companies are taking their best guess about what skills will be needed in five to seven years from now,” Coughlan explains. “And so they’re identifying broader categories of skills and looking for folks who have a bigger-picture view or are more well-rounded. So students, instead of just picking some courses out of the schedule, are coming to us to help map a path for them, to give them some guidance on what two or three classes, added together, might equal something marketable.”

Likewise, companies are asking executive education officials to maximize their resources. Sharon Scott, associate director of management and professional development at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business, says that companies no longer have the luxury of pursuing “nice-to-have” training opportunities but instead are focused on instruction that very clearly aligns with their business strategy. “They are examining every dollar invested and what kind of return can be expected from their efforts,” she says.

They’re also thinking long-term. Rosanna Koppelmann, director of the Center for Corporate Education at the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary, says that her clients are spending more time developing customized programs “to ensure that they receive a truly custom product that meets their needs for the next five to 10 years.”

The near collapse of the U.S.  financial system in 2008 has a lot to do with this new hands-on attitude, says Hinton. “We’ve all seen the consequences of short-term thinking,” he notes. “So now people are thinking about future context and sustainability and how they can successfully deal with current issues and prepare for future opportunities and asking: ‘How do we prepare ourselves for that?’ That’s a question and an approach that comes up very frequently nowadays.”

Of course, many companies coped with the recession by cutting their budgets for executive education and other training programs. The American Society for Training and Development reports that the amount organizations spent per employee on training decreased from $1,110 in 2007 to $1,068 in 2008 (figures for 2009 are not yet available).

Companies finally are beginning to loosen the reins on spending for executive education, says David Newkirk, CEO of Executive Education at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He, too, sees a sharper focus on making sure that course content will further the company’s long-term strategy.

“The companies that we’re seeing now are increasingly developing a pretty clear set of competencies that are meaningful for them,” Newkirk says. “The better companies have very clear models of what it’s going to take to succeed in their business and the way they do their business. They’re all slightly different, but the best ones are taking that view of competencies and linking it from course selection to evaluation to development.”

Companies also are trying to teach their managers and senior leadership to be more adept at looking ahead. Hinton says that he is getting more requests to develop course content that teaches participants how to better scan the environment, assess the data to determine what is relevant, interpret that information and then take action to address challenges or create opportunities.

Despite the long-view that companies are taking, concern with the here-and-now also is changing the way participants interact on a daily basis with faculty. Hinton says that even in the highly structured executive MBA program at GMU, students are asking instructors to cover key topics of current concerns. “In fact, it’s become more of an exchange now, and our faculty are willing to open up that dialogue.”

Given the rapidly changing business environment and the uncertainty that companies face, Darden is working with participants in custom programs and open-enrollment courses to bring their current problems into the classroom. “That just is good pedagogy,” Newkirk says. “It fits well with what participants say they want because it anchors the learning in real-life experience and concerns they’re dealing with right now and how to cope with that as they move into what is hopefully a sustained economic recovery.”

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