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Well before the pandemic entered the picture, the concept of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) was fully integrated into the managerial lexicon. It is a tidy shorthand used to describe unpredictable circumstances. And if ever there was an era the term was better suited to, it’s the one we find ourselves in now.
Businesses are mapping the future of work while continuing to navigate an incalculable, VUCA-defined present — and business schools are doing the same. As Roddy Millar states in Developing Leaders Quarterly, “While businesses are reimagining the workplace of the future, and rethinking what they need from executive learning, business schools are having to respond — to evolve their understanding of what executive education delivery will look like in coming years.” He quotes Bruce Wiesner, Associate Dean for Executive Education at the University of British Columbia, as saying: “We are living the same disruption and challenges as our clients.”
In response to these disruptions and challenges, a new paradigm for executive education is emerging — one that will redefine what executive education programs look like well past the current COVID era. In keeping with this new paradigm, leading business schools like HEC Paris have adapted their program approach and delivery in order to help clients meet their specific challenges. Below, we take a look at some of these adaptations and how they’ll reshape executive education for decades to come.
The move to online learning models
With stay-at-home mandates taking hold in March 2020, both providers and clients found themselves immersed in a VUCA world. As campuses closed, business schools rushed to move their programs online, and schools that had already embraced digitally supported learning, like HEC Paris, were at an advantage.
While it wasn’t without its bumps, all in all, the transition to online learning for executive education programs was “remarkably successful,” as Millar notes in Developing Leaders Quarterly, and “played its part — along with the wholesale adoption of online meetings — in forging a new appreciation that ‘online was OK.’”
Of course, pivoting from face-to-face programs to ceaseless hours spent on screens had its drawbacks. With burnout on the rise, executive education programs rushed to make modifications that would keep online learning sustainable, incorporating asynchronous materials and limiting Zoom calls. Though this helped buoy focus and engagement, some felt they were still missing out on one of the key reasons they’d enrolled in a business school in the first place: networking opportunities.
“We perhaps took for granted the peer-to-peer learning and social experience that occurred in face-to-face programs,” Wiesner told Developing Leaders Quarterly. “The strong participant feedback, both in terms of the empirical data and the research we did, highlighted that the really tough part of the virtual format is to create that premium feel, that networking, that peer-to-peer interaction that happens naturally (in person).”
Once again, business schools that had long-since incorporated online systems for networking — as global schools, like HEC Paris, in particular have done — were at an advantage. Now, many business schools, including those that previously prioritized only in-person elbow rubbing, have made an effort to embed peer-to-peer networking in their virtual programs, including through breakout groups and facilitated discussion sessions.
A new emphasis on customization
Following the move to online models of learning, customization is now playing a greater role in executive education than ever before.
“A new level of customization is being ushered in — not only designed with an organization’s goals in mind, but with new targeting, at a granular level, to the specific needs and wants of individual participants within the program,” Millar states. “A ‘new discovery’ of the mass adoption of online learning has been that executive education can and will go much deeper and wider into organizations from this moment onwards.”
At HEC Paris, our custom programs have always been shaped to the specific needs of companies and their teams. Now, with the opportunities that online technology opens up, we’re able to tailor our programs even more to the individual needs of each participant.
A mad dash for relevancy
As business schools continue to focus on innovating and developing their delivery formats — having “shifted 12 years in 12 weeks in their digital capabilities in the spring of (2020),” according to Millar — many are forced to contend with the reality that updated delivery formats aren’t all they’ll need to evolve. The pandemic has increased the need for agility that some clients may not see reflected in the structured, academic world of university-based executive education programs.
“It is clear the client side is keen to work with universities and business schools who can access new thinking much more quickly,” Millar adds.
At HEC Paris, the cross-fertilization of insights and best practices across divisions in our custom programs engenders this kind of agility, making it an integral part of our value proposition. By combining peer-to-peer learning with a selection of faculty and staff who offer both empirical expertise and real-world experience, we can offer a system for learning that rises above the level of thought exercise. The best way to stay relevant, after all, is to solve real problems in real time.
Where do we go from here?
In his Developing Leaders Quarterly piece, Millar makes an interesting argument: that the pandemic has, in many ways, left business schools better off.
“There is no doubt that the road travelled has been both long and at many times arduous, but the place both providers and clients now find themselves in is in many ways further developed, more established, and better road-tested than would have been the case had the pandemic not occurred,” he affirms.
Although it will take some time yet to fully realize the extent to which executive learning has already changed, we can be sure of one thing: it is changing and will continue to change.
“All aspects are changing,” Millar concludes. “Not just the technology, but the content delivery and the program structures — with emerging best practices becoming embedded on both sides of the executive education equation, from the classroom to the workplace.”