A woman standing in the middle of a room filled with computers. There is a giant monitor behind her showing a globe and other digital info
Up to speed: Jen Mack at IBM’s Global Security Command Center in Boston, Massachusetts © Pascal Perich

Jen Mack knows better than most that cyber threats constantly change and multiply. As global go-to-market programme director for IBM Security Services in New York, she wanted an executive education course to bring her up to speed with the latest developments. But she needed a programme that would last a matter of weeks, rather than years.

“Cyber-security technology evolves quickly and a lot can happen in a short amount of time,” Mack says. “If you’re not keeping up to date, your knowledge can quickly atrophy.” So, in June 2020, she enrolled on the Oxford Cyber Futures programme, a three-month, online, collaborative learning course run by the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School in partnership with Esme Learning Solutions, a provider of artificial intelligence-powered education platforms.

Mack says she achieved her goals in “a few short yet intensive months” on the course. She particularly appreciated the learning methodology of simulated business meetings with other course participants. “Of course, there were some amazing academics from the University of Oxford, but Esme paired these with top industry executives who shared their real-world knowledge and helped put the information in an even greater context for me,” she says.

Business schools provide about a third of executive education programmes, according to Andrew Crisp, head of educational consultancy CarringtonCrisp, with so-called alternative providers having the lion’s share of the market. While consulting firms have a tight grip on bespoke training for their clients, Crisp says the pandemic accelerated the growth of online providers such as Coursera, Udemy, Emeritus and LinkedIn Learning in offering executives a large range of short, focused open-enrolment programmes and courses.

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“Alternative providers are meeting the needs of executives who get home from work on a Monday night, search online for a course that teaches the knowledge and skills they need, and [are] applying that knowledge and those skills the following morning,” says Crisp. “Executives want immediate impact ­— they want to know their learning will help them in their day-to-day work straight away.”

Business schools, for their part, bring strengths to executive education via their brands and reputations, through their teaching techniques and by importing their research and expertise into learning.

“If you want a skill for tomorrow, alternative providers are a great place to go,” says Crisp. “If you want something that’s going to develop your career in the medium to longer term, maybe a business school will give you the breadth you won’t get from a short course online.”

Where business schools struggle, says Crisp, is speed of action — the time it takes for schools and host universities to bring new courses to market. “Alternative providers can move much more quickly to put courses in place to react to changes in the business environment.”

If business schools are to protect or grow their share of the executive education market, they must remove the barriers to launching courses more quickly, says Crisp, and must do a better job of targeting their alumni as customers.

Another option for schools is to partner with an alternative provider, as the UK’s Oxford Saïd, Cambridge Judge and Imperial College business schools, along with Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, have done with Esme. Short courses under these tie-ups range from climate innovation and funding start-ups to digital finance and blockchain strategy.

Learners spend 45-60 minutes a week in an online AI-coached group chat environment. Esme uses its technology to analyse conversation dynamics and provide real-time personalised feedback, gently prompting participants toward more collaborative behaviours as they work through course materials.

Esme co-founder Beth Porter says research shows we learn best when interacting with others in small groups, using structured and ad hoc community learning. Yet executive education has tended to perpetuate traditional methods, where experts disseminate information and students absorb it passively, she says.

“This is exactly what online learning historically has been terrible at, and executive education pivoted heavily into online under Covid,” she says. “However, partnering with universities and business schools is the best way to provide a high-touch, human-centred learning experience grounded in rigorous knowledge.” A combination of AI tools and subject-expert tutors leading discussions and giving feedback helps participants feel “connected and engaged”, says Porter, who also predicts greater use of game-based learning and virtual-reality tools in executive education.

LinkedIn Learning says it is creating 200 courses each month, building on a catalogue of more than 17,000. “We allow people to build skills in real time when it may not be realistic to go get specialised degrees,” says Hari Srinivasan, vice-president of product management at LinkedIn Talent Solutions.

“We’re constantly watching what skills are trending to make sure we’re on the bleeding edge of learning content. There’s a ton of power in using online learning to fill smaller skills gaps. Those learnings can be what get you to the next level of your career, but they are ones we talk about a lot less.”

LinkedIn Learning also has more than 200 licensed partners, and Srinivasan says it is pairing up with several universities to provide official credit for students, in preparation for admission to degree courses.

Business schools need not fear these alternative providers, says Anne-Valérie Corboz, associate dean of executive education at HEC Paris. “For these players, we provide the intellectual capital, and they support a broader footprint, reaching learnings we may not reach otherwise. It’s a strong partnership based on supporting the spreading of learning.” 

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