It is 10 years since the Financial Times published its first ranking of executive education programmes and although much has changed, there is a sense of déjà vu in the current market. As business schools look nervously at the bottom line for short programmes, there is the spectre of 2001 and 2003 when the recession and New York terrorist attacks devastated the market.
“I would be surprised if we didn’t see a softening in enrolments this year,” predicts Steve Burnett, associate dean of executive education at the Kellogg school at Northwestern University, near Chicago. However he and his peers cautiously predict that this will not happen again.
“What I am hearing from heads of HR and corporate recruiters is that they don’t want to make the mistakes they made in 2002 and 2003,” says Eric Weber, associate dean at Iese Business School, in Barcelona. A lot of organisations that ditched corporate training then, have not been able to rebuild management capacity.
Despite the uncertainty, geography determines which programmes are successful. In the US, demand for open enrolment programmes for senior executives – where managers mingle with their peers from other companies – is high, even though it seems counter-intuitive at the beginning of a downturn.
At Columbia in New York, enrolments on its four-week Senior Executive Programme have hit records, says Paul Ingram, professor of business at Columbia.
In Europe, the real growth is in customised programmes – those designed for one corporation. “The company-specific business is still going like a dream,” says Kai Peters chief executive at Ashridge in the UK.
Teaching location plays a role in the fortunes of business schools as they increasingly take programmes to clients. This year, for example, saw Harvard Business School teach its first open enrolment programme in India – in Hyderabad.
Meanwhile Iese Business School has become one of the first European business schools to teach open enrolment programmes in the US – its Senior Executive Programme, taught with Argentinian business school IAE and Ipade, from Mexico, will be taught in Miami in October. “Our hope is to capture one third of the people from the US, one third from Latin America and one third from Europe,” says Prof Weber.
Teaching away from the school premises is relatively new in the open enrolment market, but is commonplace for customised programmes. “We’re venue agnostic” says Gordon Armstrong at Duke CE, which tops the customised education ranking. “We’ll go anywhere.”
One reason why Duke CE has traditionally scored so highly in the customised ranking is its emphasis on delivering what the company wants as opposed to what the business school professors want to teach. These days this emphasis on customer support is permeating even the most academic of business schools.
Pleasing the client is not always easy. One of the biggest issues facing business schools at the moment is the growing number of RFPs (requests for proposals) that are being sent out by corporations looking for customised programmes.
At Duke CE marketing director Gordon Armstrong says the company has decided to no longer respond to RFPs. “They want the design before you do the diagnosis,” he complains.
Another recent trend has been towards the demand for programmes to award certificates. One of the schools in the forefront of this in the US is Columbia, where course participants can accrue credits towards a Certificate in Business Excellence. The certificate is much more than a piece of paper, says Troy Eggers, dean of executive education. “They become part of our alumni network, part of our community. They add real strength to the Columbia alumni network.”
In Europe, the UK government is putting pressure on universities in general, including business schools, to introduce certification for short programmes. Ashridge has been one of the first business schools to go down this route, but Prof Peters acknowledges, “The certificate and diploma world is grievously complicated.”
Clients are also asking for updates in content. Course directors at the Darden school at the University of Virginia have noted a growing demand from course participants for courses related to “wellness”. The school first put the topic on a four-week open enrolment programme three to four years ago, says David Newkirk, chief executive for executive education, and now clients are asking for it on customised programmes.
The wellness regime involves more than just paying lip-service to fitness. The business school at Virginia works with the medical centre there to develop a regime of testing, diet, stress management and exercise.
“There was a time when senior executives stopped smoking and most of them have given up hard liquor,” says Mr Newkirk. “Now it is time for these initiatives.”