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Coronavirus disrupted face-to-face contact and forced companies to trim their costs, but it has also reinforced many employers’ commitment to training for a broader range of their middle and senior managers.

From a self-selective poll organised by the FT, more than a quarter of chief learning officers (CLOs) around the world said they intended to increase their budgets for executive education in 2021, while over half said they would maintain spending at 2020 levels. Just 17 per cent planned a reduction.

FT Executive Education directories 2021

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The findings come from a pioneering survey conducted by the FT in partnership with Unicon, the international consortium for university-based executive education, along with the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the European Foundation for Management Development — the two leading accreditation agencies — as well as the Society for Human Resource Management.

Of the 363 respondents surveyed in February and early March 2021, the majority worked for companies based in the US and Canada, but Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa were also well represented. Respondents worked in organisations of various sizes: more than two-fifths oversaw workforces of fewer than 1,000 people and more than a fifth were responsible for training in groups with more than 20,000 staff. Respondents from finance, banking, healthcare and industrial businesses dominated.

Chart showing Workforce size of CLOs' companies

More than two-fifths of CLOs were from companies with under 1,000 staff, with finance, banking, healthcare and industrial businesses dominating.

Planned budget increases during 2021 were greatest for companies in Latin America and Asia-Pacific, followed by the US and Canada, then the Middle East and Africa. Those in Europe were the least likely to anticipate growth in spending on training, but nonetheless more expected to increase than decrease expenditures this year. Overall, the average anticipated increase was 73 per cent.

Chart showing Budgets by company

Companies with 1,000-4,999 employees reported the greatest anticipated change in executive training expenditure for 2021.

Leadership was the top learning priority identified for executive education, cited as important by 82 per cent of respondents. Change management followed, at 57 per cent. Other longstanding priorities, including digital transformation, strategy and innovation, were also ranked highly by more than two-fifths of respondents. In a sign of the issues brought to the fore during the pandemic, the need for training around resilience, wellbeing and remote or online collaboration were also cited by many.

Chart showing Spending by region

Overall, 83 per cent of chief learning officers surveyed said they planned to maintain or increase their training budgets globally for 2021.

Another emerging theme — diversity and inclusion — was a high priority, cited by 55 per cent, placing it third overall. Among US respondents, it was still higher — in second place after leadership. That reflects the growing focus on a subject that has mobilised senior managements in recent months, triggered partly by the killing of George Floyd last May and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Chart showing Key learning Themes for 2021

Leadership, change management, diversity and inclusion and digital transformation are among the top priorities to emerge in the pandemic.

Business schools can take some comfort from the fact that just over half of the CLOs surveyed said they would turn to universities during 2021 for their executive learning programmes. However, a larger proportion pointed to alternatives: more than two-thirds said they would use internal resources and nearly three-quarters planned to use non-university training partners.

When CLOs were asked to consider the most important qualities of training organisations with which they would work, they judged research-based and empirical knowledge — one strength of business schools — to be of little importance. They instead placed the greatest emphasis on the value of customisation and an ability to demonstrate return on investment. Cutting-edge knowledge and a robust online platform were also highly rated.

“People want something that targets their need, rather than interesting insights,” said one CLO. “They want short, sharp and engaging moments of development (long keynotes and time spent passively listening are OUT).” Another said: “Virtual learning has to be participative and to the point, with learners able to bring and work on real, current challenges with defined, value-added takeaways.”

Chart showing What makes providers relevant?

Customisation and return on investment were rated higher than traditional business school strengths in research-based and empirical knowledge.

Many CLOs saw a trend towards exploring new and more effective ways to measure the value of training, with participants citing a shift from yearly to quarterly evaluations, conducting “360” reviews, and using surveys before and after courses. They stressed the need for ever greater alignment between programmes offered and the strategic goals of their organisation, and for “learning transfer” from participants to other employees.

One respondent talked about “actionable growth”. Another said: “We will be looking for project- or performance-based outcomes directly tied to participation in executive education.” A third said future training programmes would be assessed to “more strictly measure and align with the ability to execute and implement a project”.

Chief learning officers were clear that the hasty switch to online learning caused by Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 had not been desirable, with the vast majority saying in-person learning was better. However, they were also realistic about the future: most predicted a blend of physical and virtual learning would be the “new normal”.

Chart showing the switch to online learning

Last year an enforced move to online learning. While CLOs prefer in-person teaching, the shift brought benefits such as increased flexibility.

More positively, four-fifths agreed or strongly agreed that digital delivery had increased flexibility and access to learning, allowing companies to reach a broader group of leaders and employees. These views were notably strong among companies based in Africa and the Middle East, and for larger employers with workforces of 20,000-plus.

Chart showing Where CLOs' companies operate

Nearly three quarters of surveyed chief learning officers’ companies operated in north America.

Several CLOs said they anticipated a renewed focus on executive education, to meet a rising need for new skills, succession planning and finding ways to identify candidates for promotion. “We are moving from seniority-based to capability-based,” said one. Others cited a different motivation for expanding training that emerged during the pandemic: to motivate and retain key employees.

Nearly two-fifths said digital learning had increased the provision of self-paced and personalised content. Several cited the use of gamification and growing interest in on-demand training resources, “micro-learning” in small units and bite-sized video formats. Other respondents said there was growing demand for co-operation and shared learning with competitors and corporate universities, while three-fifths said assessment and accreditation were extremely or very important in programmes.

Overall, 62 per cent of respondents anticipated new models of collaboration around learning, offering scope for innovation and intensified activity by business schools and other providers. But tough negotiations lie ahead to provide what CLOs seek. As one said: “[Almost] everything we’ve found is too fluffy, lacks real world content and depth, and has provided almost zero return on investment.”

Data by Sam Stephens; graphics by Chris Campbell

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