You might think aspiring managers at Merrill Lynch have enough to do without taking on a 14-week executive education programme in addition to their existing work load.

But at the global investment bank, high-potential 30-year-olds are queuing up to join a distance learning programme designed for them by MIT’s Sloan school of management.

They study at weekends, in the evening and even on international flights to cram in the estimated 80 hours of work needed to complete the programme.

The prize? The opportunity to present their ideas to the top dogs in the firm and launch their careers.

The course is based on research by Andrew Lo, Sloan professor and director of the MIT laboratory for financial engineering. It charts how investors make decisions about their investments rather than the nitty-gritty of how the investments themselves perform.

The programme started in 2001 with 30 students a year, but for the past couple of years 50 students have enrolled on the course.

Merrill’s commitment to the course was amply demonstrated by its decision to continue running it in the spring of 2002, when operating from temporary quarters in New Jersey following the terrorist attacks in New York the previous September, says Kathleen Goldreich, a director in the bank’s learning and development team for global markets and investment banking.

Now in its fifth year, the programme is one of the most successful implementations of e-learning for short executive courses. However, it works because it uses basic technology to which all participants have access, rather than the latest whizzy gadgets.

In particular, the core of the course is a weekly lecture by Prof Lo, of between 60 and 90 minutes. Each participant receives the filmed lecture on CD, so they can watch it on their laptops if they are on a train or aircraft. Participants then use the internet to discuss the issues raised.

The 50 participants also use e-mail and phone calls to carry out their projects. Each participant, from as far afield as New York and Tokyo, is put into a team of between five and six and each group is charged with a developing a product new to the Merrill Lynch portfolio. Between them they have to profile potential customers, design the product and carry out the cost-benefit analysis.

The team has to present the product to senior Merrill staff in the closing session of the programme.

For the first few years the programme produced a number of interesting projects with significant potential, but there was little follow-through once the courses were complete, says Ms Goldreich. So in 2003 Sloan professor Deborah Ancona, a specialist in how managers work in teams, was brought in.

On the first day, when all the participants congregate in New York, Prof Ancona asks them to talk about what makes an effective team. They mainly discuss internal dynamics, she says, but this is only half the story. Prof Ancona’s work is built around the idea of communicating outside the group with customers and managers.

The result is a better product. “It is a quintessential part of what makes a product great because the team can mould it to the strategy of the firm.”

Of the nine products proposed by the global teams in 2004, four have been implemented.

The programme belies the myth that distance learning is a cheaper way of conducting corporate learning. The professors set aside time to check the status of the group projects, as well as attending to the more traditional elements of the programme.

“It is very labour-intensive,” says Toby Woll, director of blended learning at the Sloan school. “The costs are equivalent to those for a residential course.”

She points out that because the participants complete the programme in addition to their normal job - not instead of it - there are no opportunity costs.

Prof Ancona also believes the participants have learnt team-working skills that they can use again and again, to the advantage of the company and of themselves.

Participants are obviously happy too. Of those who participated in 2004, 93 per cent said they would recommend it to a colleague.

Perhaps more significantly, despite the gruelling schedule, 79 per cent said they would be prepared to take a similar programme.

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