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Insead has become the latest top-notch business schools to move into online learning, but as befits the business school with the largest full-time MBA programme in the world, it is doing so at scale.

According to Peter Zemsky, deputy dean at Insead and dean for strategic initiatives and innovation, it was the hype around Moocs (massive open online courses) in 2012 and 2013 that prompted Insead to look into large-scale online learning. “We were deliberating internally but we couldn’t see the business model [with Moocs],” says Prof Zemsky. “But out of that we had the sense that we could do more things asynchronously.”

The school decided that online degrees were not appropriate, says Prof Zemsky, because of the in-classroom interaction that is needed. “In Insead we have this emphasis on cultural diversity, so it didn’t feel right.”

Instead they looked at customised executive education. “This is a segment where we are a market leader. It also felt like the right segment to develop the technology.”

Professors wanted to educate the people who never get a chance to study on campus, says Prof Zemsky. “This looked like a really big blue ocean opportunity for Insead,” he adds, in a wry reference to the work of his academic colleagues, Renée Mauborgne and W Chan Kim.

The result has been that in just a short space of time, Insead has secured two big corporate clients, Microsoft and Accenture.

It was early in 2014 that Insead heard of Microsoft’s plans to launch an online programme and its hope of working with a business school to do it. The issue for the technology giant was that as corporations adopted cloud computing, a diminishing amount of the IT spend was going through IT departments, and more through other business departments. As a result, Microsoft’s sales people on the ground had to talk to corporate managers, not just IT departments, says Prof Zemsky.

Insead’s first meeting with Microsoft was as recent as April 2014, says Prof Zemsky, but the two signed a contract in May, filmed the online video components in June, edited the course in July, beta tested it in August and launched in October. Microsoft closed enrolment once 1,000 sales people were signed up.

One of the biggest concerns for Insead professors was whether the participants would be motivated to complete the course. Of the 1,000 enrolled, 850 went the distance, a vast improvement on the completion rates of participants on Moocs and many forms of online learning.

Insead is now developing a strategy programme using similar technology for Accenture. The professional services firm wants all its consultants to have the same understanding of what strategy is all about, says Bruno Berthon, managing director for Accenture Strategy, France & Benelux. “We want to create a common philosophy and language across the group.”

The decision to work with Insead was because of its strength in global strategy, says Mr Berthon, as well as the business school’s flexibility and level of customisation. “One of the things we wanted to do was to leverage our own team in the delivery of the programme.”

The Accenture programme, which will be taught through the firm’s Strategy College, is still at the pilot phase, with eight out of the proposed 24 hours already in the can. Beta testing will begin in April, with the programme deployed in two waves over the next 18 months. A thousand managers will be the first to experience the Insead course in June, with a further 2,000 managers following suit shortly afterwards.

Mr Berthon believes the virtual programme will bring additional benefits. “It’s a great way to help people learn to work remotely and collaborate remotely.”

Prof Zemsky says Insead is now looking at how it can work with its professors to bring their work online and also how to work with the career development office to help students get a step up in the job search. “We’re still getting a sense of how far we can push the technology,” he says. “We are in very early days.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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