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For Arvinder Dhesi, management education had to change. His job at Aviva, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, was to ensure that the top executives in the organisation had access to the best in management thinking and practice.

But much of what was available from the leading business schools was “left-brain dominated”, as Mr Dhesi puts it, and often dependent on business school research rather than corporate need. “The irony is that we preach customer- centricity and innovation,” says Mr Dhesi, group talent management director for the Aviva Leadership Academy. But are business schools serving their clients in the way that corporations do?

It is a question that resonates throughout the corporate world. Those companies, 678 of them, which participated in the 2007 ranking of customised executive education – designed for a specific company – were often vociferous in their complaints.

Although the seeds of discontent have been growing for years, this year has a seen a dramatic change in the way companies have assessed their executive education providers. These days, they proclaim loud and clear: it is about us the company, not about you the business school.

Many big names in management education have fallen foul of this rule. As one large US corporation put it about one of the world’s top business schools: “The school should spend more time listening to clients and developing course design in accordance with our requirement.”

Unsurprisingly those schools that have done best in this area are those that have specialised in customised education, rather than using faculty who teach on the MBA and even undergraduate programmes. Most notable is Duke Corporate Education, which ranks number one in customised education for the fifth year in a row.

“What Duke CE tries to do is more like a professional service firm,” says Tim Last, regional managing director for Duke CE in Europe and Africa. “The assumption which underpins 99 per cent plus of what we do is that adult learners learn best through dialogue.” This is the basis for the design of all the programmes, he says.

These days even the term programme is often a misnomer. At IMD in Switzerland, for example, some 20 per cent of teaching now involves the professor beginning the session in the morning with no programme plan: the day progresses according to the input of the participants. “It’s learning but it’s a different approach to teaching – it’s an exciting approach to teaching,” says Tom Malnight, strategy professor at IMD. “Classroom learning is too restrictive. We need to get [executives] working on something that makes a difference.”

In these kind of customised programmes management development borders on to management consultancy and it is something that more traditional business schools can find hard to manage.

At London Business School Nirmalya Kumar, faculty director for executive education, says the executive education staff realise that the faculty are their customers as well as the corporate clients. “To incentivise the faculty you often find that money doesn’t work as well as you thought it would.” Interesting projects with high-profile clients are the order of the day.

Corporate client demand does not stop at more effective course design. Schools with an internationally diverse faculty and a global outlook are top of the list of demands according to this year’s survey, as is a growing demand for work on leadership.

At Aviva, Mr Dhesi has turned to the US-based Centre for Creative Leadership for personal development work for the company’s top teams. “The way I describe the role that CCL plays is that it is a situation akin to seeing yourself on video for the first time. You get a deep appreciation of your impact on others.”

Customised clients are also demanding a longer supply chain according to Bill Shedden, director of customised executive development at Cranfield School of Management in the UK. “The days of just the programme are gone.”

These days some 40 per cent of Cranfield clients require some kind of 360 degree feedback or analysis of competencies before the programme, he says, and many require webcasts to prepare participants for the programme. At the end of the programme “they want help in embedding the learning project back at the ranch,” he says. “It’s a total process you have to offer and I do think it’s a challenge for us (business schools).”

While customised programmes continue to dominate the portfolios of most business schools, others - Harvard, Stanford, Kellogg, Darden and Iese Business School, for example - are proving there is still a very strong market for open enrolment programmes - which are open to individuals from a variety of companies.

“Contrary to market wisdom we are growing (in open enrolment programmes),” says Eric Weber, associate dean at Iese. For many, the growth in business is dependent in taking the business to the client, rather than expecting the client to come to the school.

Although the bulk of Iese’s business is in Spain, much of the growth is overseas, says Prof Weber. These days Iese teaches its advanced management programme (AMP), the flagship open enrolment programme of all the top business schools, in Germany, Brazil and Poland, as well as in Spain. The school also teaches open enrolment programmes in Africa, China and South America with partner schools, most notably with Harvard.

It is a similar tale at Stanford, which has also begun to teach programmes outside the US, this year in Italy, Greece and India with visits to China and Dubai among other planned locations. It is, says Sean Bandarkar, managing director of programme and business development at Stanford, a chance to reach out to executives who would never visit Stanford and to help build the Stanford community outside Silicon Valley. At the most recent event in Rome only 10 or 15 per cent of the participants were from Italy, says Mr Bandarkar, with other participants the Middle East and India as well as the rest of Europe. “In Europe people are more willing to travel,” he says.

The top US and European business schools are not the only ones to be spreading their wings. In South America, Brazil’s leading business school, Fundacao Dom Cabral, is also planning to take its message to a growing audience. “We work with the 500 biggest companies in Brazil, says Antonio Batista da Silva, associate dean at Dom Cabral. “Now we’re moving abroad to be more international.”

Initially this will be to work with regional schools, in Argentina, Chile and Mexico, but next year the school is hoping to develop conferences and programmes with schools from Russia, India and China - the other Bric countries. “We’re trying to create something original for companies who want to play in emerging economies and invest in these countries, says Prof Batista da Silva.

For university-based business schools the trend in executive teaching often mirrors the trends in MBA teaching: that is a growing dependence on other university departments. At the Said business school at the University of Oxford, for example, newly-appointed dean for executive education Gay Haskins is beginning to integrate subjects as varied as nanotechnology, climate change and integrating cultures into the school’s teaching. “I do believe the twenty-first century is a century which requires more futuristic thinking than ever before,” says Ms Haskins.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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