Publishing companies’ business education products traditionally have taken the form of the printed – or digital – word: journals, encyclopaedias, self-help books and training manuals aimed at employees looking for that next promotion or just to improve how they do their jobs. But publishers are expanding their range.

Leveraging their business libraries and connections with authors and management experts, several publishing and media companies – including Wiley and the Pearson group – have recently entered the business education market with short online courses targeted principally at mid-level executives. Meanwhile, Harvard Business Publishing, which has offered specialised courses and online management education tools for many years, is expanding its offerings.

“We can do things with greater immediacy,” says Kevin Kelly, director of the Wiley Learning Institute, a new joint venture within John Wiley & Sons, the academic publisher. The institute provides professional development through workshops and online learning labs. “The technology supports a faster turnaround and companies today are demanding that,” says Kelly.

Publishers insist their goal is to partner with, rather than compete with, business schools. The bulk of publishers’ offerings are short, elearning courses, usually delivered through existing technology platforms. They involve very little, if any, classroom time and are a different proposition from the high-contact, week-long courses run by business schools, or even a one or two-year MBA programme.

Publishers’ courses, however, have advantages: they are more affordable, the classes are shorter, and because they are conducted online, they can be done at a time of the student’s choosing. These selling points could help them to gain ground in the market occupied by business schools for brief general management programmes.

For now, business schools do not appear to be too concerned that publishers will tread on their territory. Some, however, including Dan LeClair, director of knowledge services at the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International, the industry body, have doubts about the quality of the programmes.

“When done well, the content can complement the management education and development provided by better schools,” he says, but adds: “Sometimes they provide content without context, though management is very much contextual. Sometimes they don’t recognise and build on connections to other fields or industries. Often there is no individualised feedback or reflection built into the courses.”

The speciality of the Wiley Learning Institute is “just-in-time” learning on a range of subjects. It also provides support mechanisms to help managers make use of what they have learned, including professional coaching, online communities and other online content.

Wiley’s focus at the moment is on training in the higher education market, but it plans to launch management education within the next six to 12 months. The company has partnerships with more than 800 professional societies.

“If you’re a professional who has 90 minutes, or half a day, and wants to know more about strategic planning, you come to us,” says Kelly. “We have terrific authors who can put together instructionally sound programmes that will be interactive and immediately applicable. People don’t have time for much else. They want to be able to learn it one day and go back out into the trenches the next day and put that information to use.”

Pearson, the publishing company that owns the Financial Times, is also making moves into instruction. Last year it launched the Financial Times Non-Executive Director (NED) Certificate, an accredited training programme targeted at current and aspiring non-executive directors. The programme, which includes two-and-a-half days of compulsory workshops and about 150 hours of online learning, covers topics such as board structure and performance, audit and financial reporting, and risk management and internal control.

“We saw there was a gap in the market for formal education of non-executive directors,” says Steve Playford, managing director of the Financial Times Non-Executive Directors’ Club. “The financial crisis brought the issue to a head.”

So far about 120 people have taken the course, which uses the content and technology platforms of four Pearson companies, including the FT and Edexcel, Pearson’s awarding body.

“If you use the right companies, you can be successful in the business education space. We have built a robust, credible product,” says Playford.

Last year, The Economist, which is 50 per cent owned by Pearson, launched Economist Education, a series of online courses about emerging markets. The courses, which are about four hours long, use the magazine’s editorial content with input from professors and consultants.

Paul Rossi, managing director of the Americas at The Economist, says the courses have two target audiences: Fortune 1000 companies looking to augment internal training programmes for employees around issues of globalisation, and individual customers who are considering enrolling in a formal graduate business programme.

“We are always looking for new areas to take the brand,” he says.

“Education is recognised by our customers as a market that we had ‘permission’ to play in. It’s a place where we add value.”

Rossi says Economist Education complements business school teachings. As evidence, he points to the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, which is trialling the courses as primers for its MBA students. “It’s to make sure that all their students are at the same level of understanding of international markets before the official classes begin,” he says.

As the old model of publishing comes under pressure in the digital age, Kelly, of the Wiley Learning Institute, says the move into management instruction makes sense. “Think about Darwin’s phrase,” he says. “It’s the ones that adapt who survive.”

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