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This week 28 senior managers from Axa, the French financial services company, will travel to Singapore to study what at first glance appears to be a traditional leadership course. But by the time they arrive at Axa’s corporate university, they will have already completed part of the programme.
They will have worked through the web-based virtual launch of the course and instigated several tasks before setting foot on the aircraft. The plan is to make more efficient use of participants’ time on campus, says Paris-based Jonathan Pegum, programme director for Axa University. “In a typical programme there is a lot of quietness at the beginning as the participants look around and ask ‘Where do I fit?’ There is a nervousness; people are not fully engaged.
“We want to get rid of that,” says Mr Pegum. “The aim is for them to start the programme mentally before they begin the actual programme.”
The Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania and the Centre for Creative Leadership, have jointly designed and delivered four leadership programmes for Axa, all using web-based technology to ensure that when participants arrive on campus their minds are firmly on leadership. To date, technology-based learning – or “digitally mediated executive education” as Wharton likes to call it – has been seen as a cheap and cheerful substitute for face-to-face teaching. But with the entry of big brand business schools such as Wharton, this perception is being increasingly challenged.
For the Axa senior managers, the virtual unit involves listening to professors and programme organisers, through text and video. Participants complete surveys – feedback and surveys of management style, for example – and learn about online courses in areas where they may feel they need extra help. They are also counselled on how to approach their bosses to develop a plan to work through the programme.
With the virtual programme, Axa is just dipping its toe in the water when it comes to online learning – the bulk of the four leadership programmes are classroom-based, with some distance learning interaction between modules.
Although for Mr Pegum the use of technology is a means of increasing efficiency rather than saving money, there are other benefits to technology-enabled learning that he finds persuasive.
“I certainly think we will see more of it because companies are increasingly having to work across boundaries and if you don’t want to have a short, sharp programme – you want to run a programme over time – you have to use distance learning.”
For Wharton, too, this type of virtual learning is novel. “Ninety-five per cent of our business is still face-to-face interaction,” says Jason Wingard, vice-dean for Wharton Executive Education. “We’re trying to push the market to change from traditional methods.”
He acknowledges that it is a slow process. “It is still a push on our part. We have to be cautious. What we have learnt is that the clientele still want to come here and want us to come to them.”
Most of what Wharton is doing is blended learning, such as the programmes the school has designed and developed for Axa. But Mr Wingard says that Wharton has to prepare corporate clients for a time when technology-enabled learning will be the norm. He likens the situation to that of self-check-out facilities in supermarkets – used by only a few customers at the moment, but destined to become mainstream.
Of the 5 per cent of companies that have online learning, most are for sessions before and after the programme – such as in the case of Axa.
“We have been able to formulate a value proposition that says you will get better value for money,” says Mr Wingard.
There are advantages for Wharton too. “It enables us to learn more about what does and doesn’t work online.”
He points out that developing web-based programmes is expensive, but they will eventually enable the school to deliver to more people.
But there is also a further benefit for Wharton. Last year the school announced that all future MBA students would be able to return to Wharton every seven years to attend executive education programmes. “When we first introduced life-long learning for future alumni we thought they would be excited about engaging on campus,” says Mr Wingard.
“It’s appealing for many, but others are excited about engaging online.”