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At the end of last month, 24 managers from Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications giant, took part in a novel mentoring process in South Africa. Having been mentored by experts in topics as diverse as religion, healthcare, security and the environment, they went on to become business advisers to managers from non-governmental organisations in South Africa about what they had learnt.

It was certainly not management education as most companies know it. But Steve Newman, programme director for executive development at Ericsson, is unrepentant. He argues that one day every company will have to face change and they will need managers who can handle it. That ability, he says, will not come from the usual kind of incremental management training.

Ericsson’s programme, which is run in conjunction with Duke Corporate Education, would have been unheard of a decade ago when the Financial Times began ranking short executive non-degree programmes. Some 30 schools were listed in that first ranking. The number of participating schools has now grown to 74, including both the open enrolment section – where individuals from numerous companies sign up to learn about general management or strategy – or in the customised section of the ranking – programmes designed for one particular company.

Unlike degree-based rankings, such as the MBA rankings, the executive education listings are characterised by their volatility. While only two schools – Harvard Business School and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania – have topped the FT MBA rankings over the past decade, four schools have topped the customised listing and five the open enrolment table.

In the early years, Columbia Business School dominated the rankings for customised programmes. This year it has dropped to 19 in the list. In recent years it has been Duke Corporate Education and IMD that have topped these rankings for customised programmes.

In open enrolment programmes Harvard and the Darden school at the University of Virginia have been the traditional leaders but nine different schools have ranked in the top five in the past three years alone.

For the past decade, the overriding trend in executive education generally has been the move away from the traditional open enrolment programme to customised programmes. In 2000, when the FT split the ranking into two sections for open enrolment and customised programmes, 30 schools were ranked in each category. Today, there are 50 schools in the open enrolment list but 65 in customised.

The move from open enrolment to customised was a gradual process, says Eric Weber, associate dean at Iese, the Spanish business school. “Ten years ago business schools had a good portfolio of open enrolment programmes. Then we moved into quasi-open enrolment (designed for one client). I think business schools were pretty good at this and the costs were low.”

Around the year 2000 there was a shift to real custom programmes, he says, where the process was carefully controlled and monitored and companies wanted to measure their return on investment. “The bang for the buck [in customised programmes] was just much higher [than in open enrolment programmes].”

Some schools made this leap, others did not, according to the rankings. One thing that has characterised the two lists has been the way in which some schools fare fantastically well on one of the tables and poorly in the other. Stanford, IE Business School and Darden, for example, all rank in the top five in the world for open enrolment programmes this year, but on the custom table they rank numbers 33, 41 and 50 respectively.

To date the skills needed to develop the different types of programmes have often been quite different. In open enrolment programmes the emphasis has usually been on star professors, who can teach the findings of their latest research in an entertaining fashion. With customised programmes, the art has been in listening to client needs and developing programmes which fit those needs, taught by the relevant faculty.

That divergence may be lessening, however. At London Business School, JoEllyn Prouty-McLaren, director of open programmes, says that these courses are becoming much more like customised programmes. “It is an increasingly personalised experience within open programmes,” she says. “[Managers] bring projects from their business to the programme and faculty members review them through the programme.”

But even this is unlikely to persuade impress Mr Newman at Ericsson that this kind of programme is for him. He believes that classrooms and conference centres do not encourage learning. “I can’t stand sterile environments,” he says. “It’s just not the way the world is any more.”

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