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Successful course design in executive education has much in common with achieving a high ranking for offering good food – it is about getting the right mix of ingredients.

The building blocks with which schools create an executive education course comprise the faculty, the content, the participants, the facilities and the format. How schools bring all this together will vary according to their priorities.

At Harvard Business School, the process starts with faculty and the course is designed around faculty research that has a direct link to practice, says Ralph James, executive director of the school’s executive education programmes. “All our executive education programmes aim to help people in practice,” he says. “We never come up with an idea that we think will sell, then find a faculty member to do it.”

Narayan Pant, Insead’s dean of executive education, says various pedagogical devices are available, from standard case discussion and classroom interaction to simulations and “experiential learning journeys”. Course design involves aligning these devices to achieve the required behavioural objectives as effectively as possible for the participants.

At the same time, he says, the school would not want to let the target audience define entirely what the programme looks like if it felt there was some content that would be useful to participants.

One of the big pitfalls to avoid is “death by PowerPoint”, according to Kip Kelly, director of executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “The participants may not have been in a classroom for some time, so to sit them down for a whole day and lecture at them doesn’t work.”

Cheryl Stokes, vice-president for global learning methods at Fuqua’s sister institution, Duke Corporate Education, adds that, according to most adult learning theory, the best approach to learning is through experience. While there is a place for PowerPoint presentations if done well, educators are also encouraged to use a variety of learning methods, such as interactive case studies and multimedia, role-plays and sometimes professionally acted vignettes, she says.

“You also have to keep the internet generation interested – people coming to courses are very tech-savvy and they learn and engage differently,” adds Ms Stokes.

Flexibility is a vital ingredient of executive education courses, and an attribute that business school clients are asked about in the questions used to calculate the FT rankings. Davide Sola, the UK director at ESCP-EAP European School of Management, notes the benefits of the case study method of teaching in this respect. “It can be tackled in many different ways, and good faculty members should have the capacity to interpret the class to see where they are stronger and weaker,” he says.

Mr James adds that week-long programmes allow time for extra sessions or for subjects to be examined a second time or in a different way, to accommodate the needs of participants.

Getting the size and make-up of the cohort right is also crucial. “We spend a lot of time thinking about what is the appropriate diversity in terms of industry, geography, experience and culture,” says Mr James. A balance needs to be struck, says Mr Kelly, between making the class small and intimate enough to enable everyone to get to know each other, but large enough to give them the networking opportunities they want.

For customised courses, such as those run by Duke CE, there are extra considerations. “It is important to understand the strategy of the client and what business outcomes they are trying to achieve,” says Ms Stokes.

For all courses, business schools emphasise what Dr Pant calls “refinement through iteration” – tweaking courses constantly in response to feedback. “Every iteration will be slightly different from one to the next, to incorporate feedback from faculty and participants,” says Mr Kelly.

Dr Sola at ESCP-EAP also points to the benefits of doing a dry-run internally, perhaps involving senior students on a masters programme, and making final adjustments before unleashing the programme on clients,

Course length and structure are a further important consideration. What may once have been done in 10 consecutive days may now be broken down into three three-day modules, says Dr Sola, making it easier for participants to apply what they have learnt.

Schools also have to remember that markets are evolving. “What customers were once willing to spend two weeks learning, they are not prepared to do any more,” says Dr Pant. Regional differences have to be acknowledged too, he says: “The same company may be willing to spare managers for two weeks in Europe but only a week in Asia or three days in the Middle East.”

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