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Behind the Clichés, a Revolution

Business education sounds about as innovative as a buggy whip. Don’t let that fool you

May 12, 2015

by Tim Querengesser


The advertising copy for business education still reminds one of the inspirational self-help poster. “Be the change,” one school advertises. “Invest in your future,” says another. But behind this rather milquetoast verbiage, which never seems to change, business education is twisting and turning with the forces of digital disruption, a demand for customization and an acknowledgment that what might have worked for generations previous will not work for the next crop of leaders in generation Y.

As all trends are, each one shaping business education is related to the others and driven by larger societal shifts. We are living longer and educating ourselves far more than before, leading to the unfortunately labelled “multiple-careering” trend that sees typical professionals switch their work path four to five times over their lives. But each trend, experts say, is leading to business education rejecting the model of the expert standing at the front of a classroom sharing their wisdom. Instead, people are moving toward collaborative methods based on experience, focused on projects that solve real-world business problems and that incorporate layers to learning that were not considered all that executive in years past. Here’s a quick course in what to expect when you go shopping for executive education programs.

The Third Way
Design Thinking sounds great and makes people excited – but what is it?

One place where business education is leading other forms of post-secondary learning is its adoption of new methods of learning through creative problem-solving.

“If we had a store in West Edmonton Mall and we were selling creativity, the sign outside would say ‘Design Thinking,’ ” says Robert Kelly, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and an educator and author on creativity and creative practices. “It’s far more accessible a term [than creativity]. People see it as more concrete.”

People also increasingly see design thinking as part of business. While the two have always been linked, applying creative methods to business problems is without a doubt the new business education paradigm, with MBA programs and executive courses all touting their fluency in the field as if they were wishing they were art schools.

But what, you may ask, is design thinking? There is no one answer. There is, however, one organization that has made design thinking its core. IDEO, a global design firm in Silicon Valley, has designed all sorts of iconic things – think Apple’s one-button mouse, stand-up toothpaste tubes, and even the ruffles on your potato chips). The firm sees design thinking as a three-stage process of inspiration, ideation and implementation, and as one that combines creativity with practicality. “Nobody wants to run an organization on feeling, intuition and inspiration,” the company’s manifesto on design thinking reads, “but an overreliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky.

“Design thinking provides an integrated third way.”

Heading Upmarket?

Several U.S. business publications have flagged the massive open online course (MOOC) as disrupting all education, including executive learning. What some see the MOOC creating is a cheap, accessible alternative to education of yore and, in turn, a need for executive education to go upmarket. Heather Christensen, the acting associate dean at the Alberta School of Business, says that while she disagrees with this analysis of education trends, there are elements of going upmarket changing the space in Alberta, with bespoke programs becoming the hot new thing. “More organizations are accessing custom programs,” Christensen says. “They come to us with a particular issue or need and ask us to partner to develop a program for a group of their employees. That’s not just us, but the industry in general.”

Four years ago, an organization approached the University of Alberta, hoping to create an executive program for its most senior leaders. Christensen says a program was developed in partnership with the University of Calgary’s executive education, using action learning projects to teach the company’s executives. The eight-month program, still underway, sees student groups work on specific projects with faculty. There are even field trips. “At the end of the course, when they complete, they present their recommendations to the executive,” Christensen says. “And quite often the projects are actually implemented. It’s really cool.”

Cost for bespoke programs ranges from around $20,000 to close to half a million, Christensen says.

MOOCs Moot?

But is the MOOC trend in other levels of post-secondary education, well, moot, in executive education? No. But the MOOC doesn’t add much, at least in isolation, Christensen says. “Having said that, though, a lot of these programs have more extra elements added – whether an online program, coaching, experiential projects,” she says. “It’s not 100 per cent sitting in a classroom. There are a lot more complementary elements being added. Sometimes they’re accessing online resources – they may or may not be a MOOC. Where we’re seeing the impact of things like MOOCs is that it’s augmenting our programs rather than taking away our programs.”

Generational Tailoring

Business education conjures thoughts of leather chairs, grey hair, clubby C-suite banter among the boys and an aversion to newness. But Christensen says new leaders are big parts of the new generation of leadership programs. “For us in particular, we have a leadership development program for brand new leaders, so we’re seeing young people in that program, in their 30s, right up to our senior director programs.”


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One Response to Behind the Clichés, a Revolution

  1. David Block says:

    I think MBAs are getting a bad rap because the content is now freely available. The only thing a “real” MBA gets you is a network of contacts. I’m working on helping push the content out into the real world (#nextbook on twitter), and I have no shortage of great content to recommend. Content can be consumed, but learning only happens with structure and accountability – so this is still an open problem for businesses and learners. Making space for “non-productive” time in which learning happens will end up rewarding companies many times over.