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Can Online Education Disrupt the Customized Training Space?

The EvoLLLution | Can Online Education Disrupt the Customized Training Space?
While online programming can help supplement or complement a robust executive-level customized training interventions, it cannot replace face-to-face programming.

As spending on corporate training globally continues to rise, more and more colleges and universities are trying to find ways to enter and solidify their position in this lucrative, but challenging marketplace. One of the core tenants of success in the customized training space is the understanding that the programming specifically addresses the needs of the client, but as online learning has emerged and strengthened over the past decade, we are entering an era where the modality can be customized as well. In this interview, John Davis discusses the true potential of online learning in the customized education space and shares his thoughts on whether these opportunities can help a training provider differentiate itself.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the advantages face-to-face customized education has over online options?

John Davis (JD): Face-to-face and online training co-exist on a continuum of educational offerings. Online education offers a number of important benefits, especially in terms of cost, access and delivery. But there are certain limitations to online, even with the more advanced technology represented by adaptive learning and MOOCs. You miss a lot of that face-to-face nuance that comes only from an exchange between people interacting in real time.

The distinction between online and customized education is even more pronounced. Customized executive education means everything we do is tailored to the needs of each individual client. We don’t have an off-the-shelf executive education program. We instead work with the clients to understand their issues, their needs and their leadership challenges. Custom education is meant to address a very specific need that cannot be served in any kind of online environment, or with traditional executive education programs.

Online is a really effective means to complement and supplement the more traditional media of books, magazines and periodicals. The online environment is terrifically effective at taking and disseminating core knowledge since it can convey formulas, models and frameworks with relative ease.

In the context of customized education, online can be an effective way to distribute foundational knowledge for prospective and new students, providing a useful backdrop for the actual course. It is not a replacement, however, for the kind of critical thinking and reasoning required during a live in-class discussion or as demanded by one’s work activities. Instead, it is a complement.

Evo: Are you seeing much demand from employers for online training options?

JD: Online training is not a first-order priority for the kinds of leadership development we provide. You see it more with junior levels of organizations who require more fundamental skills development. Demand for online is used more for common sense training, such as looking to improve people’s basic skillsets in a way that benefits the organization. Even still, there are limitations on the kinds of important, contextual insights that can be effectively learned in an online environment based on current technologies.

As people mature through the organization and they move into management and executive levels, the needs of the organization change, requiring leaders to develop institutional capabilities. Questions like “How do I handle a challenging situation that we’ve never faced before? How do I step into a situation where there is no clear answer and no safety net?” arise regularly. It’s that navigation through these ‘VUCA’ issues (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) that is the test of leadership, and we all respond differently. Online education is a less effective tool for imparting these kinds of lessons (although there are sophisticated simulations that can be useful components within a larger customized executive education experience), which is where customized executive education plays an important, indeed vital, role since we immerse participants in metaphoric experiences that help transform their leadership behaviors.

Evo: How do employers define ROI for their customized training investment?

JD: This comes down to a question of the definition of return. Let’s look at both online education and customized executive education as examples. With respect to online education, some providers are experimenting with relatively high-touch technologies to disseminate content and they are spending a lot of money to build platforms, infrastructures and other critical tools. That first on-ramp for offering robust online programming is not unlike a startup; it does require significant investment to make it happen. Identifying the source of the content is an important need for organizations to address as they evaluate online learning environments. It is possible to buy off-the-shelf, ready–made solutions, and then you’re effectively using someone else’s ideas and content, which may well be adequate depending on the learning needs of the people in the organization. This is certainly less expensive in terms of per-user charges and even infrastructure charges, particularly if web-based solutions are used. The disadvantage is that the content is not specific to the needs of the organization, so the knowledge tends to be more generic.

With customized executive education, the investment is more complex because the programs are designed to incorporate contextually relevant insights from experienced professionals with domain expertise who come from industry, academia or from other fascinating backgrounds. The educators we work with at Duke CE range from experts who are practitioner/academics (we call them “pracademics”) with the latest cutting edge research, to former CEOs, to successful entrepreneurs, to government leaders, weaving them together into a leadership development narrative designed to help participants become the kind of leaders a better tomorrow needs. That contextual emphasis is vitally important in a custom education experience because it helps the leader see and understand how to navigate the real world, as it exists.

The distinction between customized executive education and online education is important to understand, as there are implications for evaluating the return. For straightforward, junior-level training, return on investment is a little bit easier to calculate because the programs tend to be reasonably traditional in structure and content (such as time management and project management programs). That kind of rationale doesn’t work in more senior-level customized education because leaders are not learning core competencies or fundamentals. Instead, they are learning about more nuanced challenges, such as how to handle a VUCA world, how to grow responsibly, how to add value to society at large. In many instances, leadership behavior issues are the focus, and those take longer to change. For example, if you’re at a large organization facing a crisis in your industry, management may well be frozen by their current operating practices, perhaps because they’re used to doing things a certain way, and it is therefore quite hard to unwind embedded practices and behaviors, despite signals in the market that the context is changing and their business may be at risk. In effect, they need to navigate these challenges by leading in a different way. Customized executive education helps them unfreeze past practices that are no longer effective, and refreeze a new pattern of practices and behaviors. That doesn’t happen overnight.

Therefore, a more effective evaluation is to focus on return on expectation. We do extensive “discovery” with organizations we work with, getting a sense of where the organization wants to be and if the program is successful, where they expect to see the results. Those insights help determine expectations. It’s less of a numerical measure and more of a leadership behavior evaluation.

One way to assess return on expectation is by reviewing internal engagement scores in the company: “Do you feel like your work is valued? Is the company headed in the right direction?” If an organization has low engagement scores, then the leadership program we co-create will be designed to awaken those leaders to the kind of behaviors and practices required, given their context. Return on expectation helps inform the customized design needed to help transform leaders. You can’t expect an overnight change. Helping leaders prepare for what’s next takes time, but the rewards for the long-term success of the organization are much greater.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to stand out in the customized training marketplace and how an institution’s choice of modality can help solidify that position?

JD: Being successful in customized executive education requires a keen understanding of and appreciation for the unique needs of each client. Every organization’s context is different, even those in the same industry facing similar conditions will respond differently depending on their organization and culture. Understanding the purpose of the learning intervention for the organization is vital to fostering client success. That helps determine the approach taken. In some cases, there are organizations that are very comfortable with highly metaphoric experiences. Those kinds of experiences can really help transform a company’s leaders, but it’s just one way among many. Any organization that’s looking for transformation is going to have a certain tolerance of those types of things and the customization has to be sensitive to that tolerance.

The bottom line is that there are multiple ways to help clients develop their leaders. The key, of course, is clearly understanding the needs of the organization and designing the custom executive education experience accordingly. That’s easier said than done, but we’ve been doing this for 15 years with clients in over 75 countries, giving us a rich treasure trove of insights and experiences about the widely varying leadership development needs of organizations all over the world.

This interview has been edited for length.

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