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Lack of Relevance the Largest Stumbling Block to Higher Ed’s Success in Corporate Learning

The EvoLLLution | Lack of Relevance the Largest Stumbling Block to Higher Ed’s Success in Corporate Learning
To succeed in the corporate training market, it’s critical to design a curriculum that responds directly to organizational needs and make it available in flexible and on-demand structures.

The corporate training marketplace is incredibly lucrative. With an estimated $161 billion to $177 billion spent on corporate education each year in the United States alone, serving this market well is critical to the success of many postsecondary institutions. However, the perceived value that colleges and universities bring to the table is often not shared by their corporate sector colleagues. In this interview, Gustaf Nordbäck reflects on the findings of the 2018 Pulse Report and shares his insights—and those of business leaders—on why past investments in continuing corporate education do not seem to have paid off.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are investments in skills development and ongoing employee education so important for modern businesses?

Gustaf Nordbäck (GN): Nowadays, the rapid pace of change in all areas of life, principally fuelled by advances in technology, has created a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. This raises the bar for companies to constantly evolve in order to stay relevant and succeed.

With this paradigm shift, the demands on an organization and its employees are significantly heightened. In these circumstances, the continuous development of the organization’s employees becomes crucial to the success of the business.

Building this resilience involves a commitment to long-term training and relationship building at many levels. That way, when inevitable challenges occur, organizations and their teams can call on the skills, knowledge and experience of well-trained and capable employees who can respond systematically and strategically to the demands being placed upon them and their organization.

These days, nothing can guarantee business longevity. Nonetheless, an ongoing, conscientious commitment to developing the skills of an organization’s employees is the strategy that is most likely to succeed. These days, it’s the quality, skills and mindset of the people who work for an organization, not the machines it uses to make its products, that differentiate the successful organization from businesses that are merely adequate or failing.

Evo: How promising is this evolving market opportunity for college and university leaders, especially those with divisions that deliver professional and continuing education?

GN: Earlier this year we asked more than 1,000 executives from various countries about their views on executive education and development. We found that executive education now ranks fourth in executives’ top organizational priorities. Moreover, nearly half of senior professionals expect executive education to have a positive impact on organizational change, help individuals gain skills to lead and manage teams and drive staff progression.

The 2018 Pulse Report found that, rather than seeking to invest in skills development for its own sake, organizations now want to prepare their leaders to meet the specific challenges facing modern businesses.

While this can be seen as business organizations being generally supportive of executive education, there were some signs of dissatisfaction with the executive education community.

According to Pulse survey respondents, a lack of support from senior leadership and the misalignment of executive education programs with company strategy are key reasons why senior leaders don’t feel that past investments in executive education and leadership development have added value.

Furthermore, less than half of L&D and HR professionals feel that executive education programs have evolved to meet their changing needs. Some 41% of senior professionals say that executive education could be improved by better alignment with business goals.

In addition, senior professionals believe that executive education providers need to reinvent their offerings as business challenges change. Buyers of executive education want providers to offer new ways to help them face business challenges.

Evo: What are some of the roadblocks that have pushed business leaders away from postsecondary institutions?

GN: Respondents in this year’s FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance Pulse survey outlined some of the roadblocks that have, historically, discouraged business leaders from partnering with postsecondary institutions for ongoing education and training. These included the view that executive education programs have failed to evolve to meet changing needs in the modern business world, and are (now, at least) misaligned with business goals. Senior professionals think executive education providers need to reinvent their offerings as business challenges change.

There were signs from the survey that, as far as some executive educations providers were concerned, opinions are becoming more positive. However, there is still work to be done within the executive education supply sector to produce and offer the programs that modern businesses need. Moreover, there are also indications that these programs need to be available for delivery through a variety of delivery mechanisms—not just via the ‘traditional’ classroom model.

While it’s extremely fashionable to talk of a blended approach to delivering learning—especially to accommodate today’s learners’ lifestyles and learning preferences—it is true that there is a real and growing need for on-demand learning materials to act as performance support.

Evo: How must colleges and universities evolve to attract prospective training partners?

GN: With accountability and a desire to understand impact becoming ever more important for businesses, measuring the success of executive education and corporate learning initiatives is crucial.

According to the 2018 Pulse Report, 55 percent of senior professionals now believe that executive education and leadership development programs have had a positive impact on their organization. They agree that investing in their employees through learning and leadership development programs drives change and innovation in their organization.

However, these are purely beliefs and beliefs can be replaced by other, less positive beliefs at any time. Agreed measures, on the other hand, provide at least a degree of objectivity, even in the subjective world of executive education.

Significantly, the Pulse Report revealed that 59 percent of senior professionals agree that measuring success—notably the success of executive education programs—is important. So, while the Report confirms that senior professionals feel executive education and leadership development add tangible and intangible value to their organization, a growing number of them are looking for some more objective measure of that value. Incidentally, the most likely areas for this measurement are in terms of employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and employee engagement.

The results of the 2018 Pulse Report—including the fact that less than half of senior professionals agree that executive education programs have evolved to reflect their changing business needs—point to a clear need for reinvention of executive education programs and new offerings to ensure that the value-add can be assessed and recognized.

In addition to introducing an accepted measure of the value of executive education, executive education providers will only continue to be successful if they adapt existing programs, and develop new ones, to meet modern business needs.

As one CEO from Germany told our researchers, “Continuing executive education only helps if it is adapted to the needs of our company in a practical way. General programs don’t help us in terms of digital transformation and globalization. Only targeted further education brings us added value and will pay off in the next few years.”

So, using this year’s Pulse Report as a guide, focusing on better understanding organizations’ needs; developing fresh, topical program content that better aligns with business goals; and setting a course for valid and reliable measurement and evaluation techniques should help showcase the value-add for investment made in executive learning and development programs.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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