Business Schools Compete with Tech Startups in Executive Education

Business Schools Compete with Tech Startups in Executive Education

As corporate clients return after a pandemic hiatus, incumbent academic institutions are having to demonstrate unique value

The lucrative market for executive education is expanding, as corporate clients return after a pandemic hiatus and digital technologies open up fresh possibilities for training larger numbers of people than ever.

While this has been good news for business schools that earn a large chunk of their revenues from delivering courses for senior working professionals, they are also facing an intensification of competition in the executive training industry.

And business schools are not just competing with established academic institutions, but also newer tech companies employing digital-based learning solutions. This is great news for corporations, as it expands options for training. But for schools it poses a challenge in terms of demonstrating value and marketplace differentiation.

“Without a doubt, the competition is increasing — and the players are changing,” says Melanie Weaver Barnett, Chief Executive Education Officer at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “The competitive set once comprised mostly of major business schools. It now includes schools of all sizes and types, consulting firms, startups in the ed-tech space, more traditional training companies, and even the companies themselves, who may also be clients.” 

Google, for example, offers courses in digital marketing and other business topics to the public.

She says business schools have an edge in some respects: their work is known to be evidence-based and their brand-name can be a differentiator. At the same time, schools need to continue to “up their game” when it comes to crafting the learning experiences in executive education programs. 

“Business schools need to be adept and agile in our program design as well as be the experts in developing online and hybrid learning experiences,” says Weaver Barnett. “This means building the right mix of online and face-to-face learning to optimize the desired outcomes.”

A reshuffling of the executive education landscape 

Covid forced a shift to online classes to help training organizations and their students cope with lockdowns and travel restrictions. Even as many of the major economies have already reopened, business schools insist that virtual classes are here to stay.

“Capability and comfort level with online classes developed exponentially on both the provider and the client side,” Weaver Barnett says. “There’s much more to come in terms of optimizing learning and its outcomes, but virtual courses, when well designed and delivered, create learning experiences that have all the elements required to be effective.”

Having said that, what seems most likely to happen is that the corporate learning environment becomes “hybrid”, with a lively mix of delivery platforms for almost every course. Weaver Barnett adds: “I see a world where almost every learning experience we create involves individual asynchronous, live online, and face-to-face learning. And, these learning experiences will extend over longer periods of time, be consumable in smaller segments, and be more personal, convenient, varied and meaningful.”

This will enable learning to become embedded in the day-to-day work and life of executive participants, making “lifelong learning” more of a reality for everyone. Astrid Gelabert, Marketing Director for Executive Education at Esade Business School in Spain, says: “Online and hybrid programs are a must-have. Personalization is key, and we adapt to what our participants need and demand.”

Hybrid executive education offerings are growing 

Hybrid executive education programs are on the rise, at providers everywhere. “Also, technology is advancing fast and bringing numerous new possibilities to faculty and participants. It is changing and maximizing the way we teach, inspire and learn new capabilities and skills,” Gelabert says.

In addition, she says that corporate clients are returning amid economic recovery and easing of Covid restrictions. And she believes there is enough room for schools and new competitors alike. “Executive education has huge potential in the upcoming years and decades. We all need to be ready for the challenges and changes coming in our society, and acquiring a culture of constant learning is key for participants and organizations.”

But Esade’s main objective is not to compete with other or new players, she says. “We believe in collaborative models, and are creating alliances with key strategic partners to create a superior unique selling point together.” For Esade, this means leveraging personalization, evidence-based approaches and “impact measurement” of the skills and capabilities acquired, and promoting new leadership styles that are more responsible and sustainable.

“Having more players and different types of players in the market is enriching the possibilities for the participants,” says Gelabert. “New players are jumping into the field, but competition is always good because it is pushing us to evolve and become better in the design of our programs, content and methodologies.” 


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