Executive education revenues dried up early in the pandemic, as corporate clients cut back on spending and staff time away as they focused on coping with the disruptions caused by coronavirus. This meant business schools took a big financial hit as they have traditionally relied on executive training as the biggest income generator.
A further challenge was posed by new technology-based entrants to the executive education market, which have added to the pressure on established academic institutions.
But there are signs of resurgent demand for corporate training, with clients returning again since last year’s economic recovery and the easing of Covid restrictions that had limited travel and the possibility of holding face-to-face sessions.
Business schools say that things are now looking up after a difficult couple of years. “We are seeing an increased desire for executive education – both short courses and customized programs for organizations,” says Brandon Kirby, senior director of marketing, sales and admissions at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands.
What is more, he believes the forced switch to remote teaching due to Covid has been a boon for training providers, with executive clients enjoying the greater flexibility and convenience. “Face-to-face is still the overwhelming preference for our clients, but we are seeing an increased willingness to take some courses in an online or hybrid format,” he adds. “We believe this willingness is due to changing perceptions of online experiences during the height of restrictions.”
Virtual training is here to stay
Covid forced business schools to shift resources online to cope with lockdowns and travel restrictions. This helped companies expand training to more people at different levels of the organization, precipitating the democratization of executive education and unlocking scale for training providers.
For this reason, Kirby says virtual classes are here to stay. “The restrictions forced employees and companies to attend virtually, who were oftentimes pleasantly surprised with the experience. Online is great for organizations as it allows them to scale their training while staying on budget, which wasn’t possible with face-to-face programs.”
He says the challenge moving forward is for academic institutions to continue to innovate delivery methods and classroom experiences, as over time participant expectations will only increase.
For now, demand is robust. One recent study on the future of lifelong and executive education by CarringtonCrisp, a consultancy, found 48 percent of employers expect to see their training budgets increase in the next two years.
“Technology is leading the way, especially broad digital transformation programs, but also specifics such as artificial intelligence,” says Andrew Crisp, co-founder of the firm. “We are also seeing demand for courses on diversity, equality, inclusion and belonging as well as on sustainability.”
Derrick Mabbott, marketing director Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK, also points to signs of recovery in the executive education market. “Corporate clients are definitely returning, with exponential growth from COVID levels.”
Robust demand for executive courses in leadership and ESG
In terms of the key learning themes for 2022, he says demand is always strong for courses on leadership, although with a new twist as organizations embrace the realities of remote working as a fact of life from now on.
The biggest growth area, however, is for content focused on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors as companies come under pressure to become better corporate citizens. “That growth is in some ways part of a response to the need to attract talent, and to respond to regulatory pressure, but is more broadly about senior leaders getting behind the need to simply do the right thing,” says Mabbott.
He says companies are, increasingly, using training to attract and retain staff in a tighter labor market with greater career mobility. “New realities like remote working have created skill gaps for management layers, but also many employees are taking courses to maintain their employability and perhaps also enable career-switching,” he adds.
For many such executives, the ability to take courses online is ever more attractive given the heightened geopolitical tensions in a fragile post-Covid world. “Travel disruption still continues, shocks like the war in Ukraine add to uncertainty and many companies are now reducing travel as part of their wider environmental efforts,” Mabbott says, noting that virtual classes are cheaper for companies and require less time out of the office.
“This is attractive to many because of the flexibility it offers,” he adds. “We have found greater interest from developing economies as companies and executives find the overall costs more affordable.”
Purely online learning is most appealing to those in their 30s and 40’ because it enables them to fit learning around their family and work commitments, says Mabbott. “It is least appealing to the youngest in the labor market, perhaps because they are more accustomed to traditional ways of learning.”