Demand for executive education has rebounded, with corporate and individual clients returning to training providers following last year’s economic recovery from the pandemic, as well as the easing of restrictions on travel and face-to-face contact.
But executive education is an increasingly competitive business, with new tech-based entrants coming into the market as companies become more willing to divert some of their training budgets away from academic institutions, their traditional providers, to the tech firms.
This has increased the pressure on universities and business schools to demonstrate the value they are offering. The ability to measure the impact of expensive training programs, to demonstrate return on investment for clients, has long been seen as the ‘holy grail’ in the executive education industry. Business schools are taking new approaches with more sophisticated methods for capturing the true value of training.
The contest for companies’ learning and development budgets has forced some of the innovation in this area. “Mainstream executive education is indeed increasingly competitive as more and more training companies, consulting companies and business schools have an offering on this market,” says Cecile Arragon, executive director for business development at HEC Paris Executive Education.
But she insists that the research and academic excellence of leading business schools can help them to stand out in this environment. HEC Paris business school is measuring the impact of all its training across three dimensions, starting with the impact on hard business results. “We are currently restructuring our executive education impact measurement according to this model,” says Arragon.
But the school is also measuring the effect its clients are having on society and the environment. “We firmly believe executive education can contribute to solving the problems the world is currently facing. It is not only about doing things better, but about doing them differently,” she adds.
It is a similar story at INSEAD. Nathalie Bobrinsky, executive director of corporate partnerships, says: “As access to data broadens and measurement mechanisms become more advanced, and with budgets under greater scrutiny perhaps than before, the pressure is on business schools to demonstrate the broader value of what they offer – the impact on the whole organization and its stakeholder ecosystem.”
What is the ROI of executive education? How do you even measure it?
Historically, business schools have taken a baseline approach, measuring the quantitative impact on individual learners through feedback or points-based grading systems done before and after the training runs. One approach is to use 360-degree leadership measurement tools, for instance.
Increasingly, however, clients want to understand the impact of executive education beyond individual appreciation. INSEAD, for example, tracks the practical application of the learning by looking at how participants use their project work during the program to then unlock real-world value or drive new business ideas once they are back in the workplace.
Being exposed to research-based models, facts and tools through interaction with professors who are leading in their fields is a key benefit to executive education for the individual learner. Executive courses also enable participants to develop a global network of senior managers, which can be an invaluable career resource.
In addition, HEC’s Arragon points to the “luxury” of the time offered to think and step back in an environment dedicated to progress and the nurturing of new ideas as a key benefit of attending a training program. “It also helps participants to develop their confidence and grow in their self-worth, along with the courage to dare and the spark to act,” she says.
At the corporate level, executive education can fill gaps in organizational knowledge and capabilities, but it can also drive deeper cultural change when the learning is cascaded through to different parts of the business.
“Here the impact can touch a range of less tangible but strategically important areas such as collaboration, innovation and the development of a common language, common tools and frameworks,” says INSEAD’s Bobrinsky.
She adds that executive education drives employee retention and engagement, especially when it’s delivered by a prestigious school; clients often report a real increase in energy for change and for new initiatives when their people come through training courses.
Can AI be used to measure the success of executive education?
One area of impact measurement that is gaining significant traction is the use of advanced technologies such as AI and natural language processing to detect the more nuanced shifts in language, sentiment or mindset that emerge as a result of the training.
“I think we’re at the beginning of a quantum shift in the way that we use new technologies to evaluate learning and impact in executive education,” says Bobrinsky. “Technology is providing a lens to understand impact beyond what quantitative feedback can tell us.”
Say, for instance, the core objective of a leadership program is to drive more inclusive management practices. With language processing, clients can capture and quantify subtle changes in how these leaders talk: from “managing people” to “listening to others”.
“These technologies are giving us the tools to track the acquisition of certain leadership capabilities – to tap into shifts in empathy and other so-called ‘soft’ skills that have historically been harder to evaluate meaningfully,” Bobrinsky says.
But she adds the onus is on educators to be sensitive about the data they obtain from participants; the objective should not be to measure or judge individuals themselves.
In determining the impact of executive education for corporations and its return on investment, she says training providers have to be careful to avoid compromising the integrity of the experience for the individual learner – and the promise of psychological safety and trust that executive education is built upon.