Money is tight everywhere, and executive education is certainly no exception. Pressure is mounting on business schools to show more direct and systematic evidence of a program's impact on either the company or the individual manager. Promises no longer suffice; senior executives responsible for financing such programs want an objective assessment of what attending an executive education program actually achieves. They want to see tangible results.
To do that, stakeholders involved in these programs—program designers, business school professors, and human resources executives—must overcome some deeply ingrained habits. Today, the impact of executive education programs isn't measured, because measuring it is difficult and risky—you could find out the programs aren't working. But if business schools are going to deliver what the market wants—programs that deliver actual results—they're going to have to step into uncharted territory and embrace that risk.
Determining the impact of sending top managers to an executive education program is notoriously difficult. And there's very little incentive for HR executives to try. Once the board has signed off on the program, measuring the results—whether in efficiency, growth, or progress toward strategic goals—is a task that many in HR view as having little value.
That's assuming such impact can be measured, and that's a big assumption. Participants come from vastly different settings, face distinct business challenges, and have diverse learning styles and histories that shape their expectations and reactions to the program. Considerable costs are involved. And from the perspective of faculty, there is also an inherent fear that their performance would be measured against their ability to deliver a program with impact.
Questionnaires Aren't Enough
While the individuals sponsoring executive education want to see direct results, many in the HR community are satisfied by simply observing the program development and participating in the learning process during the program itself. Many rely on post-program evaluations by the executives who participated. As one human resources manager said: "Evaluations by participants at the end of a program remove any doubt about its impact." As the literature shows, though, such questionnaires are at best poor measures of a program's true impact.
For HR executives, the alternative is unthinkable. The impact of an executive education program depends on many pre- and post-program activities. Measuring that impact makes HR responsible for those activities, many of which are difficult to measure and outside of HR's control—an uncomfortable situation for any executive.
However, theoretical evidence suggests that behavioral changes at the workplace require multiple points of reflection, multiple sources of feedback, linking a program's learning to an organizational necessity such as project work, linking program learning outcomes to internal company systems, and providing a supportive technology infrastructure for networking and internal knowledge sharing.
A New Way of Thinking
That's why providing support before, during, and after the learning experience is so essential if executive education programs are going to lead to new ways of thinking and behaving at work. Business schools and corporations must cast aside their risk-averse ways and dedicate themselves to a new way of thinking about executive education that encompasses the entire learning experience.
Most of us have never seen our current degree of economic uncertainty. However, as history has demonstrated time and again, crises offer opportunities for executives who take bold, decisive action, lead radical change, and find different technological ways to innovate and compete. Executive education programs can play a pivotal role here if they can adapt their offerings to meet the challenges of the times and show impact.
Faculty must be able to communicate how an understanding of the latest global trends can enable participants to make sound business decisions and obtain a competitive advantage. Like most top business schools, IMD has adjusted its program content. For our flagship program, Orchestrating Winning Performance, we have ensured that all the content streams will help executives clarify immediate challenges and explore long-term solutions in the midst of this critical period.
In this current economic climate, relevant programs in which the main players can take "risks" to maximize potential impact will make any executive education expenditure not only worth its value, but an essential for organizations that strive to be on top when the good times return.
Bettina Büechel is professor of strategy and organization and director of IMD's Orchestrating Winning Performance program.