A Better Fit For Exec Ed

The companies that pay the tab are demanding more specialization

Attending a traditional executive-education program typically means asking your employer to write a check for thousands of dollars, leaving behind family and colleagues for weeks at a time, and then studying everything from negotiation to marketing with attendees from a variety of unrelated industries. Now a new breed of exec-ed courses is cropping up to better serve managers in search of professional growth. These offerings are shorter and more tailored to the issues facing execs in specific industries.

The demand for more specialized fare is coming from companies that foot the bill. If you're a boss at a pharmaceutical maker, for instance, would you rather spend $23,000 on tuition to have your manager study innovation in the life sciences or take a generic course on innovation? The new classes may not be cheaper on a per-diem basis, but they aim to deliver a bigger bang for the buck.

"Plain vanilla really doesn't fit at all anymore," says Marie Eiter, director for executive education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Business. "The value used to be the cross-conversation where you got the aha! [But] industries are becoming more competitive, and their issues differ."

That's why, after a plea from a biotechnology company that frequently sent employees to general courses but wanted a more focused approach, MIT overhauled its Leading Innovative Enterprises program and customized the curriculum for execs in biotech, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices. The program allows participants to dig deeper and engage in more robust conversations than in programs where attendees hail from different fields. "We were able to get into a very detailed, practical level of things we could actually do," says Bonnie Anderson, a vice-president at medical-device maker Beckman Coulter (BEC ), who has attended more traditional programs in the past and recently went to the first of the reworked MIT program's three sessions.

One caveat: If you're seeking one of these more focused courses, you may have to be patient or hop on a plane. More B-schools can put together a top-notch general program than, say, one on Business for Lawyers, which the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business will run in April. The three-day course, which aims to boost lawyers' ability to understand and converse with the business clients they represent, covers 10 topics, including marketing and entrepreneurship. And what other school would be as suited to host a weeklong program for wine-industry executives than the University of California at Davis Graduate School of Management?

In addition to creating industry-specific courses, schools are experimenting with more flexible ways of delivering standard management content. In January, Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis launched a series of 15 one-day seminars after interviewing 60 companies about their exec-ed needs. Each class tackles a different aspect of management and leadership, taught by the school's leading scholars in those fields. Olin Partners' Program lets companies buy seats to the seminars in bulk at increasingly steep discounts. One seat goes for $695, while 100 cost just $450 apiece. Their courses run about half the price charged by other top schools.

Back at the office, applying your new B-school smarts can be a challenge. In the past, schools have left that chore to attendees and their companies, but now they're trying to find ways to help. Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management plans to offer a series of one-day courses to top-rung execs whose employees attend one of Kellogg's three- to five-day programs. "I kept hearing participants say: 'Gosh, I wish my boss could have heard some of that,"' says Stephen Burnett, Kellogg's associate dean for executive education. Rather than rehash what the others learned, a back-to-school session for bosses focuses on the view from the top -- and how an employee's new skills can be put to use.

Leave it to business schools to come up with an income-producing product to teach executives how to manage people who have taken executive-education classes. But there's no value in sending employees off to sharpen their skills if their bosses don't know how to make the most of them.

By Lauren Gard

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