Campus is the place for corporate climbers

November 16, 2007

Increasingly, the private sector is turning to academia for executive training programmes. Sally Watson explains why. There has been a growing trend for companies to invest in customised leadership development programmes. One might expect traditional providers of leadership development - training companies and commercial consultancies - to dominate this market, but universities and business schools are making the biggest moves.

At my institution, Lancaster University, we are developing managers at Airbus UK, BAE Systems, Total, the Riverside Group and Great Places Housing Group, Co-operative Financial Services and Help The Hospices; we also recently started an executive coaching programme with the Singapore Armed Forces. This trend is being repeated in universities up and down the country: organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors are recognising the power of academic collaboration.

Why are organisations turning to academia? Well, we have discovered in our work with clients that leaders need both intellectual and emotional development on a management programme. Intellectually, a major outcome of business school executive development programmes is that participants gain knowledge about theory and process that can underpin practical actions in the workplace. Participants on our accredited programmes are assessed both on their knowledge and its application through project work and work-based assignments. The tangible nature of accreditation brings an acknowledgement of performance that can be used by the individual and the organisation for career development and talent management. Examples of this can be found on schemes we run for Co-operative Financial Services and the housing sector. Of the 50 participants graduating from these programmes, more than half have been promoted internally.

The major purchasers of these development programmes are human resources specialists with a healthy cynicism for the myriad products and solutions out there in the training market. HR buyers have to justify their decisions to executive stakeholders who expect a return on investment. They also have a healthy concern that investment in training brings sustainable change. The challenge for providers of leadership development is to ensure that learning is transferred to the workplace through outcomes that can be measured for impact and sustainability. The ability to bring a rigorous pedagogical approach to the design and evaluation of leadership development schemes that are aligned to a sponsoring organisation's strategic direction is a key competitive advantage for universities.

Managers face increasingly complex and changing environments and rarely embark on a development programme as a single career experience. Their views of academic study as a one-off experience are changing - they now see university executive development programmes as places to return to several times in a managerial career. In our experience, communities of academics, practitioners and managers can create a strong ethos of lifelong learning through the elements that make up a typical executive programme. In addition, many participants return to deliver guest lectures, coach and mentor other managers and undertake further education and development programmes.

Interestingly, a group of senior executives we work with recently requested that their modules be transferred to our management school from a five-star hotel in the Midlands. Asked why, they said learning was much more productive and fun at university than they had imagined. It is difficult for a traditional training company to provide this experience. Although many providers reassure their clients that the provision is "bespoke", their business models are grounded in the need to remain commercial. It is unlikely that they are able to allocate the level of resource to academic excellence that a typical university can, given its commitment, strategic direction and, more importantly, the value system shared by its members.

Executive education is fast becoming more than just the acquisition of an MBA or attendance at training events. The challenge to education provision and development programmes is to make the outcomes tangible and sustainable. The key is to encourage everyone to view leadership development as a lifelong process. Our universities have the competitive edge here. And it is the ability to integrate good practice, cutting-edge research and robust knowledge that gives us the advantage.

Sally Watson is director of executive education, Lancaster University Management School.

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