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Do Executives Need To Go To Business School?

Fewer than one-third of organizations use business schools for learning and development. So is executive education still relevant?

Thu Nov 29 2018

The pace of change within organizations today poses one of the biggest questions to business schools offering executive education: Are we still relevant?

According to a new study by CarringtonCrisp—Executive Education Futures—fewer than one-third of organizations use business schools for learning and development (L&D).

The study, which polled over 270 decision makers for corporate learning and development, reveals a competitive market; one being transformed by the impact of technology and a demand for flexible learning.

An in-house L&D offering is provided by 60% of respondents, followed by the use of consulting firms (51%), and online providers (46%).

“The market for learning and development is huge, yet business schools only have a small share of it,” says Andrew Crisp, author of the study. “If business schools want to build market share, they need to better understand why they aren’t used, what organizations want from them, and embrace a culture that focuses on impact.”

Relevant Or Bust

Dr Pekka Mattila (pictured below, right), associate dean for executive education at Aalto University School of Business, in Helsinki, Finland, admits that the marriage of academic knowledge and business in practice is currently on the rocks.

“The two are unfortunately growing more apart from each other,” he says. “Companies are moving faster than ever before, and academia is not as fast.”


Companies now expect an immediate impact on their business, Pekka adds, especially in a VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous—world, a topic he is speaking about at the upcoming MERIT Summit in Vienna, in January.

The CarringtonCrisp study found that 25% of respondents perceive business schools as too theoretical, and not sufficiently abreast of real-world business challenges.

“Consultancies and online providers are perceived as having the speed and adaptability to quickly and flexibly meet client demands,” asserts Andrew Crisp. “Business schools need to adapt so their service is comparable, but [they] should also highlight and play to their unique strengths.”

Developing the curriculum so it remains relevant is a pertinent problem, Pekka adds. But, nonetheless, business school faculty offer an expertise that is difficult to find in most consultancies, according to the report.

“Business schools will be successful if they are able to learn how to better customize programs for client companies,” Pekka explains. “The tradition has been a three-day block, predefined, where you have a pick and mix from ready-made modules. Today though, you have to learn how to customize and align programs with industry.”

In-House, In Demand

Helga Pattart-Drexler (pictured right), head of executive education at WU Executive Academy, says the school has seen an increase in demand for in-house customized programs for organizations. 


Her job is to ensure WU Executive Academy’s customized programs teach leaders the tools to tackle the challenges most pertinent to them.

It’s not a new phenomenon. Helga explains that the school’s faculty act more as consultants and coaches, and already have the flexibility needed to deliver workshops that give participants on the spot content they can use immediately within their firms.

“Our approach is we try to design learning journeys which are in contact with the strategy, structure, and culture of a company,” she says. For this to work, Helga is adamant that making space for innovation and creativity within organizations is key.

Time Is Of The Essence

Anders Richtnér (pictured below, right), CEO and associate professor at Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), says that whereas 15 years ago people could have taken part in a six-week program, nowadays there simply isn’t the time.

The CarringtonCrisp study also found that 75% of respondents agree short bursts of learning, delivered flexibly, and providing various micro credentials, are more valuable in meeting their development needs.


For that to take place, executive students need to be combining classroom learning with learning on the job. Anders says SSE adopts the 70-20-10 learning method, whereby 70% of learning is done on the job, 20% through coaching/mentoring, and only 10% delivered in a traditional classroom.

“We try to build that into our programs,” Anders explains, “but there have to be components that make sense within the organization, otherwise we’d be seen as someone just flying in and out with no effect.”

That’s where collaboration between industry and academia comes into play. Anders, who is delivering a case study presentation at the MERIT Summit on SEB’s (a Nordic bank) design driven innovation program, says SSE invite their clients to them and partake in open discussions about their L&D needs.

Alongside the demand for shorter bursts of education, Anders says there are also a lot of organizations talking about the lifelong learning journey.

“You’re not done when you’re 30 or 35,” he says, “you can be 55 and still have the ability to really accelerate.

“In that sense, we are able to boost individuals continuously over the years, by working with experience as a vehicle that we can learn from.”

Do executives need to go to business school?

The pace of change within organizations isn't going to slow down. That leaves business schools with one option: catch up.

There is, it seems, still a place at the table for executive education, and the senior leaders of tomorrow will need that expertise to commandeer troubled waters.

As Anders points out, communication between the corporate and academic worlds is vital, and it will be the strength of that relationship in years to come which will determine the longevity of executive education.