Trends in Executive Development

Cranfield School of Management

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Trends in Executive Development
By Bill Shedden

The world around us is changing fast - and unpredictably. Old certainties are collapsing.

Development with impact

Organisations can no longer afford development for development’s sake. Executive development must have an impact, supporting the organisation in its strategic intent. And the impact needs to be both immediate and sustainable. This has a number of implications:

  • What will the programme do for you?

    Firstly the organisation, its learning team and their business school partner all need to be clear about the organisation’s strategy and cultural values - and how the programme will contribute to both.

  • How relevant?

    Secondly enough time and care needs to be taken in the design phase of the development intervention to ensure that it is aligned to the organisation’s strategy and culture, and reflects the challenges that the organisation faces. It is vital that time-pressed participants recognise the relevance of the development if real learning is to take place.

  • How applied?

    Thirdly the development initiative should allow individuals and teams to apply their learning to their real-life organisational issues immediately, with the support of both the business school tutors and the organisation itself. For this reason organisational projects, aligned to the organisation’s strategy, are often at the centre of the most impactful executive development programmes.

The likelihood of sustainable learning is greatly increased where external development and internal organisational processes and structures are aligned. Equally, executive development should contribute to the development of an organisational culture that fosters agility and the capacity to innovate in response to market needs – factors that are critical to success in turbulent, fast-moving times. The boundaries between executive development and organisational development are increasingly blurred.

Commitment to customisation

It is clear that customisation to the organisation’s needs underpins the approach to executive development outlined above. Increasingly too, customisation to the individual participant is part of successful executive development – and essential in helping individuals with the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ of achieving strategic objectives.

This is achieved in a number of ways. Well designed individual assessment built around psychometric and 360 feedback processes that reflect organisational values, enable the identification of individual development needs and the design of interventions that reflect these. Building individual, peer and group coaching into programmes ensures further customisation to individual needs. The provision of extensive online learning resources during and after a development intervention empowers participants to access specific expertise at the point of need - ‘just in time’ rather than ‘just in case’.

Business schools that are responding to client needs for more customised development are extending their capability to encompass a wide range of such learning services that go far beyond traditional, faculty based, knowledge delivery.

Demonstrating a return

The drive for impact on executive development, and the investment in customisation, is accompanied by pressure to demonstrate a return on investment. This is notoriously difficult in the world of learning, where it is very difficult to isolate the impact of a development initiative from other ‘noise’ in the system.

Nevertheless, impact can be demonstrated at both an individual and organisational level. Pre- and post-programme ‘stock-takes’ using 360 feedback mechanisms track behavioural change. Identifying the revenue generated, or costs saved, by applying specific tools and models learnt during a development programme helps identify financial benefits. Building real projects into the development process, aligned to the organisation’s strategy, makes organisational impact immediately visible.

New routes to learning

Global organisations with geographically dispersed management populations, operating in virtual teams, across multiple time zones and cultures, are shaping new approaches to the design of executive development. Executive development providers must have a global delivery capability in today’s world.

But this is not enough. Yes, organisations need to facilitate better global working, knowledge sharing and networking, but there are also economic and environmental considerations around ‘value for time’ and the accrual of unnecessary ‘learning miles’. These drivers are inspiring programme designs that combine intensive, high impact face to face modules with web-enabled content delivery and virtually supported action learning teams, group and individual coaching.

Innovative use of Web 2.0 technologies are key to transforming simple programme portals into living learning hubs, that enable global project working, and where learning is as much in the process undertaken as in the academic content ‘delivered’.

Leverage on-job learning

Currently, many Learning and Development teams are exploring how they can work more effectively with the 70:20:10 model of organisational learning. The model focuses attention not only on the delivery of formal learning (10%), but also in providing support for the 20% that comes via learning from others (encouraging this through coaching, mentoring and networks), and also in leveraging the 70% of learning that arises from experience ‘on the job’.

As the best business schools integrate new learning services into their offering, and new technologies into their delivery mechanisms, they too are moving well beyond the 10%, supporting the development of coaching cultures and social and knowledge networks in organisations, and contributing to workplace learning by bringing their faculty expertise to managers’ desktops. Increasingly the traditional barriers between the confines of the business school and the demands of the workplace are dissolving.

Staying ahead of change

So simply delivering a programme is no longer enough: to stay ahead of change, executive development is increasingly a process that incorporates a whole range of activities that focus on performance, rather than just skill acquisition; on access to networks and information more than accumulation of knowledge, and on enabling continuous learning rather than staging learning ‘events’. Changing times ahead.

Bill Shedden is the Director for the Centre for Customised Executive Development.



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