The Executive Education business is facing a crisis and a long-term change in its environment. What is needed is a commitment to re-inventing Executive Education in an online world. Leaders need to define a vision for online that incorporates the learning experience, platforms, strategy & marketing, and success metrics.
Finally, and most importantly, they must make four decisions that will determine if, when, and how much Executive Education revenue will ever rebound. Leadership’s answers will determine a school’s fate in executive education.
1. The challenge
Executive Education (“ExecEd”) business, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, has evaporated. Further, the recovery timeline is unknown. Consider the underlying components of ExecEd programs:
- Air travel
- Hotel stays
- Eating in restaurants
- Long hours of physical co-presence in a classroom
Revenue depends on both schools and executive attendees being comfortable with every piece. Both human psychology and medical advancements are complex and unpredictable. Given that, ExecEd leaders cannot foresee the arc of the recovery of revenue.
2. The solution
Leaders need to make a full commitment to re-inventing ExecEd in an online world. Online classes are not the same as in-person classes. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. For online programs to excel, ExecEd leaders have to re-conceive them in full. Otherwise, ExecEd would lose the potential benefits of online while focusing on probable weaknesses.
ExecEd programs need a differentiated online learning platform and engagement vision. Implementing this vision in phases could enable some programs to earn short-term revenue. Over time, ExecEd could create a portfolio of online, hybrid, residential, and on-site programs. Leadership could deploy each type when its strengths match the program's needs. ExecEd leadership must act as if other schools will be building similar portfolios. The school must move decisively, building both a competitive position and a deep knowledge of online learning.
3. The vision for online ExecEd
Brilliant online executive education is more than the classroom learning experience. Successful ExecEd programs provide superior service over many dimensions:
- An engaging in-class learning experience
- Actionable and applicable learning take-aways
- Opportunities to learn from peers
- Comfortable and effective classroom and accommodations
- Effective personal support by on-site personnel
- And many more
ExecEd leadership must come up with an inspiring, holistic vision for online programs. This will serve as the school's North Star as it navigates from today's shut-down to a thriving future. This vision should incorporate the learning experience, platforms, strategy, and success metrics.
An excellent, unified learning experience could be a significant differentiator. Leaders and faculty must describe what the in-course learning experience must be like. Will these include lectures, small group problem solving, whiteboards, or simulations? Beyond the in-course activities, leaders must also decide about other parts:
- Pre-program experience,
- Structure of the programs,
- Post-program experience,
- Community building and communication tools.
Everything in an online program happens within an electronic platform. Learning Management Systems (LMSs) such as Canvas are one type of platform. LMSs coordinate (and limit) all in-class learning activities. These platforms also structure some other parts of the learning experience (listed above). Commercial LMSs provide the most limited and difficult-to-modify platforms; custom platforms lift these restrictions.
Online learning also requires other platforms:
- Sales & marketing,
- The program catalog,
- E-commerce, and
- Alumni engagement.
These platforms will all need to be functional when the initial public programs roll out. The school will have to make ongoing investments in all the above. This will enable the school to enable new functionality as demanded by the market.
Leadership must commit to integrating and customizing all these platforms. In residential programs, trained and experienced personnel provide the integration and customized service. Thoughtfully designed platforms and systems integration will improve the online learner's experience.
Strategy & marketing
ExecEd leadership must recommit itself to its strategy as it moves online. As I stated elsewhere,
"A higher education institution should not have an online learning strategy that is somehow separate in tone, content, or direction from the institution's overarching strategy."
Moving online should not cause ExecEd to lose its focus on its value proposition and mission.
After this recommitment to its strategy, leadership will have to ponder the usual marketing issues:
- Go-to-market strategies and plans
- Pricing decisions
- Market segmentation and prioritization; and
- Messages describing the differentiators that will enable ExecEd to win
Most ExecEd leaders run their divisions as businesses. One of their goals is usually to contribute positive cash flow to the school. Before moving online, ExecEd leadership and faculty should agree on success metrics. Further, this group should also set initial goals for each. Dozens of people will build the school’s online ExecEd programs, and they will make hundreds of decisions. Having these goals and metrics agreed-upon beforehand will make those decisions more impactful.
4. The decisions
To realize their vision for online learning before it's too late, ExecEd leaders have to make four decisions right now:
Allocate enough funding: How much is the school willing to spend to do this? It will not be insignificant—at least $1m in the short-term with similar amounts each of the next 3-5 years. While this is a lot of money, I challenge any ExecEd leader to come up with a less expensive and less risky workable alternative in this new world.
Choose the right decision-maker: To speed up decision-making, the school will need to have a single person in charge. Time is of the essence. Good decisions are important, but optimized decisions are not necessary. The decision-maker should understand the school, have good management and project skills, have led a digital innovation project, and have a creative bent.
Demand rule-breaking: Management theory supports the need to break organizational rules when innovating. Explicitly granting permission to break rules would speed the programs to market. The sooner the programs are running, the faster the school gets both revenue and feedback. Both of these would enable improvements through additional funding and refinement.
Choose the right partner: Most schools have not created innovative digital products. Further, they have limited excess manpower in all the specialties needed to do so:
- Product & project management
- Learning experience design
- User experience design
- Digital media design and creation
- Full-stack development
Designing and creating differentiated online ExecEd demands all the above. The easiest and quickest way to access the needed resources is by hiring the right partner. This partner should have the following characteristics:
- Expertise in all the above areas
- Experience working in higher education
- A proven track record delivering successful and innovative digital products
While Extension Engine will not be a fit for every ExecEd organization, our combination of experience, talent, and mission makes us a strong contender.
5. Why Extension Engine?
Extension Engine designs and delivers brilliant online custom learning experiences for higher education. F many years, we have worked with Harvard Business School to create, maintain, and evolve the HBS Online platform. We currently are working with the University of Pennsylvania on a virtual campus for online students. We have also worked with ArtCenter College of Design, Notre Dame, The Smithsonian, and many others.
Extension Engine creates online learning for higher education, non-profit organizations, and learning businesses. We have found that knowledge in each improves our work in the others. We have completed 500,000 hours with 65 clients on 150+ online learning projects. Our focus is on brilliant custom learning experiences—the strategy, marketing, design, and creation of both software platforms and learning modules—that uniquely reflect the value proposition of the client.
Extension Engine has two missions. The combination of the two makes us unique. Mission #1 relates to designing, creating, and delivering custom learning experiences. Mission #2 is our desire to build the capacity of our clients to succeed without us. We want to help them get started, but then we want them to take over the parts of the operation that they want to. This requires an explicit commitment to collaborating with and educating our client, one that we make happily.
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If this article, or any part of it, resonates with you, let's schedule a time to talk. As a former dean and faculty member, I have a deep understanding of course academics, university administration, and online learning.