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Coronavirus sharpens executive education focus on digital skills


The creators of executive education courses always try to make their offerings relevant to current business needs. The coronavirus crisis has sparked a wave of new programmes focusing on leadership in a crisis, for example.

But even before the pandemic, there was another strong trend: the teaching of digital knowledge and skills around subjects such as artificial intelligence and cyber security. Now, as the world has gone into lockdown to tackle Covid-19 and working online from home is commonplace, an understanding of the digital world has become still more important. Meanwhile, schools are also rethinking how to develop and expand remote tuition.

Imperial College Business School is prominent among those embracing the trend. One example is a Cybersecurity for Executives programme that teaches participants how they can implement better safeguards for IT networks, ways to protect against and handle cyber attacks, and the threats to businesses if they do suffer such an event.

Teaching takes place over two days, with lectures about basic technical aspects before participants are able to ask questions. For those who want to go into greater depth, course tutors provide supplementary materials online and use Imperial’s name to attract guest speakers. These recently included Robert Hannigan, the former director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK’s signals intelligence and cryptography agency.

“People have an awareness of technology, but the depth of their knowledge is often not sufficient to make decisions as senior executives,” says Deeph Chana, co-director of Imperial’s Institute for Security Science & Technology.

AI appeal: Deeph Chana says courses on artificial intelligence are popular
AI appeal: Deeph Chana says courses on artificial intelligence are popular

“The idea of this course is to give people a few more layers of depth about decisions, and what concerns they should have about cyber security in their organisation.”

Imperial also runs courses in artificial intelligence and the evolution of financial technology start-ups, or fintechs, both of which have proved popular, according to Prof Chana. He says Imperial’s brand — as a school built on engineering and the sciences — helps in a competitive market. “Our unique selling point at Imperial is to be able to offer that technical insight,” he adds.

In Barcelona, Iese Business School this year launched a three-day course combining teaching on artificial Intelligence with its Future of Management Initiative, a multidisciplinary project that will look at how AI affects leadership. The focus is on ethics, with tutors designing their teaching to prepare executives to put Al to use in their companies in a socially responsible way.

The school draws on its teaching of AI across a range of business degree programmes, says course tutor Sampsa Samila, assistant professor of strategic management.

“We start with the basics of AI, explaining neural networks and basic teaching about computers, before moving on to simplified structures for application of the technology and how you can consider algorithms as a tool for business,” Samila says. “We might talk about what you need to create a voice-activated assistant like the Amazon Echo’s Alexa or some of the technology in self-driving cars.”

The market for the course is broad, says Samila, but is mainly executives in middle or senior management roles.

“What we are trying to do is to get them to think about the business models created by this new technology,” he says. “These managers will have to learn new skills, which is not just about knowing what AI is but what are the competitive impacts on their business.”

Tutors everywhere are now having to think about how they teach online, at least in the short term. For courses already focused on tech, the hope is that such distance learning will be a good fit with target audiences.

A 2018 study of managers by the Trium Executive MBA found that two-thirds of prospective learners on executive education courses wanted some online learning in the teaching offered, double the number five years earlier. The Trium survey revealed that the most common challenge for executives is dealing with change, particularly in technology. Attracting and retaining the right talent and skills for organisations was a concern, as was the way technology, especially AI, may replace human workers.

Schools are starting to rethink their digital courses to adjust for this new world. “It’s not easy for anyone, but necessity is the mother of invention. And we are inventing very quickly,” says Ron Duerksen, executive director of executive education at HEC Paris.

“Even after the global coronavirus crisis is hopefully diminished and classes can resume in person, we will have transformed our way of thinking about teaching online.

“Staff, professors and students will most likely be much more willing and open to blended and online formats as a result of this. Once you get over the fear and hurdles of delivering online, you also see the many benefits.”


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