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Executive education must retool for the post-pandemic world


If coronavirus marks the beginning of a “new normal” for business schools, then this year’s executive education rankings are a watershed: they reflect the crystallisation of longstanding trends before the great disruption of the pandemic took hold in 2020.

While it started in China, the spread of the disease underlines the extent of contemporary globalisation. Its impact was felt before Covid-19 had even been officially named: not only in disruption to domestic institutions but also among Chinese students stranded abroad and those of other nationalities taking courses in China.

Within three months, infections and deaths had mounted sharply around the world, leaving even the most locally oriented training centres affected by government-imposed lockdowns, self-isolation and a desperate rush to shift in record time to teaching exclusively online.

The impact of coronavirus will be profound and long lasting, and the repercussions for executive education — as for so much else — very significant. Less clear is how far it triggers an acceleration of existing trends, a partial reversion to old habits or a fundamental paradigm shift.

In the short term, business schools have been rushing to cope with the practicalities of staff and student health and welfare; the rapid switch to virtual learning, research and management; and the deferment and cancellation of training contracts. The pain has been considerable and will get worse as clients cut back on non-essential activities.

The consequence of the virus and the efforts to limit its spread was a halt in face-to-face contact and travel. In the medium term, the economic downturn that is now under way will be still more fundamental in changing — and almost certainly reducing — demand for business education.

As we point out in this report, executive education programmes risk being badly hit, although history would suggest that taught business school qualifications such as MBAs may be better protected in a prolonged period of economic restructuring and recession as people who lose their jobs or consider career changes seek to reskill.

Opportunities will emerge from the current crisis. Faculty and participants alike are seeing that engaging online can offer greater flexibility and new ways to learn. Awareness and familiarity with technologically enabled forms of communication are also helping to address concerns already long simmering over the extra amount of time, money, inconvenience and the carbon footprint involved in so much unnecessary travel.

“Zoom fatigue” from so many work meetings conducted from home over an extended period risks dampening participants’ willingness to use their laptops for executive education sessions. Yet while older students are not always comfortable with their enforced extra dose of online communication, it is more natural for Generation Z.

Schools will have to rethink the ways in which they teach online, blended with classroom and client-based learning; develop new partnerships and ways of working with different institutions around the world; and explore the trade-offs between price, duration and numbers of participants in their courses.

The crisis will drive extra demand for new and relevant wisdom that already sits in business schools, and create ways for leaders to bring in fresh external experts and insights. There will probably be a renewed focus on sectors such as healthcare — already one of the world’s biggest economic drivers — and how best to manage it and apply business skills. That is illustrated by one student case study in this report, of a doctor in China. More broadly, there is growing appetite for topics such as supply chains, crisis management and virtual working practices.

In the words of Jean-François Manzoni, head of IMD, which the FT again ranked top this year for open enrolment programmes (Iese topped the custom course table), the case for continued executive education will be based on persuading clients that providers are offering “aspirin not vitamins” — must-have rather than nice-to-have offerings.

In the months ahead, there will be considerable uncertainty, distractions and competing priorities. Despite the inevitable pain, post-pandemic demand for training offers a way for the best providers — those highlighted in this report — to differentiate themselves still more clearly.

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. 

Find the latest here.

Rankings, alongside broader data, tools and insights including our reporting on important trends, can continue in future years to play an important role in guiding prospective clients to the right institutions and helping schools themselves with useful benchmarks.

But the FT is sympathetic and sensitive to the practical pressures on executive education providers. Coronavirus will affect many aspects of schools’ performance. Size, revenues, structures and client assessments will inevitably change. 

As we prepare for the 2021 rankings in the coming months, we are keen to hear the views of business schools — as well as past, current and prospective clients and other interested parties — on what is useful to teach; how offerings are evolving in practice; and how best to assess them. Please email us at [email protected] with your thoughts. 

Andrew Jack is the FT’s global learning editor


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