COVID-19 and Trends in Executive Education in 2021

January 11, 2021

What's new, what stays, what goes

In the executive education sector, the coronavirus pandemic has propelled the digital classroom forward. One year in, students at the WU Executive Academy are reaping the benefits: new topics, forward-looking curricula, and innovative teaching formats provide them with a crisis-proof education that makes them fit for all future challenges. Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, puts a spotlight on the most important executive education trends in year 2 after the emergence of COVID-19.

Pic of a bulb with 2021 writing as a symbol for executive education trends
The digitization push by Corona is shaping the executive education trends of 2021.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic upended the world as we knew it. With classes and events held on site suddenly becoming a no-go, the executive education sector was hit hard as well. At the WU Executive Academy, staff not only had to relocate their offices to their private homes in just a matter of days. Professors and lecturers also had to come up with new digital learning and teaching formats on the spot to be able to continue with ongoing classes and provide an attractive educational offer also and especially during the crisis. “Our team and every single member of our faculty had to do their part. And suddenly, all of our classes were offered in a digital format when before, this had only been the case for a few exceptions,” Dean Barbara Stöttinger recounts. Even if on-site classes become possible again some time in 2021, the digital boost to the executive education sector advancing both content and teaching methods will have a sustainable impact and offer numerous advantages particularly to students and program participants.

Read on to find out more about the six most important executive education trends in 2021, which are also reflected in the WU Executive Academy’s innovative educational offer.

1. Hybrid Formats Combining the Best of Both Worlds

There’s no doubt that in the past, attending classes at the architecturally imposing WU Campus was a major draw for students enrolling in the WU Executive Academy, attracting students and program participants from all over the world. But by now, many students have developed a taste for the advantages of online classes. “No commute, a more flexible time schedule, saving time and expenses,” Barbara Stöttinger sums up the perks. Personal networking and learning from each other will, however, remain a focus of the WU Executive Academy also in the future. “For content-focused courses designed to convey knowledge to participants, we will continue to frequently use online formats; to enable exchange and networking, we will combine the now tried-and-tested online networking tools with events held on site.” The hybrid model will be further developed: ahead of a module’s first on-site session, students will receive digital “nudges” in the shape of videos, quizzes, and tasks designed as challenges to introduce them to the respective topic.

Portrait Barbara Stöttinger

Prof. Barbara Stöttinger

  • Dean of the WU Executive Academy

The goal is to combine the best of both worlds. This means, for instance, offering an online session on blockchain and then further exploring the topic in the next on-site session, where participants can share their personal experiences and things they already know in a live group discussion,.

2. Instant & Collaborative Learning

More and more people want to choose for themselves when and where to work, and the same goes for studying and learning. Especially people with little spare time are fans of “education to go,” studying on the subway, while waiting for their turn at a doctor’s appointment, or comfortably seated on their couch at home. Simply recording a one-hour lecture on video will not suffice to create a learning effect that is comparable to attending the lecture on site. It also takes some tweaking to successfully turn a workshop into an effective hours-long webinar. Digital formats and apps can go a long way here. Many worry that online formats don’t allow for personal exchange and learning from each other, but that does not have to be true: “We can actually put a focus on learning with and from each other. Digital networks combined with the appropriate tools can enable a communal learning experience: virtual forums, chats, and surveys make online sessions more interactive for participants. And also feedback, which is very important to many participants, can be more detailed and more strongly catered to the individual when it is provided via digital channels,” Barbara Stöttinger says. The new online Professional Master in Sustainability, Entrepreneurship, and Technology comes with all these perks: it combines interesting subject-specific videos with a multitude of practical in-app exercises students can complete on their smartphones or tablets whenever and wherever they choose. This does not mean, however, that there will be no exchange among students: participants can use the app to link up with others and join virtual study and focus groups, which will also meet in real life whenever possible.

3. Digital Leadership as a Stand-Alone Field of Expertise

The past years have seen a surge in the demand for digitally savvy managers, which is also reflected in the great numbers of professionals looking for respective upskilling opportunities. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the ability to lead teams digitally has become a number-one priority.

Pic of a home office situation due to COVID-19
Corona-related "Distance Leading" - in addition to classic leadership skills, digital ones are now especially in demand.

Those who had, until then, shied away from honing their digital skills and embracing novel ways of managing people had to learn this the hard way. Leadership in a crisis is a crucial topic here: it counts among the training fields most often searched for by executives in the past months. This trend is sure to continue also throughout 2021. In addition to tailor-made training offers on the topic, held at the participants’ companies, the WU Executive Academy also offers short programs for executives and managers. The “Digital Gamechanger” is one example: “In this program, we provide intensive guidance to participants and support them in developing new business ideas responding to their individual challenges. Together, we explore the (digital) tools, methods, and business models available and devise strategies that fit several models at once,” Stöttinger says.

4. Organizational Design

Particularly this year, which kicked off at the height of the pandemic, has presented even more complex and diverse challenges to enterprises, following a demanding year full of pandemic-induced small and not-so-small crises. Almost all industries are forced to expand innovative business fields and become more agile. And especially one thing is important to make it through the crisis unscathed: the expertise to successfully design new organizational forms, implement agile structures, and execute digital business strategies. “More and more frequently, managers have to accompany change processes, which requires them to develop an agile mindset and also further an attitude to that effect within their teams,” Stöttinger explains. To cater to this need, the WU Executive Academy offers formats such as a hybrid course on “Organizational Design” aimed at executives and managers. In the four-week online module on “Agile Leadership,” participants learn how to create a people-centered, agile work environment together with their teams in a short amount of time; during the three-day on-site module, they expand their knowledge of organizational design and critically reflect on which agile work methods (such as Business Model Canvas, Lean Startup, or Kanban) could benefit their organization.

agile leadership as one of the executive education trends 2021
Developing an agile mindset among managers and employees is the order of the day.

5. Personal Reorientation and Individual Learning Support

The crisis has revealed that even more people are looking for a job that serves a greater purpose. Against the backdrop of massive job cuts across all industries, also high potentials and executives find themselves reviewing their career goals, and in some cases realizing they no longer suit them. Formats supporting the individual’s professional development and coaching as part of executive education have thus become more important. What’s key here is to ensure that offers are matched to the individual’s needs. “For one thing, we use online tools that enable students to learn in a way that suits their own pace and individual needs,” Barbara Stöttinger explains. This is complemented by coaching offers, such as the digital coaching sessions offered by available to participants in the MBA Energy Management. “We want to provide even more coaching opportunities to our students during these challenging times and also seek to incorporate a larger number of personalized assessment tests in our offer to enable more individual learning paths,” Stöttinger emphasizes.

6. Hybrid Networking

The WU Campus is a melting pot of high potentials hailing from all parts of the world. Due to the pandemic, webinars and networking events such as the MBA Alumni Reunions have been held online: “As a result, we have been able to pick up topics such as leadership in the crisis and digital leadership on short notice. Given the current situation, these are the topics students are most interested in right now. What’s more, students and graduates from abroad could also attend live and reunite with their former peers for an online chat.

Screenshot of a virtual event due to COVID-19
Combining the best of two worlds: online and physical events.

The events have also enabled a highly valuable exchange between alumni and students, two groups facing similar challenges in the crisis. To hear how people with related agendas are handling the pandemic, learning about their coping strategies and what has worked and what hasn’t: that’s peer coaching and peer-to-peer advice at its best. What is more, those who tend to speak up in the lecture hall or the on-site event are often natural networkers. In an online setting, also more introverted people get a word in,” Stöttinger says. It’s also easier to log on to an online meeting for an hour than to reserve a whole evening for an event. This is why the WU Executive Academy will continue to offer virtual events in addition to its on-site offers also in the future.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many new online programs have been launched at the WU Executive Academy, or current programs have been adapted to the new circumstances. For an overview of our current online offerings, please click here.

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