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Executive education programs that also work in practice

December 19, 2016

A short how-to guide

Today, the variety of innovative executive education options is virtually unlimited. The spectrum ranges from short events that provide executives with some momentum to full-fledged MBA programs tailored around the specific needs and requirements of organizations.

A question often asked in this context, but inadequately answered in many cases, is the following: How can you make sure that newly acquired knowledge will not evaporate in a second, but will create tangible real-world impact?

A Runner at the start of the race
Strategic and diligent effort is necessary when the effects should be long-term.

To ensure this essential impact at company-level, the WU Executive Academy has developed a three-stage transformation process for its programs. It is designed to guarantee - irrespective of the type of executive education - that the training provided reflects strategic objectives and that the desired results will be implemented in practice.

Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé

Dr. Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé

  • Managing Director of the WU Executive Academy

Many executive education programs, though well designed, frequently fail to have the intended impact because during the planning phase too little attention is given to one fundamentally important aspect - transforming what has been learned into practice. However, if you keep in mind some crucial points, chances are you will be able to complete this step successfully. In recent months, we have, therefore, developed a three-stage transformation process that is designed to ensure just that.

The Transformation Cycle, with Strategy-Practice-Reflection

How to achieve successful learning

In order for learning to be impactful and of lasting practical value, 3 key questions need to be answered in the affirmative: 1) Is it clear why the organization and the participants need education and training, and is there a general consensus regarding their usefulness? 2) Will the specific training measures not be regarded as something separate and isolated but instead be directly integrated into everyday professional practice? 3) Will there be a moderated process of reflection to build on the experience that the participants bring to the table and connect it to new input provided in the course of the program?

1.    Strategic necessity and purpose

Providing executive education starts with strategic coupling. The aim of this preparatory step is not only to interlink the different program objectives, the program content and the program outcome with the strategy of the organization in question but also to clearly define why the organization, its teams and the participants need education and training. While this may sound quite simple in theory, in practice it is often the case that organizations are not clear about the specific challenges they intend to overcome by means of executive education, that funds have to be used up at short notice before the end of the year or that the expectations of the various stakeholders regarding the training impact are insufficiently ascertained beforehand. “These stumbling blocks can be avoided in many ways. In a current project for a German client from the industrial sector, we have, for instance, in advance compared the expectations of the management board, the executives at the different organizational levels and the participants to create a common understanding regarding the training objectives and their relevance to the corporate strategy. Moreover, we have worked out an individual development plan for each participant so that everybody knows why he or she is taking part in the training and what benefits—also personal ones—this will bring for him or her,” says Helga Pattart-Drexler, Head of Executive Education at the WU Executive Academy.

2.    Education and training as an integral part of everyday professional practice

In practice, many executives simply take part in a program, and some weeks later there will be a final feedback session. What this approach to executive education lacks is regular learning in the workplace, which is indispensable when it comes to preventing knowledge loss and achieving successful knowledge transformation. “The case of one of our clients in the construction business is a perfect illustration of how this integrated strategy works. As the organization's executives are located across the globe, it would hardly have been possible for them to be physically in the same place. We met this challenge by setting up a virtual learning platform and combining a variety of online tools such as videos, forum posts or challenges requiring the participants to accomplish specific tasks in the course of their day-to-day work. In addition, there were a discussion forum, where the participants could share their experience and ask questions about their respective change processes, as well as regular key learning sessions. Our aim was to make every participant think about what actions he or she should take: What have I learned so far? What insights have I gained, and what is the first thing I will implement in practice?,“ continues Helga Pattart-Drexler.

The advantage of this on-the-job approach is that new knowledge is not presented in condensed form in just a few days but becomes an integral part of everyday professional practice.

3.    Reflection

For executive education to have the desired impact, it is absolutely necessary that learning is not limited to dedicated training sessions but takes place in regular loops. Reflection is a key element in this context, not only at the end of a program but throughout the training: A moderated feedback process allows participants to continuously broaden their range of experience by adding fresh input to it, be it individually or as a group, be it by collaborating with their peers or by interacting with management professionals.

A chart showing the memory retention after various days of training
How to retain new knowledge with so-called “learning boosters.” Image: © Art Kohn

As a result of these learning boosters - no matter whether they are videos, forum posts or traditional text input - the retention of new knowledge improves and the individual forgetting curve flattens out over time. What is more, each additional boost makes it easier to commit new information to long-term memory.

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