Corporate learning organizations are looking for deep, long-term consultative partnerships with executive education providers, according to a recent survey from Pennsylvania State University. The survey used an online assessment and subsequent telephone interviews with CLOs, senior HR representatives or training staff responsible for executive development within Fortune 500 companies, and revealed that CLOs usually do not have a formal selection process to identify potential providers.
“Some folks will use online searches or work within their HR network, or maybe someone wrote a book that they’re aware of,” said Jeffrey Spearly, managing director of executive programs, Pennsylvania State University. “It’s a fairly fractualized or disjointed effort to identify providers, and it generally falls back to relationships.”
While Spearly said he was hesitant to paint every university as ineffective, some of the survey feedback revealed a negative reaction to the academic or university-based perspective. Specifically, survey respondents said universities don’t listen to clients. Instead, they’re focused on their own research and expertise.
In contrast, consulting organizations have people “on the ground” in the organization, learning from the inside, actively providing support in strategy or whatever they are contracted to do. Eventually, Spears said this type of activity can spin off and produce a custom-designed, needs-based educational program.
“It’s not unusual at all, and then that activity is typically geared at bringing folks up to a comparable level of expertise or knowledge,” Spearly said. “You identify a need to develop people within the organization around value or supply chain or leadership or whatever it is. You create that base-line competency level and then educate people to get them to that line. As consulting groups are engaged, they can create that design based on a deep knowledge of the client.
“The typical university model has been more of a product focus. Universities might be contacted, and the criticism was that we pull programs off the shelf, but it’s a much shorter design phase. There may be some assessments done, modules identified and programs stacked up to respond to that need by the client. I don’t think that means that one program’s any better than another, but the perception from our study is that the consultants are deeply embedded into the organization and have a better perspective. The results could be that there’s better success for the program.”
To compete with consulting groups, Spearly said universities need to start developing deeper relationships with clients earlier, possibly providing consultation or some on-site developmental activities, a process that tends to be backward in academia.
“There are clearly trade-offs,” Spearly said. “Universities are viewed as having research-based deep expertise and broad, unbiased perspectives that really differentiate them from consulting groups. It’s just a matter of how we initiate and maintain those relationships for our success. At one time the activities that generated or identified the need for education would spin off a program, and a client might go shopping to find a university to deliver that. Now they don’t need to shop because the consulting groups are willing to deliver.”
At the turn of the century, Spearly said that many executive education providers, university-based or otherwise, were engaged in competency assessment and design activities regarding the goals of the organization when they created custom learning programs. Survey research indicated organizations want to return to that program development style.
“I think the real challenge for the CLO is pretty typical: have a clear understanding of where the organization is headed and what the desired outcomes are, understand organizational strategy and integrate a learning strategy, align it with the business strategy of the organization,” Spearly said. “The CLOs’ role is to manage that leadership development process and be well-prepared and well-focused, aligned with the goals of the organization. They need to keep in mind that there’s probably a multifaceted process here to discover or understand at the front end what those competencies are. Second, there’s an assessment stage to find out where people are in the organization, and you measure against those competencies. Third, you build a strategy to address that.”
The Pennsylvania State University survey identified five take-aways for corporate chief learning officers or their counterparts who make decisions about executive education and development. Spearly said these should help them differentiate among the many options available between universities and consultants, as well as gauge their strengths.
First, Spearly said, carefully evaluate the competencies required by leaders in the organization and measure the capabilities of the job incumbent to people in those roles now against those competencies.
Second, be familiar with the breadth of providers of executive education programs and services, as well as understand their unique attributes and capabilities.
“Third, I challenge CLOs to recognize the value of both open enrollment and custom executive education as resources and to address the development of competencies in the organization,” Spearly said. “No. 4, be clear about outcomes desired and expectations for executive development and focus on the applicability of learning to ensure desired return on investments. Last, manage relationships. Engage providers of executive education providers as partners, not adversaries.”