Designing Great Programs

Designing Great Programs

Designing Great Programs

It takes a number of disparate ingredients to create a successful university-based executive education department: a good client base; accomplished – and willing – faculty; a supportive administration; a flexible facility; hard-working staff members; a solid reputation. And, perhaps above all, the ability to design programs that meet or exceed client expectations. Given the importance of well-designed programs, we thought it might be interesting to scan the globe for best practices. Who is doing this really well? What are the secrets to their success? What works well, and what should program designers avoid?

We contacted a number of representatives from schools in various geographic regions and of varying size and complexity, and asked them a few questions about program design. The responses focused primarily on custom programs, although our interviewees also shared a few tips about designing good Open Enrollment programs, which we have included in this article. We uncovered some terrific insights that we’re sure you’ll want to share with your team.

Specifically, we spoke with:

  • Dr. Katharina Lange and Michael Netzley, SMU Executive Development, Singapore Management University
  • James Moncrieff and Paul Griffith, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School
  • Devin Bigoness, Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University
  • Guy Saunders, Melbourne Business School Executive Education
  • Markus Frank, Executive School of Management, Technology and Law, University of St. Gallen

The Client Relationship

Obviously, the client relationship is at the core of any program design. Our panel of experts had lots to say about the right way and the wrong way to cultivate and manage this relationship. One theme that came up over and over again was the notion of really, really listening to the client throughout the design process. “Remember, you have two ears and one mouth,” said Katharina Lange. “This concept applies to faculty as well as staff. Make sure you actively listen to what your client needs before you start offering solutions.”

James Moncrieff echoed that sentiment. “You have to understand what your client is looking for,” he said. “They may not know exactly what they want when they begin to engage you. So you need to join them where they are, listen carefully and develop their thinking through the questions you ask.”

Guy Saunders added, “Ask lots of questions. No one knows everything. Even your doctor asks questions. You wouldn’t trust her if she didn’t!” One of the questions that Guy recommends asking is, “What would happen if you don’t do this?” That question, Guy argues, “gets at the real business imperative.”

Guy also pointed out that the client doesn’t always know what they need, which can make them overly prescriptive. “But they know their business,” he said. “You must respect that. The relationship must be a respectful engagement. That’s the only way we become a trusted knowledge partner rather than just an extension of the client’s in-house training department.”

Paul Griffith suggested avoiding a common mistake in dealing with clients. “Don’t think faculty first,” he suggested. “The process should be outside-in, and client-led. Work closely with them, every step of the way.”

As for the kinds of engagements our panel preferred to accept, there was a general lack of enthusiasm for RFPs. “It goes against our approach,” said Markus Frank. “We want a deep level of engagement with the client from the beginning. It’s very difficult to get that if you are one of several potential providers in the discussion.” James said that Ashridge takes the same approach, and sometimes withdraws from RFPs. He added, “If it’s a stand-alone opportunity that isn’t quite right for us, we would tell the client that it’s not a good fit. But if it’s part of a larger relationship, with other providers, we will collaborate with them to ensure that our unique contribution fits within the initiative.”

The Design Process

Not surprisingly, our experts shared a number of different approaches to the design process. Devin Bigoness offered advice that came up in almost every discussion on this topic. “Do not start with the school’s capabilities,” he said. “First, spend time understanding the client’s strategy. Where are they going? What are the critical capabilities leaders and employees need? What does the organization’s strategy mean – in real terms – to the organization’s people?”

Devin continued, “The best programs are co-created. They bring together the best of what Cornell has to offer, and the best of what the client brings to the table.” He recommends thinking deeply about the participant experience. “Bringing people together for a program is a significant investment in client time and resources. Make sure you maximize that time. Do what you can ahead of time so that every minute the participants are together adds value. Use a teaching methodology that best matches the content. For instance, you may want to teach how to read financial statements asynchronously – before the collective experience begins. But you’ll want to share a topic like ‘improving influence’ face-to-face, because influencing others is a face-to-face activity.”

As to the client’s role in the design, Devin advocates for a very iterative process. That said, he pointed out that the program designers at Cornell also spend a significant amount of time thinking about the best solution without the client in the room. “They expect us to,” he said. “They want an engaging experience that fully harnesses our creativity. Often, we are more free to stretch creatively when the client isn’t present.”

James explained that at Ashridge it’s the faculty who drive the design process. “Our business development managers gather information and identify the best faculty and program director for the assignment,” he said. “Then, it’s over to the faculty to create the first design. This would be followed by an inquiry phase of faculty-led interviews and focus groups.

“It’s important that we engage the client at several levels,” continued James. “We usually have HR in the design discussion, but we also want other client representatives present – especially if we intend to secure their involvement in the program. For instance, we might ask for senior executive sponsorship and support with a live case study. Including them early is a means to help secure their commitment and involvement.”

James stressed the need for joint ownership of learning objectives and desired business and organizational outcomes from the outset. “Once those are established, we think about the experiences and knowledge the participants need to enable them to build the relevant capabilities. That knowledge can be covered in the classroom or developed virtually before they come to Ashridge.”

Guy also emphasized the importance of developing clear learning objectives. “Clients often ask us, ‘what’s the new thing?’ The real question is, ‘what’s relevant for your business challenge?’ Nothing is new. How we put it together makes the difference. We ask three critical questions:

1. What is the core strategy of the organization?
2. What is the business need?
3. What are the gaps?

The answers to these questions will lead to the development of specific learning objectives. These in turn lead to the creation of program objectives, which should be designed to address the business challenge.”

“Put your resources against the learning objectives,” he continued. “Think in four levels: knowledge, skills, practice, behavior. And focus on value creation. As an industry, we can become more focused on value appropriation than value creation. If we do the latter, the former will follow. Be very clear about what your value creation proposition is. And remember, there is no single winning formula. It’s about your market, your resources, your operational context and your clients’ expectations.”

Finally, Guy asserted that the program design discussion should be about impact. This was a notion reiterated by Paul. He said, “We ask, ‘are we making an impact?’ It’s about comparing before and after the experience. Can participants apply the concepts to their organization? You have to remember that in order to make an impact, you must cater to the many different ways in which people learn. In terms of learning style, we try to touch all the bases. We look for sweet spots. And we try to stretch people.”

Impact was a dominant theme in our conversation with Markus. “We think of ourselves as Impact Architects,” he said. “Our designers have strong backgrounds in business, teaching, and consulting. They are fast thinkers who see the broad picture, and communicate well. These designers are involved in the program creation process as early as possible. They engage in a serious, deep dialogue to understand client needs and objectives. They help the client distill the essence of the initiative.”

He continued, “In establishing the learning outcomes, we like to work with the ‘deciders’ in the organization. Ideally, in addition to the HR/L&D folks, we like someone from the business to be in the discussion so that we can integrate the voice of the target group into the design process. I recommend you fight for this – even if the client is not comfortable with it. It’s also very helpful if the HR or L&D person has P&L experience.”

Markus’s final piece of program design advice had to do with the learning environment itself. “The world is moving at a very fast pace,” he said. “And that pace seems to be accelerating. One important responsibility we have as program designers is to create an environment that allows for substantial reflection. Only when people have the time to deeply reflect can they move themselves and the organization forward.”

The Role of Faculty

The role played by faculty in the program design process came up in each of the interviews we conducted. Michael Netzley and Katharina Lange spoke about a Women in Leadership open enrollment program they run that was entirely driven by a single faculty member. “Our faculty member took it upon herself to assess the market need, design the program, and work her network to fill the seats,” they said. “We believe great programs can start with passionate faculty.”

Paul said that Ashridge faculty are extremely involved in the design of the program. “But the demand has to be there,” he added. “Our process for determining market need is more structured than it was in the past. Our faculty are responsible for the OE portfolio. They have worked in industry, and understand that they need to look at macro trends to determine whether or not a program will be successful.”

According to Devin, faculty at Cornell “are a critical part of the design process, working in concert with the Executive Education team.” He described three roles in the process: the Program Manager, the Faculty Director, and Senior Staff. “The Faculty Director plays a really crucial role,” he said. “This has to be someone who understands the process, is good with clients, and who will properly align the content to the client’s needs.”

Guy believes that the stage at which you engage faculty in the design process is very important. “The executive education department should be experts in learning,” he said. “If we are talking to a client about cultivating general management skills, we are unlikely to engage our faculty early in that discussion. In that case, we bring in faculty to take the conversation further. But if there are ‘messy’ problems – for example, improving business opportunities in a commodity economy – then we want to have the faculty at the table from the beginning of that discussion.”

Markus echoed that idea, and added an additional perspective. “If your faculty is research-oriented, don’t involve them early in the process,” he said. “But if they have real-world experience, you can have them in the discussion from the beginning. Sometimes the client wants established faculty. But sometimes they want someone young and rebellious! It’s important to understand the difference, and know when each is appropriate.”

We asked each interviewee what they do when a client asks for a program that the school’s faculty may not be best suited for. “We activate out network,” said Markus. “We’ll reach out to other schools if necessary.”

“We have a ‘custom network’ of providers,” said Devin. “If there is no one suitable in that roster, we will look to the entire university for expertise. We’ll also go outside for a particular specialized knowledge – like a futurist.”

Guy recommends using associates, learning consultants and other subject matter experts. “But the bottom line is, sometimes we have to say no to a client if it’s not a great fit,” he said. “It’s better to do that – even though it can be hard on the sales people – than to take the money once and have an unsatisfied client.”

Bottom Line

Client satisfaction was a common theme in each of our discussions. Several of our experts stressed the importance of measuring program impact as a driver of client satisfaction. “We’ve used 360 degree feedback tools before and after the program to assess individual progress,” said Katharina. “And we have gone so far as to track the performance of sales people who have been through one of our programs. We were delighted to find that program participants outperformed non-participants by 25-30%.”

Now that’s clearly the result of a well-designed program!


We are in the planning stage of a series of articles we are calling ‘Perspectives’. In this series we will explore university-based executive education from the perspective of key stakeholders: faculty, clients and business school deans.

We will start with faculty. Do you know a faculty member who has an interesting or even provocative point of view about our industry? If so, we would like to interview that person. All comments will be kept confidential so that we might benefit from unvarnished opinions.

(Please begin to think about potential interview candidates for the upcoming client and dean pieces as well!)

Contact Michael Devlin




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