The ROI of Executive Education In The Age Of Lifelong Learning
As we look forward to the UNICON Workshop at Rutgers Business School later this month, the ROI of executive education is top of mind for many of us. Yet, as we all know, ROI can be a challenging concept in education, where it is notoriously difficult to measure either the numerator or the denominator in this fractional calculation in a scientifically meaningful way. With that caveat very much in mind, how and why should we be thinking about ROI in executive education?
There are several lenses through which we can examine ROI, from the perspectives of our various stakeholders. First and foremost, and most obviously, we should be thinking about our customers and clients. They are putting their own time, money, and energy into engaging with us. Whether they attend open enrollment programs or partner with business schools to develop and deliver custom programs, it behooves us to help them be thoughtful and strategic about why they are investing in our products and services, how they expect to benefit, what they hope to achieve, and how (if at all) they will know if they’ve achieved it.
Or we can think about ROI from the perspective of our faculty and institutions. What value does a vibrant and effective education program create for them? For faculty, in addition to (and perhaps for many of them, much more than) the opportunity to supplement their regular academic salaries, important benefits may include connecting with management practice, gaining access to new sources of data and insights, and testing/validation of the ideas, tools, and frameworks they develop in their research. For our institutions (most of them anyway), executive education is often seen as a source of revenue that can be ploughed back into supporting other programs and activities, but increasingly it is also seen as an important aspect of business education (and therefore our institutional missions) in its own right.
Whichever perspective we choose, one observable phenomenon stands out: the inexorably accelerating pace of change that individuals, businesses, and society are facing, driven by the forces of scientific and technological innovation. In the past, major innovations occurred far enough apart that, in most cases, there was time to adapt and catch up to each breakthrough—we can visualize this as a series of step functions. Today though, that series of step functions has merged into a continuous, exponential curve. Fall behind this curve by even a little, and you may feel like you are still growing, but actually you are falling ever further behind. And this is where lifelong learning and our particular flavor of it comes into its own.
Not only are entire industries changing, so are professions and careers paths. It’s becoming more and more common for people to switch fields multiple times in a career. In developed economies, people are living longer, and, for many, that means choosing or having to work longer, too. Advances in automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence technologies are altering the labor landscape, as well—some of the professions we have today may cease to exist in our lifetime. Although people in the past certainly have gone through significant changes of careers, there is an understanding that it’s going to become the norm, not the exception. The ability to continuously learn and re-learn, and sometimes even un-learn certain things, will become even more important if we are to remain relevant and engaged, and be able to make a living and have an impact in the world.
Perhaps one of the reasons why university-based executive education is so special is because we build and recycle resources, and not only the financial ones, into this broader social purpose. It’s not so obvious that organizations operating purely as a for-profit business would or should or could do that. One of our grand challenges is how we measure and communicate all this to our customers and stakeholders, as an industry and as individual institutions and professionals/businesses in our own right. I look forward to exploring these questions and issues with many of you in person at Rutgers soon and, perhaps, discovering together some new ways of answering them.
Peter Hirst, UNICON Board Chair 2018-2019