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Face-to-face and online learning: Balancing executive education

In a world of customised executive education can, or should, the 70:20:10 rule survive?

Executive education has been on a journey of adjustment in recent years to deal with the increasingly digital content of our working lives. This is true for senior managers and emerging leaders as much as digital-savvy Millennials entering the workplace from school or university.

For academic faculty and course designers this has meant steering towards the ‘right’ balance of face-to-face teaching and online training. It has also meant finding new combinations that will make traditional and technology-enhanced learning more effective.

Project-based approach

Executive training has shifted towards a project-based learning approach using digital tools to simulate the real-life situations that companies face daily. In this respect readiness to change is now probably the most important skill that leaders need to master, and recent studies suggest three objectives that learning programme providers should implement:

  • Build awareness and support for strategic transition
  • Facilitate large-scale organisational change necessary to achieve new strategic directions
  • Build greater leadership talent.

It is now fully accepted that technology is one of the critical success factors in executive education, underpinned by research conducted by the Bill & Vieve Gore School of Business in the US. The benefits of embedding technology into project-based learning are:

  • Demonstrating mastery of real-life, complex executive business issues
  • Increasing the effectiveness of learning by facilitating interactions with peers and academic faculty
  • Emphasising personalised education, as opposed to a traditional one-size-fits-all method
  • Creating simulated practical tasks to allow learners to draw on their specific skills and expertise.

The ingredients of a successful technology-enabled learning approach are problem-solving, team collaboration and, on occasions, the use of self-reflective studies like personality tests and inventories, online discussions and journaling – according to Kenneth and Julie Kendall of Rutgers University.

Additionally, storytelling is now an essential element of corporate learning and an effective way for learners to draw on their experiences to project themselves as leaders. A recent development is to inject storytelling elements of a learning programme into an online classroom environment – or even to use virtual reality. This is an effective replacement for face-to-face contact where it is impractical or too costly to bring teams together in real life.

Storytelling responds to executives’ need to listen, interact, evaluate and then draw their own conclusions. Stories involve a protagonist who is also the storyteller – in this case an executive who recounts a journey through a major change in their company, what it required, how it was handled, and the lessons learnt (i.e. the moral of the story). Taken to a greater depth, the process can explain why certain things work in the way they do in a particular organisation or industry.

Online collaboration

Online delivery is certainly a way for business schools to expand their reach – geographically and academically. E-learning leads to the creation of new and ad-hoc programmes, it can facilitate customisation to meet clients’ needs, and it can make it possible for learners to work together without having to leave the office. And the online component of a blended course can allow facilitators to assess attendees’ learning progress.

E-learning components in education have not completely supplanted traditional learning and there is no reason to think it should happen soon. Instead, co-ordination (where one component offers what another is missing) seems more plausible. While e-learning can help break down geographic barriers it cannot yet provide the level of networking that in-person training can.

To overcome perceptions – right or wrong – that pure e-learning is less effective and less beneficial than traditional training the two methodologies need to work together, to reach the limits that each alone cannot.

Paolo Castiglione is a programme manager at the FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance, the joint venture of the Financial Times and IE Business School