In my early business years in the 1950s, giant multinationals largely provided their own internal management programmes, seeking to cross-fertilise best in-house practice and build effective and responsive cultures. In the '60s, recognising the need for outside academic input, they supported the development of the great international business schools. In 1967, I attended the first executive programme at the London Business School and well remember those first tension-filled collisions between academics new to business and businessmen wary of academia.
Today, business schools and universities have an increasing role to play in informing the business response to accelerating changes and priming organisational cultures for adaptation.
Formal executive education now typically comes in three main forms: the MBA degree programme; the open enrolment programme; and a bespoke programme designed and delivered specifically for one company. Different advantages accrue to each.
For instance, MBA degrees warrant that a set of common knowledge and standard abilities has been met, enabling individuals to move up (or out).
Open enrolment courses allow networking with other thoughtful practitioners and deepen professional expertise by keeping businesspeople abreast of current scholarship. Custom programmes, on the other hand, are focused as much on the firm's needs as on an individual's competencies and play in the company context. The obvious benefits of such programmes have helped make this the fastest-growing section of the executive education market.
I have found that when competitors are not present in a class, there is no need to sugar-coat liabilities or politely avoid embarrassing data.
Participants can roll up their sleeves and have robust dialogues on what matters in their world. Channelling this dialogue productively is increasingly providing business solutions as well as embedding a solid process of debate and conclusion. For example, in one Duke Corporate Education programme for young professionals, the problem of their receiving outside job offers was addressed by helping them analyse what they wanted out of a job and how to talk to their bosses about it.
This helped create a sense that the organisation cared about what they were looking for in life and work, making them more willing to discuss options with their leaders rather than simply resigning.
Custom programmes try to address individual needs in the context of the organisation's needs. They set out to change not only what employees know but also what they do and believe. They aim to build belief in the client company that its staff can formulate their own answers when given access to the relevant expertise and facilitation.
Suppose a firm wants to outsource a piece of its supply chain and needs to manage its new outsourcing partner. That isn't a matter of one or two people being skilled at managing such relationships: an organisation-wide capability is required. Large numbers of staff at every level would need to understand the importance of the move and want to make the partnership work. When the US-based Coca Cola spun off its bottling operations, the bottling system grew so strong that Coke faced power dynamics bordering on the dysfunctional. Widespread education was needed to solve the problem.
In such a project, the custom designer selects the right mix of educational methods for the firm according to its appetite for, say, using executives as teachers, embracing simulation-based learning or participating in 'metaphoric experiences'. Such approaches, drawing on a network of faculty and non-traditional resources, avoid dependency relationships with consultants and an acceptance of template solutions.
Custom programmes have an additional one-time design cost that can vary widely, depending on the degree of customisation and clarity of self-analysis in the early stages. But the benefits justify spending more, and these costs can be amortised over many employees and perhaps years of programme deliveries.
In today's rapidly changing environment, off-the-shelf solutions to the volatile and complex problems of large organisations just won't do. The findings of the Chartered Management Institute's 2005 report, Management Development Works: The Evidence, stressed that management and leadership development had its greatest impact when directly linked to business strategy.
This is where customised courses excel.
At the LSE-Duke CE joint venture, client companies relish the academically rooted, objective stance to issues, which stimulates open, robust debate.
These debates can be as uninhibited and informative as in the open enrolment environment - and more relevant. But most notable is the pride, personal growth and involvement of the group as they recognise their ability to find and implement their own solutions.
Keith Mackrell is a governor and honorary fellow at LSE and vice chairman of the joint venture between Enterprise LSE and Duke Corporate Education, serving global companies throughout Europe and Africa. He was formerly a director of Shell International and vice chairman of the BG Group. The FT recently ranked Duke CE the world's number one provider of custom executive education for the fourth consecutive year
More information about the Institute's report Management Development Works can be found at www.managers.org.uk/research or by calling 020 7421 2721.