Why flexibility is essential in executive education

Flexibility is the new normal, argues NEOMA Business School’s Jérôme Couturier. Institutions offering executive education need to sit up and take note

In today’s business environment, both employers and employees recognise the need for flexibility; however, many popular Business Schools are yet to come to the same realisation. Change is the only constant in the lives of today’s business leaders (switching roles and companies, travelling frequently and interacting globally) and the pace of change is faster than ever. This demands an appropriate response from Business Schools and all other stakeholders.

It is no longer sufficient for ambitious professionals to update their knowledge intermittently; sometimes they must reset it entirely, discarding outdated skills in favour of new ones as companies demand greater agility from their staff. Even governments are reacting to this impetus. France, for example, now subsidises training schemes to ensure business leaders’ capabilities remain aligned to market needs. 

And it’s not just seismic technical shifts such as digitisation that require executives to be flexible, but the increasing prominence of concepts such as corporate social responsibility (CSR). Running a business today is about much more than profit. Considerations around politics, multiculturalism and climate change must be taken into account. Coping with these varied demands requires no small degree of flexibility and the way people work is changing as a result. 

Blurred lines

For Business Schools, the most obvious consequence of this shift to flexibility is the changing segmentation of the MBA market. Lines are blurring in terms of the applicants attracted to different kinds of courses.

Traditionally, the full-time MBA was designed for young people with limited work experience, while the executive MBA (EMBA) was aimed at experienced managers; it was assumed that the latter would prefer a part-time course, allowing them to continue working alongside their studies. This can no longer be taken for granted. 

It is becoming progressively difficult for Business Schools to profile the candidates that come knocking at our doors. In a world, where no one can rely on a career for life, experienced executives often don’t want to pursue a drawn out part-time course. Instead, they sometimes prefer to complete a full-time EMBA, as quickly as possible, making the most of full immersion for parts of the programme. 

Old, dependable assumptions about candidates are crumbling. At NEOMA, we see applicants of different ages and levels of experience seeking part-time and full-time courses, according to their personal career goals.

In the past, these tired-but-reliable stereotypes enabled business education institutions to design programmes to suit predicted audiences, rolling these out for a decade before revisiting their format. Schools cannot afford to take that approach anymore; a more dynamic platform is needed. The architects of EMBA courses need to look beyond the need for reskilling, and design programmes in line with broader competencies. This provides flexibility, since Schools are able to alter the competencies on offer, as market needs evolve.

Prioritising flexibility

In redesigning NEOMA’s Global EMBA, the Course Directors kept flexibility front of mind. To this end, the programme offers three ‘entrance gates’, enabling candidates to choose from three different learning paces; they can study for 15 months, 10 months or for as little as seven months. The varying speeds allow candidates to choose between distributing the course content evenly over a long period of time and opting for a more intense, fast-track programme.

The latter option, also referred to as ‘full and flex’, allows students to cover a very significant amount of the curriculum in a concentrated two-month period over the summer, while fitting the rest into their professional schedule.

We believe Business Schools need to diversify their offerings to attract both local applicants and those from around the world. The three formats available on NEOMA’s Global EMBA were created in the context of our desire to put forward a truly global programme. 

The 15-month programme is designed to suit candidates who are geographically close to Paris: those who are willing to live in the city for the duration of the course, or who live within a commutable distance. Meanwhile, the 10-month programme is a better fit for those within five hours of the capital, as they do not need to be on campus throughout. The full-and-flex programme is the best option for international students, as they only have to spend two months in Paris and can complete the rest of the course online and through four one-week experiences abroad.

After announcing the full-and-flex course, the first feedback we received was from prospective students, delighted with the flexibility on offer. However, in the same breath, they requested more. Excited by the chance to complete most of the course over the summer, candidates wanted to know if they could complete the whole course over two years, in two concentrated summer blocks, enabling them to stay in their full-time jobs, taking minimal time off beyond annual leave. The immediate demand was overwhelming, but not unanticipated. If anything, it reaffirmed our belief that we had made the right decision in putting flexibility at the heart of our course. 

Building relationships

Business Schools might be tempted to achieve flexibility by offering an entirely online EMBA. This way, students can complete the whole course anywhere, anytime. However, it’s important to factor in the intrinsic value of face-to-face interaction, peer learning and networking on these programmes. 

In designing NEOMA’s Global EMBA, we have made all the specialisation aspects of the course available online, so that students can customise their individual experience to the maximum degree, with full support available online from their tutors. However, with the core modules, we ask that students are present on campus to make the most of face-to-face interactions with Professors, and networking with their peers. 

In practice, students on our full-and-flex course spend two months in Paris, and partake in four separate one-week learning experiences on four continents. The rest of the course can be completed anywhere in the world. By balancing customisable online tracks with the right amount of face-to-face time, Business Schools stand the best chance of providing flexibility without compromising relationship building.

Maintaining flexibility

One of the challenges when building a flexible executive course is maintaining consistency. Incorporating three different entrance gates and a range of individually customisable content into one course is no simple task. Incorrectly managed, such a programme could become confusing and disorganised. 

At NEOMA, we found that sustaining a sense of unity across all three customisable tracks was best achieved with a good structure. Our 15-month course starts in October each year. In March, students on the 10-month course take some modules alone as a cohort to catch up at first, before joining in with the 15-month cohort for the majority of the core modules. Students embarking on the full-and-flex version of the course have a significant amount of studying to do online, or as a single cohort, in order to catch up with the two other student groups. 

Most of this catching up is achieved during their two-month crash course over the summer, so by the time the course comes to a close, all the EMBA students come together and have the opportunity to network as one group. This unity is reinforced by four shared international learning experiences; all course participants visit Ghana, the UK, India and the US together, getting the chance to meet and collaborate each time.

Once a strong framework has been established, course architects must go further to ensure their executive education offerings provide continuity. There are a few simple ways to achieve this. Primarily, the same faculty must be available to all students on the course. Easily accessible and consistent support is essential to any student’s success, but for a student pursing a course based on the other side of the world, it can be make or break. 

It is essential that students know who to contact for help, and that faculty members become well-known figures to everyone in the cohort. Similarly, consistency can be maintained through the online aspects of a course. While modules are fully customisable, the same choices of online module are ultimately available to all students; it’s simply up to them which route they choose. The same faculty members that teach face-to-face on the programme should be contactable online as this will enable students to cope better with their complex workload. Beyond reliable faculty, business education institutions aiming for flexibility need to be sensible about how they distribute executive course content. Business leaders and budding entrepreneurs alike are well aware of the increasing prevalence of AI, and the resulting demand for (‘human’) soft skills. 

Emotional intelligence and complex problem solving are the key advantages that humans still have over machines and these must be nurtured to ensure we remain valuable members of the global workforce. There is no getting around the fact that soft skills are best taught in person and it makes sense for Schools to concentrate the bulk of their students’ quantitative study online, to free up the limited face-to-face learning time for soft-skills education. Preparation and group work can also be done online to maximise efficiency.

Technology is a brilliant tool, but catering to the demand for flexibility shouldn’t come at the expense of the personal. Shifting any amount of course content online means less in-person teaching, so this needs to be of the highest quality. Personal development is embedded in the DNA of NEOMA’s executive programme. We believe students always benefit from a personal approach, so small class sizes are preferable. This means that when students come to create business plans, a core part of their EMBA, they receive a great deal of personal support and are never at risk of being overlooked.  

Customised courses

As Business School practitioners know, designing a programme is a multi-faceted task. Threading flexibility through every feature of a programme makes the process even more complicated. In creating NEOMA’s Global EMBA, we needed a strategy that would ensure the course could be fully customised by each student. We responded to this necessity by breaking the course down; we thought of it as a game of building blocks. 

Every ‘brick’ of the Global EMBA can be combined with any other. If you set out with that design in mind then every time you expand, you can consider how your new addition will work with the programme’s other aspects, and with students’ careers. Candidates are also able to select course ‘bricks’ and complete just those. This allows prospective applicants to test elements of the course before committing to completing the whole thing. In a practical sense, each and every ‘brick’ should be standardised to make managing cost and schedule easier for Course Directors.

My colleagues and I set out to make NEOMA’s Global EMBA the world’s most flexible MBA programme. Students benefit from speed of completion, choice of content and a variety of face-to-face and online options. At the same time, consistency is maintained across the course thanks to its ‘building- block’ structure which allows Course Directors to return to its design continuously, switching out modules, re-prioritising competencies and ensuring that what we are offering never falls behind market demand and participants’ needs. The structure is flexible enough that if a company came to us tomorrow, praising the flexibility of the programme but seeking to customise 20-30% of the content for every executive it enrols, we would be able to work with them on achieving that. 

All Business Schools must accept that tried-and-tested recipes for executive education no longer cut it. Attending Business School should present a vital opportunity to realign oneself with the competencies that today’s business environment demands. Schools cannot claim to offer this service unless they design their executive education programmes to accommodate regular rethinking and reconstruction. Flexibility is an indisputably defining feature of the lives of business leaders and managers, and as such, it should equally define their education.

Jérôme Couturier is Associate Dean of Professional Graduate Programmes and Executive Education at NEOMA.

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