There’s an old saying in the advertising business: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Many corporate educators know the feeling. For years, they’ve been searching for the answer to a basic question: What learning investments deliver the greatest return?
Countless dollars and hours have been spent in the quest for ROI. Learning departments have hired consultants, recruited analytics experts and developed their data muscles to target what learning is effective.
Despite all that time and toil, clear answers remain elusive. ROI can be fairly easily identified in discrete programs or initiatives but is highly dependent on a wide array of variables, including context, measurement tool and assumptions. Return on learning remains ambiguous and correlative in a world that, for right or wrong, increasingly demands certainty and causation.
So the quest continues. Nowhere is this more apparent than in executive education.
For the career-minded, education is a well-trod path to move up in business. Whether a traditional open enrollment MBA or one of the many shorter, targeted executive MBAs that have popped up, ambitious managers continue to sign up in droves to speed their climb up the corporate ladder. The hefty salary boost an MBA unlocks might just be a significant incentive, too. According to recent estimates, universities award more than 125,000 graduate business degrees annually.
But when it comes to corporations, traditional academic programs have not been so effective. Bosses see their businesses like special snowflakes, similar in their broad characteristics but vastly different in specific shape.
Some general leadership skills are universal. Business acumen, communication, strategic thinking and general business management competencies regularly top the list.
But when it comes spending their limited learning dollars, businesses are looking for a little bit more. So learning leaders hunt for content and curriculum tailored to their organization’s specific needs and require educators to use real-world business problems as action learning projects and core curricular components. When it comes to executive education, what’s good for Google isn’t necessarily what’s good for the gander.
That quest for highly tailored education and the resulting ROI has pushed many companies — and CLOs — into developing customized executive education. Academic institutions have poured into the space to answer the call. CLOs have an array of options available from the world’s global education giants like Harvard and INSEAD to regional and topical specialists like Thunderbird School of Global Management.
CLOs are poised to keep the investment taps open. According to data collected from the Chief Learning OfficerBusiness Intelligence Board, leadership development is the area CLOs feel will have the most positive effect on their businesses’ performance in 2016. Nearly 90 percent said so in a recent survey and 41 percent expect to increase their investment with external vendors to carry it out.
They’re playing with a big chunk of change. The global market for executive education is more than $70 billion, according to a figure cited by the Financial Times.
This month, we focus on executive education with special coverage designed to help CLOs navigate this high-stakes, always-evolving market. Starting on page 28, you’ll see a package of stories on what’s shaping and disrupting traditional executive education and how CLOs can make effective decisions to meet their learning needs.
To go along with that, we’ve included a helpful feature we’re calling a “Roadmap,” with practical advice for CLOs looking to start investing in executive education or refine their strategy.
Philadelphia retail pioneer John Wanamaker, who coined that term I referenced, struggled with how to make the most of his investment in advertising.
But underlying that doubt is deep faith in its utility. Marketers need to spend money to promote their products. The search for more effective and cost efficient ways to do that continues, as it should if we’re to make sure we’re not just wasting our money, but the investment remains important.
Smart businesses and CLOs say the same about their investment in education.