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Executive Education Is Changing for Good

The pandemic has accelerated impactful changes in university-based executive education that are likely to stick around.

Most business schools have in their mission statement to create impact—on learners, organizations, and indeed the world. The COVID-19 pandemic turned 2020 into an extremely challenging year for member schools of UNICON, the International Consortium for Executive Education. At the same time, we were presented with an unprecedented opportunity to create real impact.

Recently released results from our Annual Benchmarking Survey, conducted during the fall of 2020, reveal new key findings from nearly 100 universities worldwide with top university-based executive education programs. Participation in this year’s survey was one of the highest in UNICON’s history, with 99 out of 115 member schools completing it. The survey results highlight the significant impact the pandemic has had on executive education globally.

Results show—not entirely unexpectedly—that many of the world’s leading business schools suffered a fall in executive education turnover, with many schools canceling or postponing programs due to COVID-19. However, the pandemic has also created a new demand for upskilling and reskilling. Additionally, increased use of digital tools and methods has enabled a much wider reach of executive education initiatives, creating opportunities for inclusion, sustainable growth, and real change.

University-based executive education providers have long been in the forefront of exploring new technologies to improve learning and growth for individuals and organizations. With our corporate clients around the world unwilling or unable to travel because of COVID risks, we had to rethink how to best meet their individual and organizational development goals. Many of our member schools created innovative approaches to educational delivery in 2020.

According to survey respondents, the percentage of schools that had employed synchronous learning platforms in 2019–20 increased to 98 percent from the prior year, with more than 53 percent of programs using these technologies. As schools implemented live online learning, they also adopted new digital methodologies including breakouts, chats, and collaboration tools, all of which have had a positive outcome on learner engagement for member schools.

In the four years before the pandemic, this percentage had grown from 71 percent to 74 percent. Prior to the 2020 survey year, the preferred method of delivery was face-to-face, either on campus or at the client site. And while there has been a gradual shift toward remote learning in the last decade, the pandemic caused the industry to innovate and accelerate at a more rapid pace.

The Annual Benchmarking Survey also found that most schools have created new or significantly changed staffing roles and processes to support the delivery of digital programs. Schools have enhanced staff management of digital sessions by 91 percent, instructional designers by 70 percent, and learning management system administrators by 64 percent. Member schools have indicated that these rapid changes have been effective in delivering high-quality learning experiences.


Increased use of digital tools and methods has enabled opportunities for inclusion, sustainable growth, and real change.

With these additions to staffing comes a change in people processes. Schools adapted by enhancing technical preparation and checks, shifting evaluations to focus on online participant experience, and encouraging faculty to collaborate with instructional designers on a regular basis. These human-centered shifts were all rapidly adopted by the majority of schools in 2020 to ensure a successful digital learning experience.

Adapting in the COVID era has been successful in part because member schools experienced these changes alongside one another. Getting support, ideas, and energy from peers is invaluable in turbulent times, and UNICON continued to provide many opportunities for its members to connect and share challenges and ideas. In 2020, our three key, annual conferences went digital and were successfully hosted by the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Yale School of Management, and Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, giving participants the opportunity to experience a range of technological platforms and tools and fostering much-needed community engagement.

What has also aided schools in taking action amid great uncertainty is timely intelligence. In order for members to be able to follow the development of our industry, we carried out flash surveys all through 2020, with more to come this year. We will also work with other organizations such as AACSB, SHRM, and the Financial Times to gain deeper insight into client needs and industry trends.

While much of the change that has occurred, in so little time, has had a positive and enduring impact on executive education, more work has yet to be done. Entirely new skill sets—and indeed mindsets—are required to build the post-pandemic world. As Nikolay Ivanov, manager at the U.N.-supported Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative and speaker at UNICON’s Team Development Conference in November, stated, “Executive education has the potential to enable current and future business leaders to rethink the way they are operating and conducting their business—and executive education is really the place where these things can be accelerated.”

In building the post-pandemic world, lifelong learning will become more important than ever. As university-based executive education is all about using the power of knowledge to create new opportunities, I am nothing but hopeful for our future.


Lise Hammergren, Executive Vice President of Executive Education, BI Norwegian Business School; UNICON 2020-21 Board ChairLise Hammergren is executive vice president of executive education at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo and UNICON’s 2020-21 board chair.