‘A Gigantic Wave’: European EMBA Programs Embrace Era Of Change

The EMBA is facing a wave of change, from digitization of learning platforms to shifting aspirations of degree-seekers, and schools like HEC Paris are looking to ride it. The alternative, some say, is to drown

Change is coming to executive education. Executive MBA programs used to be largely designed for execs to grow and advance inside their own companies; now, as edtech startups in the United States and globally are disrupting B-schools’ hold on executive education and fewer businesses sponsor the educational aspirations of their executives, more individuals see the EMBA as a chance to explore new opportunities — especially in entrepreneurship.

As it becomes less common for employers to fund students’ studies to enable ascension within company ranks, more and more students are funding their own studies — and using exec ed to transition careers at a later stage in life. Business schools have seen the wave of change coming and are moving to adapt. In Europe, particularly, schools have begun to embrace platform innovations, from increased digitalization to new specialized programs, and programs are seeking to anticipate needs and get ahead of trends as EMBAs increasingly switch jobs and careers or launch their own businesses.

“I think there’s a huge wave of change going on in the executive programs,” says Ron Duerksen, executive director of degree and certificate programs at the HEC Paris School of Management. “You have custom programs that are made for companies; and you have certificate and short programs that are made for individuals and companies, where you tackle a specific topic like leadership or marketing or coaching for change; and then you have master’s programs that are specific to individuals — so a master’s in international finance, for instance, where you have executives that may be director- or VP-level but don’t have the finance expertise. And then you have the EMBA, which is basically for any executive that is at the director level that wants to do something different or wants to learn something more.

“Change is happening in all these platforms,” Duerksen says. “People in their 40s today are not people in their 40s ten years ago. There’s a huge sea change underway — a huge wave, a gigantic wave.”


Ron Duerksen, executive director of degree and certificate programs at HEC Paris

A 2015 Executive MBA Council Survey of global programs revealed that just 23% of EMBAs secured reimbursement for all of their fees, and 36% had obtained partial reimbursement — leaving 41% with no financial backing from their employer. Meanwhile, delivery has been revolutionized, with a flood of curated content available — from more carefully selected, user-focused e-learning content to blogs, forum threads, guides, videos, articles, and more. Learning content is accessed via mobile devices by about 70% of learners, and there is surely no end in sight for mobile learning popularity — a fact that goes hand in hand with another evolution: the rise of microlearning, or delivering content to learners in small, specific bursts over time or just when needed.

Most remarkable among the changes facing exec ed: a rising interest in entrepreneurship. It’s one thing for newly minted MBAs, aged 24 to 30, to use their B-school experience to launch new ventures; EMBAs, traditionally more staid and, well, traditional, are not the natural demographic for the inherent risks in striking out on one’s own. Yet a recent survey of the professional activities of HEC Paris exec ed alumni revealed that nearly half — 44% — went on to pursue entrepreneurship within three years of graduating.

The phenomenon of exec ed entrepreneurship has been so strong, so consistently that HEC Paris has built an entrepreneurship focus into its EMBA, introduced a greater level of career support, and even increased the digital capacity of the program to allow greater flexibility in study methods. For 16 years HEC has partnered with the London School of Economics and NYU’s Stern School of Business in the TRIUM Global Executive MBA, offering “a whole new kind of curriculum” and “a blended learning model … shaped around the needs of senior executives.” Moreover, this year HEC — ranked seventh in customized executive education by the Financial Times in 2017, down from second in 2016, and 12th in open executive MBA programs, down from eighth — will launch an online Master of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, its first fully online degree program, designed to ease the conflict between studying and building a new venture.

“From my own humble experience, I think the shift toward entrepreneurship is a gigantic wave that is going across the world,” Ron Duerksen tells Poets&Quants. “People in their 40s today are rethinking what they do. They’re wanting to start their own businesses because there are more opportunities, online and otherwise.”


Duerksen, who as chief strategy and marketing officer at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management once wrote of the need to “reinvent” MBA programs in a time of increasing competition for talent, now says EMBA programs face a similar crossroads. There are a complicated set of challenges facing EMBA programs globally, but the solution might be boiled down to one word: personalization, which “encompasses everything from enabling students to advance at their own pace to choosing when and where they learn,” Duerksen says. “Personalization emphasizes student-centered, active learning.”

Participants, he says, care most about time and money: “They want to know what the financial impact will be as well as the impact on their time away from their jobs, family, and other activities.” Therefore, the quality and reputation of a school are paramount considerations. “If they are going to put in the time and resources to go back to school, they want to make sure that their goals are aligned and that they are selecting the right school to help them meet their goals.”

The “right schools” will be those that take learners to the cutting edge of exec ed, Duerksen says. The potential for virtual reality use in the classroom is unlimited, he says, but has largely been untapped due to lack of affordability and accessibility; that may change. High-velocity learning — speeding up the process of imparting information by learning through discovery and problem solving — is a promising avenue, a form of learning that research suggests is faster, more effective, and longer-lasting than “hours-long monologues in crowded lecture halls or classrooms.” And emerging online platforms that offer high-touch experiences (HackReactor and General Assembly), hands-on portals (Codecademy), industry expert teaching (Udacity), and state-of-the-art knowledge from the world’s leading universities (Coursera and edX) are proliferating.

“The lengthy ‘everything goes in’ approach will make way for performance-enhancing content that builds competence, reflection, exploration, and personal growth through challenging and provocative content,” Duerksen says. “Social learning and informal learning increasingly happens around e-learning experiences. The financial value of e-learning in 2017 is estimated at $255 billion — a value matched only by the swelling numbers of students choosing to follow an online course.” He cites the latest Global Shapers Survey of 25,000 young people from across the world, which shows that about 78% have taken online courses in the past. Now, he says, older learners are catching up.

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