First published forbes.com 6/2016. The flood of venture capital money into digital education disruptors continues unabated with the June 2 announcement that Udemy raised $60 million from the venture capital arm of media giant Naspers.

This follows $65 million raised a year ago, and recent rounds of $105 million for Udacity and $50 million for Varsity Tutors, among a slew of online educators like Coursera, UoPeople, 2u, CorpU, Pearson CourseConnect, and Wiley Crossknowledge, all one way or another sizing up internal or external investments to create platforms to change the education industry.

As with music and travel and other industries that have been digitally reconfigured, the cresting venture capital wave suggests the point of no return is truly upon us.

While some of the VC money is going into general learning, much of it is focused where the big returns are expected, in business and leadership education,  where industry incumbents—the business schools—are now struggling to hold onto markets that are fast wriggling out of their grasp.

It has become harder for b-schools to compete in the mass markets for basic management education, such as courses in finance, or marketing, or sales. They either become the empty-handed high-cost provider, or like Wharton or Darden, drive product through external online providers at a fraction of its previous price, hoping for compensation by volume.

The other end of the executive eduction spectrum—the customized in-company side, where management advancement is tailored to specific company challenges—looks safe from broad-based digital disruption, at least for now.

The IMD campus in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The IMD campus in Lausanne, Switzerland. Picture: IMD

It is the ground between these two poles that is now looking vulnerable to online offerings. And here in this middle terrain IMD Switzerland, currently FT-ranked No. 1 in executive education for Open programs and No. 2 worldwide overall, has emerged with a fully online portfolio of personalized executive courses called “Global Leadership in the Cloud (GLC).”

The suite of eight courses (to be 15 when fully rolled out) covers topic areas such as strategy, innovation, and leadership, and aims to capture the benefits of technology while holding onto the defining executive eduction principles of personal attention and real-world application.

IMD President (Dean) Dominique Turpin sees the difference between GLC and the so-called MOOC (massive open online course) offerings particularly in the high video lecture production GLC offers. The school gets video, graphics, and animation production from experts in the film and entertainment business, currently outsourcing this to companies in Spain and Belgium.

Says Turpin, “We need to build attention among online students. Case studies were the stories that were commonly used by business schools, but now we are able to use the full power of digital technology in storytelling. This is what makes an impact. It is these stories that students remember.”

Professor Dominique Turpin, President of IMD
Professor Dominique Turpin, President of IMD. Picture: IMD

IMD’s GLC suite is particularly aimed at high potential (HiPo) junior executives, the up-and-coming tier of management typically not senior enough to command residential programs because of higher tuition, and accommodation and travel cost.

At the same time HiPo’s are often looking for more than their in-house development offerings, says GLC director, Professor James Henderson.

For about $4,000 per eight-week program, IMD is able to trump these static options, particularly in supporting student delegates with personal feedback. GLC differentiates itself in offering a personal, coached development experience that is unusual for fully online programs.

Says Henderson, “The courses are specifically designed to accommodate each student’s particular current workplace challenge or projects they are trying to work through.

“It is very practice oriented. They come with their particular challenge, we take them through steps to set about achieving their goal.”

Professor James Henderson, Director of the IMD Global Leadership in the Cloud program.
Professor James Henderson, Director of the IMD Global Leadership in the Cloud program. Picture: IMD

IMD’s particular curriculum development challenge is to create a learning journey for each individual delegate, while at the same time providing the same basic course content coverage for all.

In a typical week there will be three or four lecture videos that have been carefully scripted into 10-minute segments with a fair amount of animation and professional post-production.

The full capabilities of a video production team are applied to make the content highly engaging in its own right, but the key stage, says Henderson, comes in how delegates apply the learning to their own company or own situation.

This is where they get feedback from the lecturer, and peers in their work groups, and their assigned coach.

Student numbers are capped at between 25 and 50 students per coach, depending on the course.

Weekly Flow

Each eight-week course has a specific start and end date. Students can’t go at their own pace, and finish (or not) at some future date, as common with MOOCs. Here they are obligated into a weekly flow of assignments and deliverables, which may in part explain the 90% graduation rate.

But within each week, learning is almost entirely asynchronous and self-paced—students move in their own time through the readings, video lectures, and online posting forums, and set up their own meetings with study groups or coaches.

The courses have very little plenary group time where the whole cohort meets. “Plenary is difficult. People just can’t make time at the same time!” says Henderson.

At present the GLC suite has one iteration of courses in the Spring and one in the Fall. According to Henderson, since a “soft-launch” to IMD’s company partners a year-and-a-half ago, GLC registration has doubled year-on-year. About 30% of the uptake is now private individuals.

Henderson estimates that 20% of IMD core faculty is involved in these programs, and as this adoption increases and the suite of video lectures grows, he is seeing “unintended positive consequences in being able to pick and choose parts of courses for IMD’s custom client work.

“And we can use, say, three weeks of one program and two weeks of another, and attach them like lego-bricks to IMD’s on-site programming,” he says.

Limits

Notwithstanding the early success of GLC, Henderson is also candid on its limits.

“These are deep dives into a specific issues facing a particular person in the workplace,  and are excellent in convenience, excellent in flexibility. They are great for deep capability building for high-potentials,” he says.

For more senior delegates, who are becoming ambassadors, leaders, bridge-builders in their organizations, the need for face-to-face networking is more significant, and seeing how the pieces (of organization management) fit together more important.

“To see how pieces fit together, forget it (GLC). If you want to know how finance connects to strategy connects to leadership connects to innovation—that’s why we still have on-site programs,” says Henderson.

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