First published forbes.com 3/2016. The executive education sections of MIT Sloan, Tuck Dartmouth, and Columbia Business School have become “founding” academic institutions in partnership with a closely held Singapore startup company, creating a new structure to take their leadership development short-courses online.
Many business schools and universities worldwide are experimenting with models that allow them to expand market scope, and this is not the first online foray for any of the particular institutions, but there is a coordinated brand-first global intent here that suggests this initiative may change the future terrain of leadership learning, particularly for multinational corporations.
Over a series of interviews Damera explains his new opportunity: “A top-tier business education, whether at MBA or executive education level, requires a logistical and financial investment that narrows its reach to a very selective minority.”
“Emeritus is making quality b-school education accessible to the world.”
But of course the world doesn’t just want management education, it wants branded management education, with the right all-important door-opening masthead at the top of the diploma certificate. Providing this at an affordable price worldwide is Damera’s business.
Emeritus represents itself as “Global Ivy Education” from its brochures all the way down to the tablecloths in its Singapore classroom. (While most of the programming is online, the company has a classroom on-site at its head office to facilitate company face-to-face educational options.)
MIT not being part of the Ivy League appears to be a surmountable obstacle in the Emeritus brand campaign.
So far, Emeritus has nine courses in its stable, three from each of the three schools, covering such topics as leadership, negotiation, innovation, finance, and marketing. Each typically involves four hours of study a week for 6-8 weeks, and costs on average just US$750 per delegate.
Standard on-site executive education from elite providers comes in at about $2,500 per person per day.
The price point is possible because classes contain between 50 and 300 delegates, but Damera is quick to allay any notion that he is running Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) programs. No matter how large the student group is, it is broken up into course cohorts of less than 300, and much of the learning is designed to managed synchronously in teams of 5-7 people, he says.
Damera began in consumer banking at Citigroup, India, before an MBA at Harvard Business School. His HBS summer 2004 internship with JetBlue executive Dave Barger was an entrepreneurial experience that inspired him and fellow-student Ganesh Rengaswamy to write a business plan for what turned out to be Travelguru, an India tourism portal. Backed by Sequoia Capital, Damera grew the company to 350 employees by 2009, and sold it to Travelocity.
This sale has allowed him to fund Emeritus, including 25 payroll employees, out of his own pocket thus far. Damera owns almost all the equity in Emeritus.
Following Travelguru, Damera moved into management education with a venture called Eruditus, partnering with Chaitanya Kalipatnapu at INSEAD Executive Education to bring executive short courses to emerging market companies.
“But two years ago we realized, bringing these schools to global markets, demand far exceeds supply, and there are considerable price constraints.”
“I asked ‘how do we scale this?’ It was clear we needed to go online to get the necessary scale,” says Damera.
“At the same time reputable academic institutions were starting to get serious about online learning. When the EDX platform was founded by Harvard and MIT, many in the industry really sat up and took note.”
Damera describes three broad models currently in play as business schools look to take their offerings into the digital environment: the MOOC platforms such as EDX and Coursera; the self-built, one-provider platforms such as those of HBX and INSEAD; and the partner model where schools work with a commercial provider such as CorpU, ExecOnline, or Emeritus.
Mike Malefakis, Associate Dean of Executive Education at Columbia Business School, is candid that CBS falls into the third category.
“Columbia hasn’t had the same resources as some other schools–to create its own studios or do its own production. Although it was first in its space to offer an online open enrollment program, in 2012, it has had to find partners to get online.”
So far CBS Executive Education has partnered with five different providers over the past four years, in what Malefakis describes as a “real-options approach” referencing the strategy principle that says managers facing uncertainty do best by taking various alternative stakes to maximize chances of holding potentially valuable positions while spreading risk, analogous to how investors use financial options.
“It is all about experimenting, seeing which partnerships work, continuing to further build relationships with those that work well,” says Malefakis.
Having said this, there also appears to be a genuine meeting of minds in the Emeritus partnership. “We really like their production model, what they are designing for in the online platform.”
“When dealing with world-class faculty, you need good filming and production techniques, but you also need to know how to work with faculty,” says Malefakis.
“The crew at Emeritus ‘gets’ the content, in addition to capturing the imagery and slides and lessons. Faculty have enjoyed working with them. It’s like having bright students in the room when filming, and at the same time a good director’s eye helping us make translation of our content into the digital space.”
For Damera this deeper relationship with the schools and collaboration with faculty is a pivotal differentiator of Emeritus.
“This is about deeper design. We help the faculty create content in the digital environment. Our partners are founding institutions not just content providers. We’re not just putting their stuff online.”
Emeritus is set up to foster academic collaboration between itself and the partner schools via a five-person framework it calls the “Academic Steering Committee,” made up of the Executive Education directors of each of the schools (Malefakis; Peter Hirst of MIT Sloan; and Clark Callahan of Tuck Dartmouth). Emeritus has two representatives, one being Damera himself, the other Committee Chairman Bob Halperin, management education industry veteran and ex-Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.
Partner schools don’t have any equity in Emeritus, and have no say over commercial decisions. The academic committee’s remit is limited to issues to do with faculty, academic standards, curriculum design and learning outcomes.
By agreement, all programs have have a common instructional design principle of one-third lecture (video, asynchronous) and two-thirds synchronous experiential or peer-learning, application and feedback.
This theory vs. application weighting reflects the schools own brands: MIT’s ‘Mens et Manus’ learning-by-doing, and Tuck’s peer-to-peer learning philosophy, says Damera.
Baking real-time, peer-based applied learning into the online experience is no small matter, and Emeritus has developers around the world creating new virtual collaboration tools. This plays out in, for example, Professor John van Maanen’s ‘Leading Organizations and Change’ course, where the final part calls for a multi-player simulation whereby each group has to make eight sequential decisions in competition with other groups.
Although van Maanen, a living legend in field of organizational behavior, had run the simulation many times in the classroom, an online version didn’t exist until Emeritus made it happen.
The technical side of the Emeritus’ value-add includes the online learning management system (customized from Canvas, by Instructure), and a ‘Whats-app like’ mobile app that handles interactions across the broad cohort as well as inside small learning groups.
Similarly to ongoing developments at IESE, the company and MIT are creating a “big data” system called “Meeting Mediator” that monitors the entire scope of the student digital interface to build a picture of participant interactivity patterns, which can be fed back to students and instructors as part of learning and review.
Emeritus, in addition to providing all the video production and technology platform enablers, is responsible for marketing, enrollment, billing, and the student experience.
The key difference between Emeritus and other institutions offering online education partnership services is orientation to global markets. “We have feet on ground, marketing, meeting the companies in global markets,” says Damera.
Malefakis agrees that Emeritus “brings access to a market we don’t have in NYC, helping Columbia break down time and space barriers across the globe.”
Despite a meeting of minds, and common interest, negotiating the rights and responsibilities between three eminent US universities and a privately held Singapore startup company was a long and winding road. The general councils from each of the universities was involved over four months of assessing contractual arrangements, says Malefakis.
All three schools have transparent, identical agreements, and get the same revenue split (a straight percentage of gross sales.) Each splits its own course sales with Emeritus–there is no pooled revenue.
Acknowledging the background brand risk in harnessing the Columbia name to a startup commercial entity on the far side of the world, Malefakis observes that there is an even greater strategic risk in not being at the global table for executive education when the cards are being dealt.
Intellectual capital comes completely from the schools, and Makefakis observes that the academic partners are, in terms of the agreement, entitled to reuse and repurpose what they created for Emeritus in their own other on-campus or blended-learning programs. They can use the material for their client independently, on or off the Emeritus platform.
Might there be some trickiness in in-house competition between the schools? Says Damera: “The consortium leverages the strengths of each. MIT is strong in digital business, technology and entrepreneurship; Columbia in finance, global markets, digital, banking; Tuck in health care and innovation. They all add something without stepping on each others toes.”
Emeritus the company is hoping to have 20 short-courses from its three partners by the end of 2016, and also launch a one-year Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration certificate–awarded in the name of all three schools.
Damera has his eye on open enrollment options, but for now the company is focused on the in-company market. He’s targeting to have 20-30 global company accounts, each putting 3,000-5,000 employees on his high-brand, low-cost management development courses every year.
In business education worldwide there are a few thousand people lucky or rich enough to get quality management or business education in any year. “This is not going to move the needle on social and business impact worldwide. But the Emeritus Institute of Management can do that,” says Damera.