Evolution by design

Author: 
Marylou Wakefield

Constant change, globalization, expanding customer expectations, fiscal restraint, fewer employees, increasingly complex issues. Sound familiar?

That’s how many managers and aspiring leaders often describe the modern workplace, which seems to undergo fundamental change with increasing rapidity. Problem is, a basic business education no longer prepares individuals for the myriad challenges and demands they can expect to encounter in an ever-evolving workplace over the course of a career.

Lacking necessary knowledge, specific skills, or perspective, many British Columbians are turning to tailored executive education programs offered by B.C.’s universities. The province’s business schools have responded, striving to keep pace with new market forces and rapid change. To that end, many are taking a novel approach to the design and delivery of executive education.

Drinking from a firehose

Perhaps the greatest challenge posed by the modern work place is trying to keep up with the extent and pace of change.

As the complexity of doing business continues, and the pace of change accelerates, those in management and executive positions are often expected to accomplish more in their organizations in less time and with fewer resources, all the while coming to terms with vast amounts of information.

“The challenge for leaders is to stay grounded in their vision and true to their values while dealing with information overload, a frenetic pace of change, complexity, and globalization,” says Zoe MacLeod, Director, Executive Education, Royal Roads University.

Contributing to this is the disappearance of workplace boundaries, taking place on four levels. Dr. Elango Elangovan, Director of International Programs and professor in Executive Programs at the University of Victoria’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business explains:

“First, as more companies outsource to international suppliers and partners, there is a blurring of geographical boundaries that presents its own set of challenges. Part of that is an expectation that companies be available 24 hours a day, so, secondly, there’s a disappearance of time boundaries.

“Thirdly, as connections with customers become more ubiquitous and concepts like ‘co-creating value’ with your customers become more entrenched, there’s some blurring of the organization’s boundaries.

“Finally, there is the disappearance of role boundaries where employees are expected to not just perform a role but be a more significant part of the organization and develop a sense of ownership.”

These are all challenging issues managers and lead-ers have to contend with, but generational shifts will also pose significant human resource challenges for the next generation of decision makers. That is to say, as baby-boomers collectively ease into retirement their successors are going to be increasingly promoted into senior management positions, often without the necessary experience and leadership skills.

“Today we’re seeing younger senior managers and executives than ever before, and they’re getting into senior positions much earlier in their careers,” says Kristina Spring 2013 IFR 23 Henrikkson, Managing Director, Executive Education, at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.

“Added to that are talent gaps within organizations so that everyone is having to accomplish things with fewer people.”

React, adapt and overcome

It all sounds rather daunting. Fortunately, business schools are evolving and adapting to the brave new world of business with executive education programs that are geared towards the real world, as opposed to the ivory tower.

“When participants come here for a program, they want to be challenged. They want to see a real change in their business practice immediately,” says Gordon Rein, Director of Open Enrollment at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Our role as a business school is to bring the best practice in the business community together with cutting-edge, relevant research in order to make that happen”.

Likewise, the trend away from one-size-fits-all learning towards relevant leadership and management studies underpins many of the executive education programs offered by Royal Roads University.

“Our executive education programs are grounded in theory and applied in nature,” says RRU’s Zoe MacLeod. “Whether it’s intercultural communication, leading organizational change, or talent development, we focus on developing new skills that will be applied and relevant as soon as students go back to their organizations.”

To that end, B.C.’s business schools go to great lengths to keep their executive education programs current, investing in various types of research, providing professional development, and staying on top of marketplace trends.

“Our faculty are continually looking for new ways to drive organizations forward. We’re always scanning the environment,” says UBC Sauder’s Gordon Rein. “As part of one of the world’s top research-led universities, we have a great advantage in being able to connect in to what academic and business leaders are doing around the globe and across business sectors.”

At the same time, many business schools are customizing programs to the specific needs of organizations.

“We tend to focus on custom programs in partnership with organizations,” says Henrikkson. “We work closely with an organization to understand their particular needs and then tailor programs to match their culture and strategic direction.”

Henrikkson says Beedie School intends to continue experimenting and piloting new formats and new ways of delivering executive education to address the complexity of issues faced by organizations.

“We need to recognize that we can’t solve complex organizational challenges by looking solely at one or two business functions,” she says. “These issues require a broader perspective and an interdisciplinary approach. We also need to listen to the people who are coming to us and understand what’s shifting and then see new opportunities in co-designing programs.”

B.C.’s business schools have also adapted their executive programs to new ways of teaching and learning as organizations put pressure on managers and leaders to think creatively, and engage in different ways.

“Unpredictable events will continue and so organizations need to be resilient, adaptable and flexible,” says Phil Cady, associate faculty at Royal Roads University. “On the leading  edge is the neuroscience of leadership which involves problem solving and critical thinking, collaboration, emotional self-regulation and initiating change.”

At the same time, the value of mentoring and personal relationships is playing a more significant role in executive education programs.

“It’s one thing to know a concept and very different to do it,” says UVic’s Dr. Elangovan. “In the future, learning will be more multi-faceted using concepts like informal mentoring in the presence of an expert.”

That appealed to Aurora Sekela, a senior program manager at TELUS, who pursued an executive education program in project management that went beyond lectures and as signed readings.

“To compete in today’s job market, we have to refresh ourselves and keep current professionally,” she says. “As an adult learner with experience, I didn’t want text book-based learning; I wanted anecdotes and stories from experts in their field.”

With that in mind she attended the 18-day Masters Certi-ficate in Project Management at UVic’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business where, she says, “I could learn the technical side of project management through the course and then apply it in my workplace. The training I got was very current and the anecdotes were from real experiences from experts in the industry.”

Another development in executive education programs is the growing importance of sustainability, as well as corporate and social responsibility.

“A common thread that runs through all executive education here is corporate and social sustainability,” says Charmaine Stack, Associate Director, Executive Programs at the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business. “It informs everything we do.”

Brave new world

A big evolutionary step in executive education has also been redefining the word “executive”. Previously the domain of white-collars and grey suits, the term now applies to professionals in a range of professions in a variety of fields.

In keeping with that, more and more business schools are stepping up to provide executive education programs to underserved professions.

“Our students come from government and non-government agencies, transportation, health, city services, mining, natural resources, and the oil and gas sectors,” says Dr. Russell Currie, Dean, School of Business and Economics at Thompson Rivers University. “Typically, they’re not head office workers, they’re front-line workers who manage in the field. They’re people who are stepping into supervisory roles for the first time, and people who are regional managers.”

Case in point: RCMP Sgt. Donovan Tait, a detachment commander in northern B.C.’s Nass Valley, manages a team that provides policing services to remote Nisga’a First Nations communities. He says his undergraduate education in criminology and psychology prepared him to be a police  officer, but not necessarily an effective manager or leader as his career progressed.

He credits the RCMP for doing an excellent job of providing policing services, but notes that fiscal restraint and significant organizational change presents managerial challenges that Mounties aren’t taught how to address at the RCMP Academy, Depot.

“[Police officers] are expected to be everything nowadays: social worker, mediator, teacher, paramedic, paralegal . . . and managers. As such, they must be prepared to respond to the changing demands of policing.”

Finding himself in a leadership position without a lot of formal training, Tait enrolled in a Graduate Certificate in Leadership and Management at Royal Roads University with an eye to focusing on people and relationships.

“I take my leadership role seriously. I wanted to take it to the next level: to be better prepared and to inspire my people — to excite and challenge them,” says Tait, adding that the certificate program was well worth the effort: “I’m excited about my leadership again.”

To that end, business schools throughout B.C. are continually rethinking what they offer in the way of executive education, how they’re offering it, and whom they engage in delivering it.