04 Mar. 2013 | Comments (0)
The online revolution is sweeping through the education industry. Khan Academy is leading the disruption of elementary school education, while Mass Online Open Courses (MOOCs) with 100,000+ students are jolting college education. Meanwhile, most professors and many schools and colleges are going about business as before, delivering ancient standard format lectures in a lecture hall to 200+ bored students.
So how about executive education programs, those run by companies in-house and at business schools? Here we have seen much less of an online revolution, in part because it seems to be a different kind of business — a "high touch" endeavor that doesn't lend itself so easily to online. I beg to differ. It too will disrupt; it's just lagging the rest.
We need to combine two bodies of theory to understand how this might unfold. First, the education market overall clearly fits Clayton Christensen's disruption theory: the seemingly inferior (but less costly) online education experience is coming from below and gradually encroaching on the for-now-superior-but-fat-and-happy classroom world. As online offerings improve, the encroachment will become a full-force substitution.
Second, to fully appreciate the forces at work in executive education, we need to complement this view with another body of theory from knowledge management. Education is basically that — knowledge sharing. Nitin Nohria, Tom Tierney (then-CEO of Bain & Co.) and I wrote a much-cited HBR article a decade ago where we argued that different kinds of knowledge require different kinds of sharing approaches. Codifiable knowledge — that which can be captured electronically without losing its meaning — can be stored on the web and shared with many, without the original author (professor) being involved in the sharing (teaching). We called it a codification strategy to knowledge sharing. On the contrary, tacit knowledge — that which cannot be captured in writing without losing its meaning — requires person-to-person sharing (a personalization strategy), like a mentor showing an apprentice or a professor interacting face-to-face with students. If you get this matching wrong, the effort will end in disaster.
Executive educators are clinging to the hope that much of what they do really involves tacit knowledge sharing, and thus they feel that their personalization strategy will keep them safe from the onslaught of online education. This is not really the case, however, if we look at the three parts of the pyramid structure of education:
Traditional teaching, i.e., pure one-way lecturing, such as the Khan Academy and many of the MOOCs, perfectly lends itself to online education. There is no need really to be in the same room as the lecturer, nor is there any need to listen to it live. It forces a star model, as we all want to listen to THE best lecturer on a topic. All executive education that is of this form will clearly move online.
Deep interactions, such as the case-based discussion pioneered by HBS, involves tacit knowledge sharing. The experience and insight are created by the discussion in the classroom that day — if you miss it, you miss the learning. I have not seen any technology that can create a virtual classroom so compelling that it can make this experience work well online. You've got to be in the room. Therefore, this pure art form of discussion will not be bashed by online education. But here's the rub: most executive education is not of this kind (my guess: about 10%).
The large part of the executive education market that is between these two forms — the middle market — is the biggest one at risk to be supplanted by online education. Here instructors use a mix of approaches — lecturing combined with cases, simulations, coaching, breakout groups, and so on. Although many instructors use cases, in my experience they don't really use it as a foundation for a truly deeply interactive discussion but rather as an example to illustrate a point from their lecture. In other words, they deploy a hybrid, mixing lectures with some interaction. And this hybrid can be lifted into online education, which is already happening: you listen to a lecture online, and then you discuss a case with a group of students and guided by an instructor in small groups in your own location (no need to travel for everyone to be in the same room).
If this analysis is right, then maybe just 10% of the executive education market is "safe" from the online onslaught. And when that blitz happens, it will upend the rest of the market: one needs only a few star professors who deliver the content online (the Khan's of the exec ed market), and one needs a hoard of "lower-level" local instructors who will help with the breakouts. The traditional exec ed professor will be squeezed out (unless they can move to the purely interactive part, but that requires a very high skill level to pull off).
How fast will this go? Drivers accelerating this include:
- Many companies have online learning platforms they need content for, creating demand;
- Spending a week in an exec ed program is consuming so much time that alternatives such as a hybrid online program look attractive;
- Ever-better technologies make the online experience more appealing;
- Pressures on cost will lead to more adoption of online exec ed;
- Another reason for getting people together in an exec ed program — that of networking — can be done through online networking tool, so why meet?
It happened to journalists (newspapers being disrupted by an online force). It happened to musicians. It is now happening to educators all over. At some point, it will overwhelm executive educators in companies and business schools. The question is when, not whether, it will happen.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 1/31/2013.