Melanie Weaver Barnett: Why Universities for Executive Education?

by | Oct 9, 2023 | Executive Education | 0 comments

A journalist working on a piece for the Financial Times contacted me recently, wanting to talk about this. His words: With all the options for executive development out there, why should companies work with universities to develop their leadership, management, and business talent? The competition he mentioned included corporate ‘universities’, consulting firms, training organisations, and online programme management companies (OPMs).

According to the Harvard Business Review in a February 2023 article here, global organisations spend more than $60 billion annually on leadership development programmes. And investment in leadership development requires another scarce and precious resource for companies—leaders’ time.

Those of us in this business –whether on the supply or the demand side–know that there is increasing competition for those dollars and that time. Clients need help in evaluating the options, and we can help them.

But what is our story as an industry? Each school will have its own differentiators, but what makes universities and business schools as a category the optimal choice for executive development? How are we better than the big consulting firms with all their glitz and publicity? Or the OPMs with their billions in funding? Or the companies’ own internally developed ‘universities’?

We are all acutely aware of the challenges and complexities of delivering executive education in a university environment. We will have fun discussing those at our upcoming conference, I’m sure! But having worked in the field for more than 25 years, listening to and experiencing effective learning and change with clients, participants, faculty, and colleagues, I think we have something special and not easily copied. Some of these competitors may have a one or two of the same university-type differentiators or be able to assemble a few of these factors now and then. But universities are the only entities that consistently put forth this set of elements, and I would argue this is unique, effective, and something to be proud of.

Here’s my take, and I look forward to hearing what you think! We’ll post this in the Academia Meets Practice topic in our online Learning Community for more discussion, and you can always email me your thoughts as well.


  1. provide instructors who are the leading experts in the world in their fields of management study—they’ve literally devoted their career to discovering the knowledge the clients are looking for. These instructors stay at the forefront of their fields, and they often own the IP they are teaching. The ideas they bring to executive learners are the same ideas that are shaping the discourse in society. If a company is going to be great, it needs its leaders be at the forefront of worldwide developments and their implications; Universities are unrivalled in this realm.
  2. are dedicated to empirically proven concepts, not to some individual’s idea of what worked for them in a certain place, time, and situation. Instead, universities create concepts and tools that are evidence-based and universally effective.
  3. care about and invest in effective learning approaches. They are keenly interested in how learning happens, why and when it happens, how to accelerate and deepen learning. And they are acting on this, day in and day out, in their many degree and non-degree classrooms. As one professor put it, “Innovation in teaching and learning is in our DNA; we are doing it all the time in real time, and with the latest findings.”
  4. generally have ‘common good’ purposes – they aren’t about getting into organisations and becoming viral to make more and more money; they are about equipping people with the required mindsets and capabilities for success. Of course they want and need financial resources for their work, but keep in mind that university faculty are scientists. (With some exceptions) they go where the science leads them rather than where the dollars lead them.
  5. are beacons that bring in a universe of stakeholders and contributors – current and former CEOs and other executives, entrepreneurs, government officials, artists, innovators, and more. This creates a constellation of value – an incredibly diverse and dedicated talent pool–that companies have access to when they work with universities.
  6. provide an unparalleled structure for diversity of thought and breakthrough ideas. They are comprised of multiple schools, with each of those having several disciplines of theory and practice. Innovation tends to happen best at the intersections of disciplines or of different fields of thinking. Universities are in a unique position to create and provide these intersections and catalyse breakthroughs.
  7. universities are driven to effect change and measure it. They tend to be excellent at valid assessment approaches, measuring impact and value creation perhaps better than anyone. It’s inherent in the work that they do. Evidence of change is critical to those who work at universities. They are not happy unless they see evidence of change, and in the executive education world, evidence of change means real and relevant learning has occurred.
  8. bring you a campus, an intellectual oasis, a hive of activity, that engenders open-mindedness and almost screams “learn and grow here!” The environment matters for any activity, and a campus is purpose-built for the specific activity of learning.
  9. discover and insist you pay attention to theory. I know, I know – the business world seems to dislike this term; we’ve all heard clients say the word with derision. But here’s the thing: A scientific theory isn’t just an idea grabbed out of the air or some other kind of guess. Rather, it is an explanation of something that can be repeatedly tested and verified using the scientific method and observation. It is what companies ought to want because theory predicts success. Theory reduces risk. Theory provides guidance. Hooray for theory. Let’s celebrate it and help our clients clamour for it.

Are universities perfect? Always the very best? Of course not. There are many ways we can improve. And we can write and talk about that in a future article and conversation! But my guess is that your executive education operation can claim most, if not all, of these factors—and that’s something to shout about.

By Melanie Weaver Barnett, UNICON Executive Director
Article edited by UNICON Executive Education


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