Staying sharp Featured

12:28pm EDT March 22, 2006
With an increased emphasis on life-long learning and a constantly changing business world, businesses and business executives are turning to executive education as a way to help keep employees’ skills sharp as well as to stay abreast of business trends. Colleges and universities can provide ample opportunities for business executives to further their education. Many businesses, realizing the value to the company’s bottom line, are even willing to pick up the tab.

There are several significant trends in executive education today, but perhaps the biggest trend is the move toward customization of programs to meet the needs of a particular group of executives, says Hasan Pirkul, dean of the School of Management and Caruth Professor of Management Information Systems at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“There’s been a push for customizing MBA programs to fit very specific needs,” he says. “Companies are often willing to pay for their employees to participate in executive education programs, and they fully expect to gain value from those programs. Customizing programs to meet specific business or industry needs helps to ensure a return on the company’s and the employee’s investment.”

Smart Business spoke with Dean Pirkul about the latest trends in executive education and why investing in it is good for employees and employers alike.

What is executive education?
Executive education is basically furthering the education of mid-level managers who want to come back to school, maybe after several years or more of working, and make up for the deficiencies in their knowledge and prepare themselves for upper-level management jobs.

How can a business benefit by supporting its employees’ executive education?
Most of the time, a company is paying for the executive’s education because it’s not just providing value to the individual, but it is providing value to the company. For example, we have recently signed an agreement with a company where they send us multiple students throughout the year and we not only provide them with the basic curriculum, but they work on solving actual problems associated with their business or company. In this case, the company gets back a significant return on their investment, because issues the company faces are studied as projects in the classroom, and the students are able to go back and provide solutions to the real problems the company faces.

What are the current trends in executive education?
There is more flexibility in executive education programs, because executives are very busy people. Also, many schools are now emphasizing globalization issues in their programs, as that’s becoming increasingly important to large corporations. Other growing areas include governance, ethics and leadership training. While these are subjects that have always been covered in executive education programs, they are receiving a renewed emphasis due to current events and changes in the business world.

But perhaps the biggest trend is the move toward customization: developing programs to meet very specific needs of a particular group of executives. This can range from programs geared toward project managers to physician and health care executives to global leaders, and can include a mix of both campus and distance learning opportunities to meet the needs of business executives all over the world.

How should a corporate leader make use of these trends?

The key is to find an executive MBA program or courses that fit the needs of the individual, as well as the corporation. There are many differences among programs. For example, we emphasize a couple of things that aren’t typically emphasized by other programs, such as executive coaching. We also emphasize customization to meet each executive’s individual needs. When students come to us, we work with them to determine their strengths, weaknesses and professional goals so we can customize the program as much as possible to help them achieve their goals.

There’s a lot of competition with executive education programs. Corporate leaders and business executives can take advantage of this competition to seek the program that offers the right curriculum and best value in terms of results.

Why should a business executive pay attention to executive education trends?

I’m a firm believer in life-long learning, and the business world is changing very rapidly. If you’re not reading, learning and improving yourself and your understanding of the business climate, you’re going to fall behind.

With the move toward customization and tailoring executive education programs to meet specific industry needs, there’s now more opportunity than ever to derive a direct benefit from this type of education. There’s tremendous value for both the executive and the company.

HASAN PIRKUL is the dean of the School of Management and Caruth Professor of Management Information Systems at the University of Texas at Dallas. Reach him at (972) 883-6813 or