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Executive Development in a Post-Crisis Learning Economy

In the volatile and dynamic environment being shaped by events like COVID-19, executives need to embrace learning as an essential element of the future of work.

Not long ago, competitive advantage among individuals, organizations, and different world regions belonged to those who knew the most—a knowledge economy. Now it accrues to those who know how to learn the most—a learning economy. This context presents several opportunities and challenges that shape both the future of work and the role that executive development plays in supporting individuals, organizations, and society overall.

Modern economies can be characterized as learning economies in which knowledge is a crucial resource and learning is one of the most important processes. While the notion of a learning society is not a new one and is in fact advocated for by both the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it is an educational philosophy that has become crucial in our present-day context. It positions education as the key to a society’s economic development, as opposed to more quantifiable—but perhaps less indicative—measurements, like Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

This educational philosophy will play a critical role on individuals and organizations worldwide in the upcoming years. Our society faces exponentially changing technological advancements, a global population approaching 9 billion—of which half is living in poverty—and an impending global climate crisis. Also, new and unknown events like the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak are having impacts not only on our health but on our business operations, the way we teach and learn, and our daily living circumstances.

Humankind needs to face several immense challenges and at the same time develop a model of educational delivery that is able to service these global, modern needs. Alongside all these concerns, employee tenures are getting shorter. The U.S. Bureau Labor of Statistics states that the median tenure with current employers in the U.S. is now just 5.2 years among employees with at least a college degree, while a similar trend is taking place in other countries worldwide. This new reality implies that, even if employers could hire people with the skills their organizations and our society needed, keeping the talent to face such challenges is becoming harder. Turnover can be costly for organizations, especially when they are constantly replacing high-performing employees.

Further, as a very recent consequence caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, unemployment is turning into a short-term educational challenge as individuals and organizations will have to consider upskilling and reskilling strategies as a part of their path forward if they are to adapt and evolve.

What challenges and opportunities does this present for executive education? Given this context, and as also presented in a study conducted by AACSB, Chief Learning Officer magazine, and Human Capital Media, lifelong learning is a crucial part of an organization’s talent strategy, since it gives employees the skills they need to remain relevant while building organizational loyalty and encouraging retention.

So executive education will be even more important in the upcoming years as competitiveness becomes increasingly driven by learning. This point is crucial when considering the different forces shaping the future world of work, which include emergent societal needs and expectations, new business models, changing demographics, distributed workforces, and new knowledge and skills required to face all of these challenges.

In this context, education is moving from a straight line—learning first in school and then applying that same learning throughout one’s tenure at work, to a continuum of lifelong learning—going through several cycles of continuous personal evolution. Even more, this process will go on for decades as people are living longer and their professional lives are extending longer. People are exploring at least four or five distinct professional careers during the tenure of their work life, either because of their desire to broaden or sharpen their knowledge and skills, or because their context forces them to do so through externalities like COVID-19. And all of this takes place now under a “just-in-time” learning perspective, which enriches the “just-in-case” learning approach that existed in the past.

Talent managers are also seeing an increased importance in credentials such as certificates, certifications, licenses, and degrees throughout organizations' hiring and promotion practices, and a majority also see shifts in learning methodologies to gain these credentials, such as a heavier reliance on technology, personalization, and social learning. To shift to that philosophy, individuals must be lifelong learners.

Beyond expertise, leaders will also need to nurture and practice agility, a learning mindset, and entrepreneurial drive. Executive education must ensure that leaders have the skills and abilities required to motivate workers around a purpose and consistently demonstrate robust resilience to deal positively with frustrations and challenges.

Just as it happens overall in higher education, executive development will be even more important in the upcoming years under these trends as competitiveness becomes increasingly driven by learning. To deal with these evolving circumstances, executives need to understand the power of development, diverse perspectives, and collaboration. They must value the thoughts, ideas, and actions of others to receive the compounding results of shared thinking that will allow them to accomplish more than they ever could on their own. Executives and their organizations must avoid rushing to answers, especially when the world is changing at such rapid pace. Individuals and corporations need to acknowledge that the answer that worked yesterday is unlikely to be correct tomorrow.

In the learning economy we are facing, it is simply unrealistic to expect to know everything that comes our way when uncertainty and volatility are defining characteristics of our modern environment. While the current COVID-19 situation presents several significant questions and challenges, executives must not only face them but also think and act beyond them, and get used to the idea that such a volatile and dynamic environment will be part of a new “normal” in the future that lies ahead. In order to succeed, executives need to be able to ask the right questions and embrace learning as a key tenet of leadership.

The world we are in right now is difficult. Things are changing extremely quickly. Executive development needs to provide a flexible approach, be both adaptive and adaptable, and be responsible to the needs of different key stakeholders involved. Executives need to be capable of displaying critical thinking under pressure, and to always be learning in their lives.

Executive development is a crucial process, but is also a delicate and complex one. It is not enough to offer support on executives’ learning journeys; creating the right learning environment to support them and their organizations is key to achieving success. No one can predict our future exactly, but we can be confident about two things: it is going to be different, and it must be rooted in today’s world. To succeed in it, executives and organizations in our new learning economy need to think and act in ways they have never thought of before if they want to go to places they have never gone before.


Marco Serrato, associate provost of The University of Chicago and 2019–20 board chair of UNICON, a global consortium for university-based executive education Marco Serrato is associate provost of The University of Chicago and 2019–20 board chair of UNICON, a global consortium for university-based executive education.