Research & Thought Leadership

Developing an Executive Education fit for the 21st Century

Julian Thompson

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In summary

Humanity faces challenges that require a bolder approach to professional education. We want to co-create a curriculum fit for the future and in doing so, help professionals, their organizations and the wider world to thrive in the 21st century.

Living in testing times

Our world is statistically wealthier, healthier and more peaceful than ever. We are the beneficiaries of two hundred years of accelerated social and economic progress, powered by advances in science, technology, and medicine, and enabled by political, legal, social and cultural evolution.

But this progress is unequally shared. Too many have been left behind. And now we also know that it comes at a terrible cost. Having tried to turn the planet into a giant human life-support machine, we are now witnessing the breakdown of the ecosystems and climate on which we depend.

In parallel, our working lives are spent struggling to sustain a fragile economic system which polarises prosperity and constantly flirts with failure. The political and social institutions we developed in the last century are buckling under these pressures, prompting authoritarians and opportunists to fill the breach.

Living in the early 21st century it’s hard to escape a feeling of deep unease. It’s like we’re suddenly having to take a fiendish exam, without having learnt the curriculum on which it’s based. And whether you believe we’re probably going to flunk it or that our natural nous will carry us through, we should draw the same conclusion any student would when faced with an exam crisis. Humanity needs to learn and apply a new set of 21st century capabilities at an unprecedented scale and pace if we are going to pass this test.

The role of Executive Education

As professionals in executive education, leadership and organization development (as well as citizens, parents and consumers among other things), we at Hult EF are very much alive to these questions and concerns. We already try to embed these issues in our programs and are signatories to PRME (Principles for Responsible Management Education). We also draw inspiration from the many corporate, public/NGO and academic pioneers in this field, as well as longstanding UN initiatives such as Global Citizenship Education (GCE) and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

But when it comes to executive education and professional development we sense that the pace of curriculum innovation and adoption, including our own, is still too slow, and client demand surprisingly weak, given the urgency of the challenge and the central importance of such leaders and their organizations. Some organizations are increasingly looking to exec ed providers to help them figure out how to succeed commercially in a purpose-driven, ecologically and socially sustainable way. And where they are not, often for understandable reasons of simple survival, we as a sector need to be quicker, bolder and better equipped to help them.

Given this is a collective human challenge, we believe that the development and acceleration of curriculum innovation and adoption in this field should work in the same spirit. So we are keen to work with others of a like mind – whether peers, competitors, partners, clients, learners or anyone else - to co-create, pool and share resources as far as possible.

21st Century Capabilities

After an initial round of internal discussion and horizon scanning we have identified six cross-cutting ‘21st century capabilities’, as well as a set of adult learning (andragogic) principles that might underpin 21st century executive education at its core. Each of these capabilities are both individual and collective and would manifest themselves in different ways in different contexts. It was very hard to get down to six, and we know the wording is imperfect, but we share these as a starting point for improvement.

1. System sense

The ability to sense, and the willingness to take responsibility for tackling systemic problems.

2. Sustainable strategy

The ability to develop strategies that blend and deliver long-term economic, public and ecological benefit.

3. Collective leadership

The ability to inspire, mobilise and sustain collaborative effort to realise sustainable strategies.

4. Efficient innovation

The ability to continually generate frugal, root-cause solutions to commercial and social problems.

5. Digital by design

The ethical use of digital technologies and data to enrich decision-making and harness resources.

6. Purposeful agility

The ability to embrace uncertainty and adapt quickly to events, whilst retaining long-term purpose.

21st century andragogy: learning principles

Holistic: we learn together as our ‘whole selves’. We remove unnecessary distinctions of hierarchy or status, and blend disciplines, people and perspectives to generate richer insights and innovations.

Living: we learn through real life. The curriculum is lifelong, experiential, evolving and always relevant to the challenges we collectively face.

Connected: we learn in relationship. Our ethical methods and learning technologies forge the empathy, trust, bonds and bridges between people that are the necessary foundation for any collective progress, and to ensure people are not left behind.

Sustainable: we learn wisely. We are frugal with natural resources, but abundant with human ingenuity in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Your response?

Our intention is to use these as just the beginning of a collaborative inquiry process – a version 1.0 if you like – and then to iterate and improve them with others through cycles of collaborative reflection, design, experimentation and evaluation.

We have some ideas about how this could work but firstly we would like to hear your responses, both to the general argument and proposition, and to the capabilities and principles themselves. What resonates, what jars, and what’s missing? What would we be doing differently if we were to focus on this curriculum, and work by these principles? And how might you like to join us in an effort to forge a curriculum that can help us pass the test of the 21st century?

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