Article By

Daniel Chadwick
Daniel Chadwick
Daniel is communications and content director at, the executive education portal.

Organizations globally continue to need constant development of their people to evolve and grow their businesses. The eco-system of executive education is increasingly complex, with more players and more participants seeking the best solutions for themselves and their clients. We present here the key takeaways from a significant report published earlier this year by IEDP in association with AACSCB, the leading global business school association, and UNICON, the global consortium of business school based executive education organizations.  

For university-based business schools a potential pivot towards lifelong learning is a strategic question many are grappling with.

Earlier this year conducted qualitative interviews with a range of voices from the supply and demand sides of executive education—from deans and presidents of business schools to directors and heads of executive education, and CLOs and heads of talent at large organizations.  

These in-depth interviews were with field experts in their relevant roles at: Goldman Sachs, Volkswagen Group, New York Life, Hyatt Hotels, TBWA, Pitney Bowes, and Cargill, on the demand side; Leeds Illuminate and the Financial Times as key cross-sector observers; and IMD, INSEAD, Tsinghua University, UVA Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning, Michigan Ross, Columbia Business School, Illinois Tech, and IE University, on the supply side. In addition to this qualitative data the report leverages a wide research sweep, with supporting quantitative data and insights gathered from a wide range of trusted sources, from WEF, to Deloitte, McKinsey, PwC, Carrington Crisp, and others—along with AACSB’s and UNICON’s own research.  

Executive Summary – In Brief  

We are at a time when the status quo across business education is being challenged. Traditional, front-loaded educational models—with funding and time investment skewed towards the 18-24 age bracket, and with skills updated all-too-rarely subsequent to that—were even five years ago a product no longer meeting the needs of the customer, nor the wider needs of employers and industries. A variety of disruptive market forces now pose long-term, strategic questions for higher-ed leaders, executive education teams, and corporate talent leaders to evaluate and explore. For university-based business schools a potential pivot towards lifelong learning is a strategic question many are grappling with. Such a move will require new products, new services, new business models, and new technologies, which in turn require time, effort, and financial investment to get right— therefore key decisions lie ahead. To guide and support the strategizing required at this important juncture, AACSB, IEDP, and UNICON have partnered together to produce this research report and make it available to decision-makers across executive education. The full report comprises a deep-dive SWOT analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats presented by lifelong learning as a driver and shaper of future business strategy for the sector. The aim for this initiative is to provide substantive research for stakeholders in executive education to feed into their own decision-making processes, and ultimately to play a role in improving the impact of executive education in the round—which is a shared goal of AACSB, IEDP, and UNICON. In this executive summary you will find a distilled, concise version of the SWOT analysis, as well as key takeaways for readers to take forward in their own work and thinking in this area.  


This SWOT analysis study reinforces some pre-existing views around lifelong learning already widely held within business school circles— namely that there is an outdated status quo in executive education; that it is ripe for disruption; and that the ideas and principles of lifelong learning offer a compelling framework around which new solutions and strategies may be built, to better serve both the supply and demand sides of the industry. – More valuably, by asking eminent voices from all sides of the sector to focus on the potential strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats posed by this approach, the research has collected a deep set of new insights, reflections, and provocations for decision-makers to feed into their own strategizing and support the formulation of new solutions. – From this research we can generate takeaways from the perspectives of each of the three main stakeholder groups addressed here; corporate learning and talent leaders, business school and university leaders, and executive education leaders.  

The demand now is for flexible, lower-cost access to knowledge and skills, updated regularly on a career-long continuum


• The work and skills landscape has drastically changed what executives require from their learning. The demand now is for flexible, lower-cost access to knowledge and skills, updated regularly on a career-long continuum. Individuals and organizations desire learning that is supplied just-in-time, to deploy across projects and other short-term time horizons.  

• Higher turnover rates, fluid career trajectories, and the ‘war to retain talent’, now make reskilling, rebooting, and reinventing careers—multiple times over during one’s lifetime— increasingly the norm. The scale of demand is therefore massive, with talent functions increasingly widening focus to include hitherto less-represented segments of the organization.  

• Currently the term itself ‘lifelong learning’ has little to no cut-through in the corporate world and is not a recognized solution to these new challenges and requirements. Where lifelong learning solutions are emerging, tensions are at play— such as balancing rising demand for personalized learning with a drive to deliver learning at scale; and the challenge of aligning personal goals with organizational goals.  

• This research indicates that corporate talent leaders such as CLOs are quick to adopt the best new technologies available to them and happy to give new providers and players a chance to deliver results and excellence. They are typically confident in their ability to build internal solutions, integrating new technologies, and innovating to meet changing needs.  

• With increased choice of providers, suppliers, and practitioners to partner with, and the increased availability of high-quality content—talent leaders are, more so than ever, designers and curators of their own corporate learning agendas, rather than simply ‘buyers’ in the marketplace.  

• These developments make the demand side of the market more exacting and results-driven than ever. By the same token, talent leaders are also better informed than ever, making them highly intelligent and responsive partners for providers to work closely with to achieve results.  

• Business schools are viewed as being an astute, logical, and trustworthy choice for the provision of lifelong learning— though with some caveats applied: namely around an existing market impression of business school education as sometimes ‘heavy’ i.e. intricate, time-consuming, and expensive—which was seen to be at odds with lifelong learning’s appeal.  


• Business school and university leaders play a critical role as custodians of the wider institution’s brand values, and insurers of the institutions continuing market trust, excel- lence, and credentialling power. As business school leaders they are also the decision-makers best placed to address the structural and cultural questions posed by the potential adoption of lifelong learning as a strategy—which may require a large-scale, top-down change effort in many cases.  

Many of the areas of such a change, are typically controlled at the wider business school level—research agenda, faculty training, teaching capacity, spending power, investment, and much more.  

Talent leaders are now designers and curators of their own corporate learning agendas, rather than simply ‘buyers’ in the marketplace

• A key tension at play for business school leaders is around research. Faculty research is both a unique selling point for the business school (with non-traditional providers unlikely to compete at a comparable level)—but it may also serve as a source of impediment and resistance—from the costliness of research production, to a lack of speed and agility to meet new trends.  

• Another tension is around lifelong learning viewed as being in opposition to traditional degree learning. Many flexible learning solutions such as micro-credentials do seek to deconstruct longer form degree learning—however, are these products necessarily tied to the future existence of degree learning? We might conclude that by virtue of the differing audiences, and the scale and demographic of demand—that they could instead be seen as complimentary.  

• University-based business schools possess high degrees of convening power, offering a learning ‘destination’ that non-traditional providers tend not to. They also sit across a wide variety of knowledge and research, positioning them to offer cross-discipline and career-long learning solutions, as well as give up-to-the-minute expertise on technologies and themes pertinent to the future of work.  


• The executive education unit within a business school has long been viewed as the entrepreneurial arm to the academic institution—most likely to innovate and deliver new revenues through their strong connections to the corporate market and typically commercially-minded teams and leaders.  

• This research confirms these units as well-placed to take a lead in the area of lifelong learning. Executive education teams possess deep expertise around the science of learning; they partner closely with their corporate clients to focus on impact and value creation; many have, in recent years, demonstrated a willingness to pivot and adopt online learning as a core capability; and they are purpose-driven in their belief that learning can improve societal as well as business outcomes.  

• The primary challenges for executive education lie around the scale of change and investment required, and the structural impediments in their relationship with the wider business school and university, which may hinder agility and/ or appetite to challenge the status quo. At a more granu- lar level, this research highlights a key challenge around connecting the personal goals inherent in lifelong learning, with wider, strategic organizational goals for employers.  

• Other concerns include the potential reliance on self-directed learning, which has been shown to favour only the most engaged learners, as well as the risk that some providers will use the term lifelong learning as a slogan only, as opposed to a meaningful, action-based strategy. – The greatest opportunities for executive education lie around the scale of demand, and the ability to be marketdriven to tap into it— finding new market segments and cascading out to new learner profiles, and generating new revenue streams as a result.  

What next?  

Many leaders and practitioners on all sides of the executive learning are already trialling, piloting, and working on solutions that better meet the modern skills and employability needs of organizations and individual learners. Some providers are further along in this process and may be viewed as positive case studies in the field:  

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business is an example of putting lifelong learning front and centre— renaming and rebranding their executive education offering ‘Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning’; restructuring leadership around the rebrand; and committing to build a new Sands Institute of Lifelong Learning to continue to innovate in the non-degree space.  

The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business’ ‘Alumni Advantage’ program is an example of a business school leveraging their considerable, international alumni network to offer learning and networking benefits to their alumni, offering continued value above and beyond the original degree-focused relationship.  

The Haas School of Business is an example of an executive education unit developing a stellar brand reputation of its own, able to operate independently, whilst still enjoying the wider associations of its parent institution, UC Berkeley. Under the leadership of Rich Lyons, Dean of the Haas School from 2008 to 2018, the Haas school quadrupled the size of its executive education unit in ten years, and more than quadrupled the contribution of executive education to the school’s bottom-line.  

BI Norwegian Business School is an example of demandled program development. The school launched a range of short, stackable online learning modules during the pandemic, in response to the changing requirements and knowledge upskilling needs of their audience. The new portfolio of short digital courses attracted more than 5000 participants in the first 19 months, with the platform enabling innovation around new business concepts and new pedagogy for the “new normal” in work and education life. The reskilling drive in China provides intriguing examples of partnerships and collaboration between industry and academia that seek to address the gaps between needed and available skills. From a recent McKinsey report, “Alibaba Group and Hangzhou Normal University co-founded the Alibaba Business School, which offers four bachelor’s degrees. DJI, a commercial drone maker, launched a joint innovation laboratory with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to drive further advances in unmanned aerial vehicle technology.” [Source: McKinsey Global Institute Report, ‘Reskilling China: Transforming the world’s largest workforce into lifelong learners’, January, 2021]  

This article has been drawn from the Executive Summary of the ‘Lifelong Learning and University-based Business Schools’ Report which can be accessed here: www. aacsb-iedp-uniconll- swot-executive_ summary-final.pdf  

Read the Full Report here: media/4659/aacsbiedp- unicon-ll-swotfull_ report-final.pdf  

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