Executive Education: Made to Order

The most effective executive education programs are the ones customized to your business needs. Dr. Brandt Allen, dean of Darden Graduate School of Business stresses the importance of teaching to praciticing managers and executives in developing an e-commerce program with PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

The most effective executive education programs are the ones that are customized to a business's needs.

The e-commerce program PricewaterhouseCoopers developed with the top-rated Darden Graduate School of Business Administration is a powerful example of how customized executive education can have a substantial impact on an organization.

Last year, the company sent 3,000 executives back to school for an electronic-business education curriculum. By this year, the world's largest professional services firm had become one of the most sought-after management consultants for e-business strategy.

"We used executive education to spearhead an e-business transformation at PricewaterhouseCoopers," says Jim Sheegog, global leader of executive and organization development in Florham Park, N.J. "The information we rolled out to executives worldwide has quickly taken root in the firm and is showing up in new products currently being developed and launched."

To deliver this type of large-scale up-to-date learning, the financial services firm partnered with the Darden Graduate School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The partnership's goal was to create a customized program specific to PricewaterhouseCoopers' needs.

The New York-based company wanted to create a widespread awareness of e-commerce among its executives and give them access to the most up-to-date learning on the topic. The curriculum was based on actual case studies and included sessions about online retail business models, manufacturing on the Web, online auctions and bids, Internet security and payment systems and Web metrics.

Darden is consistently ranked as one of the top business schools for its traditional MBA program. It's also renowned for its top-notch open enrollment and custom-designed executive education offerings.

"Darden is the second-largest writer of business cases in the world; the first is Harvard," says Dr. Brandt Allen, Darden's dean of executive education. "We hire faculty and promote them based in part on their special skills aimed at teaching executives and for their research directed at practicing managers rather than academics."

For those reasons, PricewaterhouseCoopers had already established a relationship with the school. When the global firm decided to offer an executive education course on e-business, Darden was the logical partner.

The first step was to create a team of corporate and academic members to staff the initiative. Next, Darden professors conducted research and wrote case studies of companies that were involved in e-commerce. Then they wrote curriculum for a three-day immersion into e-business.

The material was organized into modules for instructor-led classes of about 60 participants in each session. The course included breakouts for small groups that would review and analyze the case studies and lecture content, devise solutions and return to the classroom to make presentations.

PricewaterhouseCoopers employees contributed real-life experiences and access to clients and worked with Darden on the logistics of bringing 1,000 executives to the Charlottesville, Va., campus in June and August last year.

Not all PricewaterhouseCoopers executives traveled to Darden for the course. In a unique arrangement, Darden permitted five other internationally famous business schools to present Darden's copyrighted curriculum to another 2,000 executives around the world.

The consortium of schools included the London Business School, INSEAD (the European Institute of Business Administration), located just outside of Paris, the University of Melbourne in Australia, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the University of California at Los Angeles. According to Sheegog, the schools adapted the Darden curriculum and case studies to regional specifics to make the content more relevant.

Immediate Application

"A participant in an executive MBA program is amassing knowledge for later application, whereas our executives were applying the learning immediately while working with clients, even as the course was going on," says Ed Berryman, director of e-business solutions at PricewaterhouseCoopers, who assisted in creating the course.

Course participants delved into case studies on organizations such as Dell Computer Corp., Value America Inc. and Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., examining how they use the Internet in their businesses.

During the session he attended, Len Steinmetz, a former technology leader for learning and education at PricewaterhouseCoopers who was recently promoted to IT management electronic-business practice leader, says the "trusty cell phones didn't stop ringing."

For executives who spend most of their waking hours at clients' locations, "the course was a significant amount of time to invest, but there is no fluff in it whatsoever, and it added significant value to everyone's portfolio of ideas," Steinmetz adds.

The best part was the "intense" case studies, presented as games and played by teams of participants, he says. Steinmetz says he enjoyed the competition (his team won) and the "hands-on application of the learning right in the class."

Clearly, attendees consider it time well spent. "We've seen a major acceleration of winning new e-business," says Berryman. "The course is moving us to the forefront of the marketplace and helping create a common language at PricewaterhouseCoopers."

"The course achieved three objectives," says Steinmetz. "It raised the level of awareness of e-business orientation for all new projects and their strategic direction. It provided business models for the new e-world. And the case studies helped us develop a depth of understanding about how firms have adapted or not adapted, what lessons they have learned and which best practices they use. The course helped us develop e-business strategy for PricewaterhouseCoopers and gave us a good additional basis for advising our clients."

According to Berryman, the course gave executives the rare opportunity to interact with their counterparts across different lines of business, such as auditors, tax accountants and management consultants, "to share perspectives about e-business opportunities."

In addition, a cybercafe gave executives and Darden students the chance to meet, share information about current projects and scope out new talent for the firm. Based on the ratings of the participants, "this is the most well-regarded course offered in recent memory," Berryman says.

Executives who come to Darden for open enrollment courses are those who "take responsibility for their own personal development," says Allen. "The most successful IT people are the ones who have the best business skills."

Vitiello is a freelance writer in East Brunswick, N.J.

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