"The time has come. . . to talk of many things. . . . And why the sea is boiling hot - and whether pigs have wings."
"The Walrus," from Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
I teach marketing management to executives. I also teach them how to manage product lines and technology over time.
As we discuss case studies drawn from various businesses, participants invariably ask the same kinds of questions: "What is the product?" "How, where, and when is the product consumed?" and "What is the product's value?" As times change, product managers and others in the organization must figure out how the answers to these questions change. But often, that can be difficult: We find ourselves unable to perceive familiar products in new ways.
Arguably, the most important question I end up teaching my students to ask and answer is this: "How can I set aside familiar answers and learn to think differently about essential questions of business - and, for that matter, of life?"
Many of us find that question deeply threatening; if we act on it, we might turn our long-standing view of the world topsy turvy.
For some time, I have been asking myself those same questions about my own product, which I define as "the education of people who are executives." And I have been reflecting on how I might change it.
Consider the basic components of executive-education programs. Most programs stress basic business functions (such as the marketing-management course that I teach) and business methods (for example, market-research techniques). Most programs include but do not emphasize problem-solving and process-management skills. My course on managing product lines over time would fall into that category.
If I were to design an executive-education program, I would rank the priorities differently. I would drop methods courses or offer them as electives. I would spend some time on functional courses. And I would spend the most time on courses that hone problem-solving and process-management skills geared to the overall organization.
What is my rationale for those shifts? Executives already know basic business functions and methods. Increasingly, future executives study such topics during college or graduate school. Also, more companies are organizing work along cross-functional lines. And, in the wake of downsizing, more firms expect managers to display a broad repertoire of skills, rather than specialize in one area.
Some university business schools that offer executive education have not altered their programs; they do not recognize the recent changes in how organizations operate.
Other schools do recognize changes in the workplace. But they are constrained by institutional inertia. They remain organized along functional lines, and they continue to recognize and reward faculty for developing highly specialized expertise.
Also, many university business schools are designed to deliver undergraduate- and graduate-level business education - endeavors that demand different perspectives and strategies than executive education.
In other words, university-based business schools, in general, have not shifted their worldviews and devised new answers to serve the needs of today's executives.
Along with shifting priorities, I recommend that we profoundly change the content of executive education.
You will recall that I described my "product" as the "education of people who are executives" - not as "executive education." I make the distinction purposefully. Business-education institutions - and, arguably, businesses themselves - are losing sight of the fact that executives are people. They are people with the ambition, intellect, and ability to steer their organizations to success; they are also people with hearts and souls, morals and values, and strengths and weaknesses. Executives are members …