How to ensure ROI from executive education courses

The success of a course depends on the commitment of the employer, says UCT GBS's Tim London.

Tim London, Senior lecturer at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, outlines the three key factors for the success of an executive education course. Organisational involvement and support is crucial.

"A significant part of my work over the last several years has been designing courses for a wide range of organisations: for-profits, non-profits, and state owned enterprises."

While the content areas that are delivered can vary widely (from marketing to leadership to finance, among other topics), one question that comes up virtually in every initial planning meeting is: “What is going to be the return on investment for sending our employees on this programme?” 

This is, of course, a tremendously important question in its simplest form: they want to know if spending the money for this programme, and having their employees off site, is going to be worth it. 

The answer to this question, however, is far less simple and actually involves just as much from the organisation itself as it does from the programme provider. Given how common, and potentially impactful, executive education offerings are for all types of organisations, it’s worthwhile examining what leads to the biggest impacts for delegates and their organisations when they are back at work.

The first point that plays a huge role in delivering impact for an organisation is whether the programme actually addresses the issues that are most pressing for their employees. While this may seem like a hard thing to screw up – surely they know their own organisation and employees’ needs! – what we often find is that either not enough people are involved in determining the needs, or that people who might have important insights are left out of the process for some reason. 

Because of this, and other potential shortfalls in expertise, it is often quite beneficial for a needs analysis to be undertaken by the people that are going to design and deliver the potential programme. This should be done, as much as possible, in conjunction with key organisation stakeholders to ensure that the analysis is taken seriously by participants and also to provide some insider insights to the process. Yes, it adds time to the design phase, but it also makes it far more likely you will wind up with the most relevant training possible.

A second, slightly easier, way of creating more impactful programmes is to involve key stakeholders from the organisation in the actual programme delivery. We often suggest that significant people from the organisation at least be part of the welcoming or on-boarding part of the programme. When CEOs, “rainmakers”, and especially line managers for the chosen delegates are involved throughout the programme, it sends an important signal that this is something the whole organisation is interested in and there are big expectations for delegates returning to work and making a difference. In addition to being present at events, this could include teaching some sessions, being involved in evaluating any assessments created, or even just showing up to observe a session for a few hours.

Finally, there is a mountain of research that makes it clear: adult learning is only really impactful if it is ongoing, embedded in work, and with delegates supported as they try out what they have learned. This means that even when the assigned readings, presentations, and class sessions are complete, the learning should continue back in the workplace. This could come in a variety of formats, but should ideally involve feedback and support from all three of the following sources: colleagues who were on the programme together, faculty who have helped to deliver the programme, and line managers or other key stakeholders in the organisation who can provide support and enable new behaviors to take shape. 

Organisations that leverage all three of those components in the months following a formal programme are going to generate much more impact for their organisation. Yes, there is an additional cost in terms of money and time, but it is imperative to maximising the learning of individual delegates as well as translating that learning into impact for the overall organisation.

So, when I get asked “what is going to be the ROI for this?”, I almost always answer, “It depends on how much you’re willing to invest in changing your organisation”. 

That can sound like a dodge, but I hope that the above shows that, while the provider of the programme has a great burden to produce a quality product, if you really want a good ROI for training programmes, you need to consider what you’re willing to invest beyond just the money. Those organisations who see the work in designing the programme and then in following up afterwards as essential, are much more likely to reap a high reward for their investment. Those that still think all of the learning will happen only during the programme and then all delegates will be able to translate it all back to their work immediately, are likely to be left disappointed.