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  June 24th, 2014 | Written by

School’s Out, Now What?

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Comic and noted global theorist Steven Wright once surmised, “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to have to paint it.” It’s a sentiment anyone working in international commerce can identify with, whether or not they’re in the paint game. As the world market’s connective tissue gets progressively tighter, offering opportunities virtually unimaginable just a generation ago, it also demands that anyone wishing to take advantage of those opportunities be in a constant state of updating and adjusting their skill set to new markets, methods, cultures, practices and regulations, and to do it quickly, deftly, with a willingness to adapt.

It’s one of the reasons university executive education programs have gained in popularity and why those programs have continued to evolve to the needs of the student/clients. After offering the usual long stretches of instruction, colleges began to tailor instruction to students’ needs and availability, whether that was through customized courses or online classes.

Whether paying for that education in time and treasure, the companies for which these executives work are not as interested in the vague, enriching benefits of continuing education as they are in what that education can bring to the company. Like right now. That has led schools to not only emphasize support and follow-up much more as a means to keep a student’s education always up to date and of value, but to do it in much more varied ways. So beyond emails and texts and LinkedIn connections, schools are finding efficient ways to stay connected.

Peter Hirst, executive director of Sloan Executive Education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says that he sees a desire for rapid return especially evident among companies that are going through “transitions [or] preparing for transformations,” and that to provide that kind of value, MIT has found consistent, focused follow-up “to be integral to the learning experience.” Executive educators, he says, can no longer be satisfied with having their programs be seen as an “event” on campus or at the company site.

Hirst says that while he and his colleagues will always believe there is an important role to be played by classroom and developing people for every level of an organization, many people believe that the majority of true learning—“90 percent”—happens outside the formal classroom setting, whether it’s learning on the job or from peers.

“We are using new online business social networking platforms, such as Yammer, to facilitate the creation of learning communities—and extend their reach from before the classroom experience until long after the formal program has been completed,” Hirst says. “MIT Sloan was a pioneer in creating concept-based action learning, in which participants in our programs undertake carefully chosen, real-world projects to both help them practice using the tools and frameworks they learn in the classroom. … These projects provide a mechanism for continuing the engagement and learning in a way that builds and extends a learning community to the continuing benefit of the whole organization.”

Washington State University (WSU) strives to keep its executive graduates engaged through several methods, one of which is becoming a guest lecturer for the program because there may be no better way to learn about something than to have to teach it. Additionally, WSU invites graduates back to engage in the college’s National Board of Advisors and to become ambassadors for the program itself.

Like many schools, Washington State believes that learning only happens through continuing communication, not just with professors and lecturers but with fellow students. In fact, it may be that the best, most valuable follow-up for graduates is also, perhaps, the most old-school method: the ability to meet, talk and learn from a lot of other really smart people just like you.

“I think earning an executive certificate from MIT has provided me with access to a solid network of very smart and experienced people,” says Justin Hutchens, CEO and president of real estate investment trust National Health Investors. “Today, I have open invitations to Denmark, India, Singapore and Colombia—and the opportunity to network with high-quality people from all over the world.”

Indeed, the ability to continually interact with quality counterparts is perhaps the best follow-up schools can provide, especially since it allows graduates to come in contact with those they know can impact their business immediately. The University of Denver’s Intermodal Transportation Institute is perhaps the best school at what it does. More than a few of its graduates have noted that it wasn’t only what they learned but who they met that provided great value.

One such is Shannon Brown, VP of Human Resources at FedEx. He notes: “You’ll have the transportation secretary of Canada, the transportation secretary of Mexico, not to mention all the CEOs of transportation companies here in the United States. When you bring that many people together, you can’t have anything but something great come out of it.”

And that can go a long way in painting a great bottom line.