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Evolving Executive Education

Nathalie Lugagne, Associate Dean, HEC Paris Executive Education, in conversation


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At a time when the business world is challenged by radical advances in technology, volatility, and disruption, it is encouraging to see how one of the world’s leading business schools is adapting its pedagogy and content to better equip current and future leaders to meet these challenges.

Nathalie Lugagne, Affiliate Professor and Associate Dean in charge of the HEC Paris Executive Education, points to four mega-trends in the economy that impact the way people learn and want to continue learning throughout their careers; trends that are also guiding how HEC Paris delivers executive education now and in the future:

Increased global outlook. Despite recent doubts about the benefits of globalisation businesses around the world are becoming more global; take China and its drive to build a 21st century ‘Silk Road’ or the growing confidence of African businesses. “More and more companies in China are asking us about teaching global management, global leadership skills, global mindset. This is something that is very important for them, and the same for some African countries,” observes Lugagne.

Digital transformation. The impact of digitization is being felt in every type and area of business – profoundly influencing the way we work and the way organizations and their business models are developing. Originally perceived as a marketing issue, in the context of executive education, helping organizations across the board to adapt to this digital trend has become a major focus for executive education.

Social and environmental impact. Business can be at the forefront of human progress around the world, but, in the wake of many corporate scandals, there is an acute awareness that it can also do damage. “We see an increasing interest, from companies and participants, in environmental and societal responsibility and how they impact stakeholder management, how to incorporate the fact that we have fewer and fewer resources, the question of climate change, and so on. This is a topic that we also count as very important,” says Professor Lugagne. “We also support entrepreneurs who have a tangible, positive impact in their communities through social innovation or social business. It is important for us to empower our executive participants to make a difference and participate in the creation of a fairer more sustainable world.”

Leadership and complexity. The fourth mega-trend concerns the changing dynamics of leadership. The leadership now required to manage through complexity and uncertainty, and to deal with and empower new generations that have less company loyalty and different perspectives. With this Lugagne also points to something “quite dramatic… which is the level of professional stress and burnout. The difficulty to manage your work life balance. The fact that people have to answer all requests immediately due to the digital tools they have.” How leaders manage complexity, deal with stress and manage their own lives is something that executive education also needs to address.

Nathalie Lugagne is an experienced manager of programs and cross-cultural teams, whose core expertise includes global HR management, cross-cultural management, and leadership development. Her strong academic background found her in charge of faculty development at HEC prior to taking the post as Associate Dean, and following 15 years of experience in corporate training and executive development in four different countries (France, Germany, Singapore, and Japan).

The academic standpoint taken by a business school, as opposed to consulting companies or others, is to step back and try to see what is really meaningful, rather than just follow the latest trending hot topic. That academic perspective is very important,” 

Commenting on the fragmented leadership development ecosystem, Lugagne emphasises the unique value she believes that business schools provide. First of all, she highlights critical thinking as the number one competency needed in a world where information is everywhere but you have to curate and interpret complex or faint signals to understand what is going on. “Critical thinking is key,” says Lugagne, “and what we, as a business school, provide is a methodology based on scientific mindsets, on testing positions, making sure that you value the source of the information… How to develop critical thinking is something they envy in China and Japan when we talk about our education system.”

Another business school USP is the guarantee of quality, both in terms of the level of teaching and the level of the program participants. “The academic standpoint taken by a business school, as opposed to consulting companies or others, is to step back and try to see what is really meaningful, rather than just follow the latest trending hot topic. That academic perspective is very important,” says Lugagne. “We also guarantee the right audience, that participants will have the right level of experience that they really will be with their peers.”

Another advantage business schools have is their unique ability to combine the teaching input from academics and executive educators with input from business practitioners - to combine academic learning with real world experiential learning. “This combination between real world situations and academic standpoints is very useful. It really helps the participants to try to find his or her own solutions to his or her own problems,” says Lugagne. There are no ready-made solutions. This type of learning is about developing and enhancing the capacity of executives to be able to think through and find their own solutions to the challenges they face.

Looking at the evolving market for executive education and the range of organizations and individuals it aims to provide for, Nathalie Lugagne says that high-potential leaders from big corporations remain the typical participants and bigger international companies the most likely to commission customized programs. However, there are exciting signs that through the application of digital learning tools the School is attracting a far wider range and greater diversity in terms of level of executive – going deeper into organizations, and size of firm reaching SMEs and entrepreneurial start-ups.

“Part of our DNA is to focus on entrepreneurs and on small enterprises,” says Lugagne, HEC’s engagement with these participants tends to be especially successful, both because the decision-making process is short and because entrepreneurs or small enterprises very much focus on work and job relevance. Success with SMEs is satisfying in terms of the impact it can have on the wider economy. “Helping these companies to contribute to the development of their ecosystem, either on the regional basis or in emerging countries has a real impact and is something that has grown a lot in the recent years,” says Lugagne.

When it comes to executive education reaching deeper levels in the organization, more and more companies want to empower employees and develop awareness of new issues at all levels. They are saying that they need to provide training to ‘everybody’ if they are to undergo the change and transformation demanded by a knowledge economy. Moving on from just developing high-potentials to training ‘everyone’ presents a great challenge for executive education and a great new opportunity - which HEC is now addressing, particularly through the development of high-quality online certificate programs.

Gender diversity is another challenge at HEC Paris. “We see increasing female participation but it's not yet a fair balance,” says Lugagne. “In some programs we have a 50/50 split of men and women but in others only 20% women. It depends on the topic. But we are pushing for more gender diversity and it's improving.” Geographical diversity is not a problem as 40% of all executive education programs are delivered for international clients and more than 50% of the programs are targeting international participants.

Commenting on how executive education programs and pedagogy are adapting to meet these new challenges and the mega-trends underpinning today’s business environment, Lugagne says “it’s less of a top down approach, but more and more teaching to encourage discussion, debate, exploration, and learning by doing.”

In terms of teaching styles, what she sees is that: “Participants in companies expect shorter, more intense sessions, and a larger use of digital tools like videos or multimedia.” In this vein the executive education team have developed what they call ‘micro learning’; complementary to classroom sessions, these capsules of learning, delivered online between the modules, strengthen participants’ commitment and engagement through gamification, which can be rather addictive. The drive behind this growing use of digital tools in the classroom comes primarily from the impact of the way people perform their everyday work.

When it comes to taking a course that used to be done in the classroom and putting it online or as a part of blended learning: “What we have seen is that when you digitise content, it's a huge investment in terms of pedagogy,” says Lugagne. “You really have to identify the core message that you would like to convey and to find multiple ways to reinforce it.” These ways may include exercises, group work, videos and webinars; thinking about the objective of the module of the course and teaching it through different ways and different media. “The fact that you really think about the pedagogical design is very important. It emphasises the importance of the pedagogy and has an impact on the way teachers teach in the classroom…They have really tried to find the essence of what they are teaching.”

Now, that digitization has proved very effective and participants are satisfied, Lugagne sees that a ‘tipping point’ is being reached with more and more faculty becoming involved and developing expertise. “Now we have about a third of the faculty who have tried and been engaged with online programs,” she says.

With her background as head of faculty development at HEC Paris, Professor Lugagne is keen to emphasize the part research plays in executive education. First she points out that: “Critical thinking is part of the research experience. You don't take everything for granted. You want to test, explore, and see all the possibilities. That's also a methodology that we apply to the teaching and transfer to the participants and the students.” For example, on the Executive Master’s program, where participants are expected to complete a thesis, they employ a research methodology to tackle a topic, draw a hypothesis, and test it, using a researcher’s full cycle.

The second thing is that research faculty have opportunities to teach on programs. By trying to look at how things are going to happen in the future, researchers can make students think outside the box; think differently about the future of marketing, the future of strategy, the future of leadership and so on. While there are always the fundamentals of strategy, marketing or finance, exposure to new research can push people to see these topics in a more dynamic and forward looking way.

Research areas that are having an impact currently have to do with the advances in technology (big data, data analytics, artificial intelligence, etc.) and their impact on organizations. While focusing on these areas and on how to do business in a digital world, HEC Paris is also committed to research in their key areas of entrepreneurship, innovation, and social entrepreneurship. “We attract many top researchers thinking about the relation between businesses and society, the impact of business on society and the impact of society on business. This is also something that is really emerging today,” says Lugagne.

HEC is also addressing the growing demand from clients for a cross-disciplinary approach; that is to make links between different functions and domains, such as marketing and strategy or leadership and operations. Innovation, for example, is an important cross-disciplinary topic.

Nathalie Lugagne believes that HEC Paris Executive Education is in a strong position to take advantage of the many big opportunities the future holds, but knows that do so involves addressing many big challenges too. The first is about digital pedagogy, how to combine excellence with reach, as digital learning approaches open up new wider markets.

Another challenging area of opportunity is around learning for the whole professional life. “I very much believe in the social mission of continuing education,” says Lugagne. People need to reinvent themselves continuously, to learn new things and to update skills, and business schools need to consider the role they can play. Lifelong learning is more than ever important because of the uncertain environment in which businesses and their leaders operate.

This challenge is not always considered a strategic aim for a business school, perhaps as a way to increase financial resources, but not to have an impact. “My personal conviction, is that it should be both,” says Lugagne. We should really consider what we are doing in executive education as a way to increase our social impact and to measure it. That is to say how many entrepreneurs are we training, how many jobs are we saving, how many companies are we enabling to develop and grow and export their goods. This is something that I really would like to develop, a big challenge but a nice opportunity for executive education.”

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