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Disruption is everywhere, and business schools are not immune. Nowhere is that more evident than in the highly competitive world of non-degree executive education programs.

In a switch-it-up move, believed to be rare in Canada, two business schools in different regions of the country have decided to work together to deliver some of their executive education programs to industry clients.

While retaining their respective executive education programs, HEC Montréal and Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia plan to market their customized training, offered in English and French, to national companies with senior employees scattered across the country.

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The collaboration stems from feedback from corporate clients expressing unease about technological and other disruptions, says Serge Lafrance, executive education director at HEC Montréal.

“The starting point for this [partnership with Sauder] comes from the client,” he says. “They are looking for something new and different.”

Bruce Wiesner, Sauder’s associate dean of executive education, says he, too, has heard from corporate leaders who he says are sending “a very clear message” to business schools to rethink their executive training models.

“For many clients and potential clients, they didn’t see business schools as necessarily where the market was going,” he says. “They saw business schools for where the market was or used to be and that was a bit of a wake-up call for us.”

Executive education programs typically are three to five days. But there's pressure to make them even shorter, to as few as two days.


In their first foray as partners, the two schools identified topics that they think play to their respective academic strength. In June, professors from HEC Montréal (part of the artificial intelligence supply chain supercluster funded by the federal government) travelled to Sauder in Vancouver to deliver an executive education course on big data and artificial intelligence. Later this year, Sauder professors head east to Montreal to teach courses in marketing and leadership to corporate clients.

For the jointly delivered programs, some as short as two days, the schools plan to go beyond the traditional classroom lecture to add so-called peer learning circles and post-training sessions for participants to stay in touch with each other and the professors, online, to apply what was taught in face-to-face sessions. Business schools traditionally offer leadership training in sessions lasting three to five days, but increasingly they are expected to cram in more during, and after, even a two-day course.

“The message here is that the market is increasingly thinking that a two-day program is not short,” Mr. Wiesner says. “But that may be the type of bite-size learning they are comfortable with, and they may only have two days to be in the classroom.”

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Mr. Lafrance says the two schools already have a relationship through their involvement in the Creative Destruction Lab, a national incubator program for scientific companies with growth potential that got its start at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. He says HEC and Sauder started to discuss a bilateral partnership several months ago because of what they saw as each other’s complementary strengths.

“HEC is well established for more than 100 years and a leader in the eastern part of the country,” he says. “Sauder is well established and a leader in the western part of Canada.”

Sauder’s Mr. Wiesner adds: “We thought HEC was doing some pretty incredible things in A.I. and they had a perspective on how it is impacting businesses. We could import it right away to the benefit of our clients.

“The feeling was that though Sauder and HEC were on opposite sides of the country, they both came from unique, diverse, multicultural environments,” he says. “And that they shared a passion for innovation and creativity and would be willing to go outside the status quo.”

Mr. Lafrance acknowledges the challenge for the two schools to crack the lucrative training market in head office-dominated Toronto, where Rotman, York University’s Schulich School of Business and the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School are among the big players.

“We do not have the pretention to replace the great offerings at Rotman, Ivey or Schulich," Mr. Lafrance says, but he adds that he sees particular opportunities for HEC and Sauder given their location and research priorities. “We feel we can propose an added value for big Toronto-based companies because our culture is different, and the economic structure of Vancouver and Montreal is a bit different.”

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As in other sectors, technological disruptions are prodding business schools to revamp their delivery of executive education, Mr. Wiesner says, along with added pressure from a younger generation redefining how to socialize and communicate using digital tools in and outside the classroom.

He also cites the emergence of for-profit competitors, without the bricks-and-mortar overhead of traditional business schools, moving in to offer executive education online or through hybrid models (a blend of in-class and online learning) as cheaper, more nimble alternatives to the research-focused university.

Facing heightened competition, business schools “will live or die at the end of the day by the effectiveness of what we do,” Mr. Wiesner predicts. With its non-degree product, he says, “executive education is right out there on the beachhead and there is no cover.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

Follow Jennifer Lewington on Twitter @JenLewington or contact her at

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