Open Enrollment Vs. Custom Programs: A Question of Need, not Fashion

Over the past 30 years, educational programs designed exclusively for managers of a single organization have become commonplace throughout the world. The Kellogg School of Management designed and delivered its first custom offering in 1973, and by the mid-1980s was conducting a series of custom programs for some of the best known and largest corporations in the United States and Europe. Today, approximately half of the executive programs we provide each year are for our custom clients. The other half are open enrollment programs attended by experienced managers from an extremely diverse set of companies, industries, and countries.

Like any long-term trend in corporate behavior, there is always a tendency to follow the fashion to excess. For example, some companies are now questioning whether or not they have gone too far in following the long-term movement to outsourcing or lower vertical integration. We may be at or beyond this inflection point for custom executive programs. Yes, custom programs have many advantages, but they are clearly not and have never been the answer for every management development question.

Which Path to Follow?
If we have learned anything from designing and delivering hundreds of custom programs, it is the lesson that custom and open enrollment programs are not substitute products. There are two fundamental differences between the two categories of executive programs.

  • An open enrollment program speaks to the specific needs of individual managers while a custom offering addresses the common needs of the organization.

  • The peer learning experience is distinctly different: open enrollment participants learn from managers in similar positions from many different companies and industries. Custom participants learn from their organizational colleagues, who may or may not be in different functions or units depending on the nature of the custom program.

To illustrate these points, suppose an organization adopts a new go-to-market strategy that emphasizes team-based selling across multiple product lines. Implementation of this new approach will require changes in metrics, structure, incentives, and systems, as well as new skills for potentially a large number of people. Immediately, you envision a custom program built around topics such as collaboration, conflict resolution, team structure/culture along with workshops in which the participants craft recommendations for top management about how to implement the new go-to-market strategy based on course content.

Elsewhere in our example organization, managers of all shapes and sizes have their individual management development needs: a bright but narrow young engineer through a series of promotions must now interact routinely with finance and marketing colleagues but sorely lacks the necessary breadth of knowledge and experience or a senior functional manager is a prime candidate for his or her first general manager position but will need more background in business strategy and organizational alignment tools.

A Choice Based on Need not Fashion
The obvious answer to this situation is that our example organization should devote resources to both categories of development needs - the common and the individual. That is not how it often plays out. The custom program is new, sexy, and part of a highly visible corporate initiative with groups of participants returning from the course energized and with a strange new vocabulary. Plus, it has the attention and involvement of top management. But what is happening with all those managers and their individual development needs? Unless the organization has a sound performance management system that identifies development requirements at the individual level, they may be overlooked.

The difference in peer learning between open enrollment and custom presents an interesting challenge to those deciding which of the two approaches to use. In the case of a custom offering, you could have some diversity in the class depending on the extent to which different functions and divisions are represented. The charm of open enrollment offerings is that they offer powerful and unique opportunities for peer learning and benchmarking as participants with similar positions approach common issues from radically different settings and perspectives. Again, you cannot conclude that one form of peer learning � external peers versus internal colleagues - is necessarily more valuable than the other. They are just different.

Each Has Its Place
Open enrollment programs are often viewed as yesterday�s management development technology compared with the glamour of a custom program built around a major change process. This can be harmful to the advancement of management practice because both types of programs certainly have their place in the organizational toolkit. Custom programs have the power to change large organizations; while participants in open enrollment programs typically return to their companies with a renewed sense of purpose, a diverse network of contacts, and list of action items that have the potential to profoundly improve their organization�s performance.

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