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Making the cost of customized education pay off

You would expect a bespoke suit to cost more than off-the-rack options. That's also true of customized executive education programs; they're tailored to fit particular business needs. These organizations ponied up for customized programs and found ways to maximize that investment.

  • Spell out the strategic need. The success of a customized program starts with articulating overarching needs, says Stephanie Springs, CEO of Make-A-Wish Illinois. "I think that is sometimes where organizations struggle," she says. It requires doing more than just recognizing a skills gap. Instead, assess how the skills gap affects strategic goals. "If you understand long-range where you're trying to go, how you're trying to operate in a different way on a day-to-day basis, then you can articulate need," Ms. Springs says.
  • Review instruction materials before they reach participants. Before choosing a training instructor, Sharon Abrahams, director of professional development at Foley & Lardner LLP, made certain that the instructor would allow her and her team to approve all materials and make changes as needed, down to the last PowerPoint slide. "I understand proprietary information, because we're very much like that," Ms. Abrahams says. "But you don't want to leave anything to chance." That way, the firm could ensure the instruction used terms geared toward law firms, like "client" instead of "customer."
  • Evaluate to get past the training "halo effect." At the end of Hyatt Corp.'s weeklong leadership training (conducted with Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management), the company collects feedback from participants. Six months later, Hyatt asks for more participant feedback. That helps cut through the feel-good vibe participants experience when they meet employees from around the world. "There is definitely a halo effect," says Robb Webb, Hyatt's chief human resources officer. "But now it's six months later. How did it make a difference? How have you changed the way you managed?" When participants provide input several months later, they can share whether they immediately applied what they learned. Based on feedback, Hyatt has tweaked the program's curriculum; for example, it now includes an expanded session on global economics.
  • Aim for a ripple effect. Forty employees from U.S. Cellular Corp.'s marketing department attended a Kellogg-led training program. Dave Kimbell, chief marketing officer, wanted that training to permeate the marketing department, which has more than 300 employees. Throughout the session, participants discussed how what they had learned could affect their work. It closed with a 90-minute discussion among participants about new ideas they had picked up — and outlined what they planned to share with other members of the department. When participants think about ways to use training before the session ends, it helps solidify the experience, says Eric Leininger, a marketing professor at Kellogg who helped organize the session. That approach worked for U.S. Cellular, according to Mr. Kimbell. "We came up with a number of clear applications and started working on those literally the next day when we got back in," he says.

By: Sandra A. Swanson February 18, 2013  -- Reprinted with permission from Crain’s Business Chicago.
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