Short business courses - It's amazing how much can happen in three days

Can anything of enduring value be learnt on courses which provide a quick turnaround? Amy McLellan reports
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A gold-plated MBA from a leading business school is a welcome addition to any CV, but, in these austere times, some people are increasingly reluctant to commit the time and money to take a year or more out of the workplace. Individuals and employers want a rapid, cost-effective skills uplift that can be put to work within days, not months. This could either arise from a bespoke course, created to meet the needs of a single company, or a more generic programme that brings together people from many different organisations.

Yet can anything of any lasting value really be learnt on a course that, from induction to leaving drinks, is done and dusted within a few days? Fiona Dent, director of executive education at Ashridge Business School in Hertfordshire, believes it can. Her school's open enrolment programmes range from one day to four weeks in duration.

"It's amazing how much can happen in three days," says Dent. "It's not just about the three days they are here: it's about why they are here and what they are going to put into practice when they go back to work. We don't sit them in a classroom and bombard them with information and theory. We use their real-life work issues, so it's very focused on achieving results."

Dent, who has worked at Ashridge for 21 years, says today's students are very focused on extracting real value from the courses. "Twenty years ago, people used to view training as something their boss sent them on, as a bit of a jolly," she says. "Now people come because they've noticed an issue that keeps cropping up in their reviews and they want to address it. They come with a specific agenda and we help them work through that and get the outcomes they want."

The programme of short courses at Ashridge reads like an MBA module list, from change management and strategic marketing to advanced organisation design and making successful acquisitions. Each course brings together executives of similar seniority from a range of public and private sector organisations, creating a diverse and dynamic classroom.

This exposure to different industries and ways of thinking adds a new learning dimension, says Richard Hordern, client director for executive education at Henley Business School, which offers an extensive executive development programme that was ranked 33rd worldwide in the Financial Times executive education open rankings for 2010.

"We find clients are looking for the breadth of thinking that comes from an open programme," says Hordern. "A survey we did last year found that companies want in-house training programmes as part of their armoury, but for high potentials and key individuals they want them to go on open programmes where they can expose themselves to best practice, wider thinking and what's going on in other organisations."

These open programmes, which cost between £2,500 to £6,000 for three to five days in the classroom, aren't just generic brain dumps of best practice and the latest business thinking. Individuals are expected to bring with them a business or change challenge so they can ground their learning in reality. And, as Dent points out, this is where it helps to be surrounded by people from outside your organisation. "Open programmes foster an honesty that can really help with the learning," she says. "People can be more reticent about some of the problems they face when surrounded by fellow corporate insiders."

Yet bespoke training courses also have much to commend them, particularly in the current business climate. These tailored training solutions can be very cost-effective and, given they are matched to a specific issue facing the organisation, can satisfy its need to spend its training budget wisely.

Joanne James, programme director at Newcastle Business School, part of Northumbria University, says these bespoke short courses are proving increasingly popular. "Our experience is that people do not want to sit in classrooms and get generic training, they want to know how to apply it to their particular circumstances. People want things that are very good value for money and they want it for a specific reason at a time that suits them."

These bespoke courses can be scheduled to fit with other organisational priorities. Subjects tend to follow the MBA mould, with leadership training proving particularly popular, says James. The school has helped a local authority with its organisational values and NHS clinicians with communication strategies for multi-disciplinary virtual teams. The courses often evolve into something quite different from the starting point to reflect changing priorities, something that isn't possible on a set open programme. The courses are charged at a rate based on the faculty's time, about £1,800 a day, rather than per student, making it very cost-effective. "There's really no comparison," notes James.

One downside is that such specific training can be a difficult sell on CVs, with prospective new employers uncertain of their value. That's where more generic short courses can have an advantage as many business schools offer clients the possibility of stitching together a number of courses to make up an accredited business qualification.

Manchester Metropolitan University, for example, is launching a new certificate in legal practice management, which is a collaboration between its business and law schools. The course is designed to provide senior lawyers with the range of management skills they will need to respond to the Legal Services Act 2007. This legislation gave the green light for non-lawyers, such as supermarkets, to offer legal services such as do-it-yourself wills, arranging a divorce, and conveyancing.

The extra competition has come when law firms are facing challenging economic times. "Managing partners may have felt comfortable in their role when the deals were flowing, but it's a very different environment now, with many of the big deals gone, turnover down, and the prospect of some new business-savvy, low-cost competition," says Deborah Walker from the MMU Law School. "It needs a far keener management skill set than they ever needed before."

Students, many of whom will be time-pressed managing partners and practice managers, can study the whole course or take individual modules that can be acquired in one day's study, plus three to four days of distance learning. One or two modules may provide the skills to respond to the extra competition, and the quick turnaround is the real advantage of these courses.