Executive Education: A growing sector in the Middle East

by  — 5 November 2015

Business leaders have to constantly develop the skills of their workforce to meet the ever-changing demands of the global marketplace. But as each organisation offers its own response to these changing realities, the region’s business schools have also had to go back to school, developing new, customised solutions in executive education. By Mark van Dijk.

As the world changes, economies and markets change with it. For businesses and business professionals across the world, the quest is to keep pace with those changes. It is a huge challenge – as the PricewaterhouseCoopers  (PwC) 2014 Middle East chief executive officer (CEO) survey suggests.

In that report, the region’s CEOs put a premium on developing skills and talent in the workforce. “Seventy percent expressed concern about the current availability of key skills and 72 percent put developing a skilled workforce as the top priority for the next three years,” says Amanda Line, partner at the company’s education business, PwC’s Academy. “This includes investment in recruitment and development of talent, and providing behavioural and ‘soft skills’ to the employees along with traditional academic skills,” she adds. 

Based on those findings, Line believes that the executive education sector will likely be a key growth area in Middle East in the coming years – and she is not alone in her assessment. Across the region, executive education – that is, academic programmes offered by graduate-level business schools for executives, business leaders and functional managers – is emerging as both a market demand and a business imperative.

Dr. Abdulaziz Al Horr, chief executive officer at the Qatar Finance and Business Academy (QFBA) agrees. “The Middle East economy is rapidly evolving and diversifying, laying immense importance on vocational, executive and business education,” he says. “These play a vital role in ensuring continued access to a highly trained workforce and in maintaining competitive, world-class skills as the region grows and continues to diversify. The expected influx of professionals into the region will also drive demand for post-experience education, with employers being put under pressure to acquire and retain top talent and skills.”



“The evidence from our own experience in the region is that the demand for world-class business education is strong and sustained,” confirms Randa Bessiso, director – Middle East at the Manchester Business School. She says they add around 200 new students each year to their Global Part-time MBA programme, and there is also increasing interest in the Talent Management Partnership (TMP) programmes that the Manchester Business School offers to organisations. “The Middle East offers exceptional opportunities and experiences, and access to world class education supports the attractiveness of the region as a destination to build a serious long-term career for talented professionals,” she adds.

That Global Part-time MBA programme, which the Manchester Business School offers its Middle Eastern students, is a good example of two clear trends in executive education in the region. It is a 30-month programme, designed to offer students a choice of four learning pathways and range of electives to enable a more tailored experience. It blends self-study, group projects and face-to-face workshops, providing what Bessiso describes as “the flexibility to allow students to adjust their studies to accommodate their work and other life commitments”.

This blended learning model has become increasingly popular around the world and across the region. “We are very pleased to have enrolled over 150 Qatar-based students onto the Global Part-time MBA programme since we launched the MBS Middle East Centre in Dubai in 2006,” says Bessiso, adding that students generally study an MBA to accelerate their careers, switch roles or become entrepreneurs. “The vast majority of our students are self-funded, but we find that students are often promoted or acquire greater responsibilities from their employers very quickly after starting the programme. The MBA programme makes an immediate impact on their confidence and competence, which is quickly recognised and rewarded,” she adds.



William McDonald is director of outreach, Executive Education at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. Speaking to The Edge, McDonald explains the shift in focus between early-career education and executive education. “Training and early career professional development in most sectors is linear. One must gain an understanding of the functional areas of his/her role and their sector. However, moving up into leadership requires a broader understanding of other sectors,” he says.

According to McDonald, government leaders from ministries need to engage people in private sector; private sector leaders need to understand public policy and government affairs as they move up into international positions in their industry; and those leading in the non-profit sector often engage with senior leaders from these other sectors. “True leadership that addresses today’s multi-dimensional, global problems – from migration to economic integration to human rights – requires cross-sector leadership. This is one aspect that spans all of our programmes,” he explains.

The Graduate Institute, Geneva, offers several modular-designed short courses, Executive Certificates and Executive Masters that target mid-career working professionals. While these are accessible to executives based in Qatar, the courses themselves are delivered in Geneva. “They are designed as ‘multi-stakeholder’ trainings, so we have members of government, business professionals from private sector and international non-profit organisations joining the courses,” says McDonald.

McDonald adds that he has noticed a growing demand for courses which instruct students at “the crossroads between business and international affairs” – by which he means trade, investment, human rights and public policy.



PwC’s Academy tailors its programmes in the Middle East to address the region’s focus development areas. “We recently launched two programmes in Qatar,” says PwC’s Line. “[Our] Mini MBA is aimed at developing business and management skills in executives; and PwC’s Effective Board Member is a leadership programme for corporate governance practitioners.” Line points out that PwC’s Mini MBA programme offers the knowledge, tools, and skills sets delivered in a traditional MBA programme in an accessible three-month session.

On the other hand, PwC’s Effective Board Member is a certificate programme designed for those people who want to learn more about corporate governance and raise their profile to ensure they stand out when applying for board positions. “It covers the skills, knowledge and behaviour needed to improve competence in governance. Through a blend of classroom learning, role play and an interactive board spread over five days, the programme is delivered as an in-house customised training for our corporate clients,” she adds. 

Across the region, there is a clear demand for customised training, designed specifically for individual companies. QFBA, for instance, designs and delivers bespoke programmes for companies and business organisations. Says Al Horr,“We work with our corporate clients to design a learning process around current and future critical business issues facing the organisation; and we then work with the client to translate this into a training solution using innovative and relevant learning methodologies.” He mentions that their Open Programmes are designed for working professionals, and are part-time or short-term courses – some of which are even scheduled after office hours.

“Most of our training delivery, however, is in face-to-face classroom training,” Al Horr adds.

Elsewhere, HEC Paris has produced more alumni in CEO positions within Fortune Global 500 companies than any other European business school, according to The Times Higher Education Alma Mater Index 2013 (See interview, page 76). Laoucine Kerbache, dean and CEO of HEC Paris Qatar, says, “With our long and proven experience in sound academic content and management practices, along with our in-depth understanding of the dynamics at work in the region, we have tailor-designed our programmes to the needs and requirements of this market.”

As evidence of this, HEC Paris Qatar recently introduced bespoke executive management programmes for Family Owned Businesses (FOBs). “These programmes are specifically tailored for key decision-makers, from board level to middle management,” Kerbache explains. “In respecting the overarching aspect of family privacy, these programmes strike a delicate balance between preserving deeply-rooted family values and traditions with contemporary models of management, innovation and market dynamics.”

These FOB programmes also demonstrate – simply through their existence – the changing nature of executive education in the Middle East. As the world changes, the skills requirements of businesses and business leaders change too. By offering flexible academic solutions, designed and customised to meet specific needs, the region’s business schools are helping to ease its CEOs’ skills shortage concerns.

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