The Skills Gap and the Near-Far Problem in Executive Education and Leadership Development

by Das Narayandas and Mihnea Moldoveanu

Overview — An increasingly obvious and costly gap has emerged between the skills that executives need in order to cope with the volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and complex business landscape and the skills being imparted by executive development programs. Providers of these programs need to focus on cultivating skills least susceptible to digital distributed delivery in ways that will make them most relevant to the greatest number of contexts. In addition, skills that are difficult to articulate and translate into formulas will benefit from focused, heavily social learning environments supported by constant reinforcement from savvy facilitators and motivated peers.

Author Abstract

Executive development programs have entered a period of rapid transformation, driven on one side by the proliferation of a new technological, cultural, and economic landscape commonly referred to as “digital disruption” and on the other by a widening gap between the skills and capabilities participants and their organizations demand and those provided by the executive program itself. We document—on the basis of transcripts of some 100 interviews with Fortune 500 executives—a current and growing awareness of a mismatch between executive development offerings and the skill sets executives need in a volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and complex (VUCA), Web 2.5-enabled economy. We show that a trio of forces of digital disruption—specifically the disintermediation of the services of instructors and facilitators, the disaggregation of the previously bundled experiences that constitute an executive program, and the decoupling of the sources of value participants derive from any one experience—together open up the executive education industry to a radical restructuration. We argue that any consequential strategic action on the part of providers must address two major current gaps: the gap between the skills required by participants and those provided by suppliers (“the skills gap”) and the gap that separates skill acquisition from skill application (“the skills transfer gap”). We canvass the literature on skill measurement, acquisition, and transfer to establish the enduring power of these distinctions in explaining the success of various training and education programs. We use these distinctions to structure the landscape of strategic decisions that both organizations committed to organizational development and providers of executive development programs must in very short order make.

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