In executive education, sustainability is all the buzz. In this particular case, it is not concerned with the ability of a financial or ecological system to carry on; rather, it’s about the ability of changes wrought in an educational experience to have an impact over time. Famously, training experiences, even transformational ones tend to have small measurable impact over periods as short as 6 months.

As a result, executive education institutions across the world are investing considerable money and effort in designing systems that transform learning events into learning processes. To a great extent, this requires participant preparation in advance of the classroom event, in addition to providing post-program support to increase their sense of accountability. We use one such system called Friday Fives ( with some of our programs. Simply put, it uses email to remind participants of the goals they established during the program, connects them with their coach or peers, and provides a variety of resources (video, text-based lessons, etc.) to help a person fulfill their goals.

Learning and development professionals everywhere know that there’s a problem with these systems: they are poorly used by participants. Except when post-work is linked to compensation, utilization rates can be quite low – in some cases fewer than 20% of participants will take advantage of all the resources available to them. Even executive coaching (and I’m prejudiced here), which has shown itself to be extremely powerful in helping people complete their goals, is terribly underused – even when it is freely available to participants.

Some recent efforts have seemed more promising. A few companies investing in leadership development have put effort into the creation of ongoing social networks of participants. These are often supported by the use of social media and the involvement of learning and development professionals to keep them going.

I’m not persuaded by and large because of some basic difficulties with the ideas so far

1.  Leaders who are involved in learning experiences are already very busy and are not likely to have much discretionary time if it’s not linked to the pile of things they already have to do.

2.  As soon as one returns to work from these experiences, the ambient noise of deadlines, demands, and disasters drowns out the small voice of good intentions.

3.  By and large, leaders already have existing social networks that require a certain amount of their time. There’s not much room for new connections that require new energy.

I think the critical dynamic is the social component, but it won’t be solved simply by creating new friendships or utilizing Web 2.0 technology. Follow-up that doesn’t build on existing social networks is never going to make much of a difference. It is my contention that we will begin seeing significant improvement in learning impact when we start building awareness of a leader’s existing influencers, supporters, and other social connections into our programs.

To suggest one tool: why wouldn’t faculty encourage the creation of simple network maps by each participant (either through widely available software or by the participant via pencil and paper)? Participants could track the influencers, supporters, mentors, and so forth who matter to them. That map then provides a guide to who should be included in helping participants keep their goals and implement intended changes. Network maps could be effective because they show just who should be enlisted to support and hold a leader accountable: those people who are already playing that role for the executive.

The wheel has been invented already – people already have a social network. Put it to work and we’ll see sustainable change coming out of learning experiences.

Your fond-of-sustainable-change friend,


Photo credit: Luc Viatour

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