Online education was not new for HBS, as we had developed asynchronous learning and had been developing the HBS Live Online Classroom optimized for remote learning.

We are now welcoming students back to campus, and we couldn't be happier about it. With the campus slowly returning to normal, we wanted to take a minute to share some of the key lessons we've learned over the past year and a half.

1. Lifelong learning is more important today than ever.

The pandemic disrupted much more than learning. Businesses struggled (and still struggle) with uncertain supply chains, with keeping their workers safe, and with sudden shifts in customer behavior. Of course, the business environment was changing rapidly before 2020. Globalization, new technologies, climate change, and other trends were already disrupting markets.

The pandemic offered just one very visible example of the emerging challenges business leaders face on a daily basis. That's why today's leaders cannot afford to stop learning. I am a swimmer, so I think about it this way: I can always improve my technique. I can do some of this on my own, but I also need to let others observe me and give me feedback. That is how I improve. Whether prompted by insight from a trainer, a teacher, or a peer in a classroom, it's important for all of us to challenge ourselves to do better and learn something new.

HBS Executive Education exists to help executives anticipate and respond to situations that arise—no matter how unpredictable they might be. We constantly adapt our offerings in response to a changing business world—not only by constantly refreshing the curriculum of existing programs, but also by creating new programs.

2. Adversity can bring out the best in teams.

When the pandemic hit, employees had to adapt quickly to new ways of working and living. The HBS Executive Education team went into action, and the team's ability to adapt has been wonderful to watch. We changed direction quickly, executing an all-virtual portfolio of programs. We leveraged new technologies to ensure a smooth transition to virtual learning. We experimented with changes such as reducing the size of discussion groups for better engagement, we found new ways for participants to network virtually, and we took advantage of increased access to case protagonists due to travel restrictions.

At the same time, HBS faculty continued core activities in a remote manner: conducting research, developing cases, and bringing the resulting insights into every program.

All across the world, companies were similarly innovating in response to the pandemic—and illuminating the many great things that can be accomplished in the face of monumental obstacles.

3. Remote learning and work is here to stay.

Though the pandemic is not fully behind us, many organizations are starting to return to in-person work. But organizations are also rethinking their overall model of working. Under what circumstances do people need to come to the office or meet in person? Does an organization need to provide office space for all of its employees? What does this mean for the future of work? Different organizations seem to be arriving at different conclusions, and we are only beginning to see the effects.

At HBS Executive Education, we are more than ready to return to in-person learning. We know the experience we offer in on-campus programs—where participants get away from their work/home environment, reside together in living groups, share meals and social activities, and have intensely fruitful one-on-one discussions with peers and faculty—cannot be replicated 100% in remote learning. And we will continue to offer some programs in a blended continuous format with a mix of full-time, live online and on-campus learning.

We continually challenge ourselves to make our programs accessible to more people around the globe. Over the past decade, we have presented in-person learning experiences in India, China, Africa, and other places. And now, the success of our virtual programs has shown us we have another way to make our Executive Education offerings more accessible. As we shape the future of HBS Executive Education, a robust set of virtual programs will likely remain a part of our offerings for years to come.

4. Not all online learning is the same.

Executives are curious and are willing to try a lot of things to achieve their goals. What they are discovering is that many different types of online learning exist—with vastly different levels of quality. Not all of them offer a good return on investment.

For example, I enjoy watching science documentaries on television. When the show ends, I feel like I know so much more! But an hour later, I've forgotten most of it. Fortunately, that knowledge is not crucial to my work and life. But the executives who attend our programs need to be able to internalize and retain what they have learned. We want to make sure they can use the insights acquired in our programs to take real action for their businesses. To achieve that goal, we have to do much more than create slick videos.

At HBS, we have brought the case method, exercises, simulations, and other aspects of our proven learning approach into our virtual programs. I am particularly excited to see the case method—which puts participants in the shoes of decision makers and forces them to make tough choices and defend their actions—succeed in a virtual setting. We are excited to mark 2021 as the centennial year of the case method and look forward to even more case-related innovation.

At the same time, our experience designing and delivering virtual programs has taught us a great deal that we can apply to our in-person programs. For example, we have discovered that blended components can significantly enhance the learning in all of our programs—including those delivered on campus.

Participants have told us they received great value from their learning experiences in our virtual programs. We will continue to ensure that both our virtual and in-person programs deliver value through direct relevance to the challenges business leaders face.

5. Engagement is critical to the learning experience.

Many organizations have discovered how well people can work together online—and so have we. The success of our virtual programs has shown that people can have very meaningful interactions over long distances when presented with the right tools for collaboration and discussion.

Whether presented online or in person, our programs are designed to facilitate communication among participants and faculty to improve the impact of the learning. But executives must also be committed to communication, too. By being a good observer and listener and working to understand other people and their challenges, you will become a better learner—and will become better at helping others to learn and improve.

Ready for What Comes Next

What's next for HBS Executive Education? We need to remain as flexible as possible as the pandemic evolves. Our experience has given us confidence that whatever comes our way, we will continue to deliver top-notch learning experiences. We will just continue to adapt along the way.

Luis M. Viceira

About the Author

Luis M. Viceira is the George E. Bates Professor in the Finance Unit; the Senior Associate Dean for Executive Education at Harvard Business School; and the Senior Associate Dean, for HBS Online