Learning Never Stops

By Robert Gunther

After earning their degrees, Wharton alumni finds ways to keep learning

When Mike Rechtiene, WG’93, joined Wharton classmates for a 10th reunion dinner on the top floor of the new Huntsman Hall in May, they marveled at how much the world had changed since graduation. Most of them had left Wharton ten years earlier without Palm Pilots, cell phones, laptops, or e-mail addresses. Technological changes over the decade have accelerated life, work, and learning.

“We have to continue learning just to keep up with what is going on in the business world – or just the world – since we have been in school,” said Rechtiene, now Executive Director of Immunology Sales at Centocor, talking on his cell phone while crawling along in a traffic jam on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Rechtiene felt the full impact of these changes when, at the height of the Internet boom, he was asked to figure out an e-business strategy at Centocor. “I had spent eight years in marketing but had very little technology or technology strategy background,” he said. This new challenge brought him back to Wharton’s classrooms to join an innovative executive program called The Wharton Fellows, which was then focused on e-business.

He also has carried his passion for learning to others. Starting in March 2002, he has brought more than 70 managers from Johnson & Johnson (Centocor’s parent) to Wharton’s campus for a custom executive education program in marketing. He also has taught introductory marketing in Wharton’s Management Program for more than seven years.

At Centocor, Rechtiene now finds himself in the midst of another fast-moving, emerging technology. “There is a high need to innovate in a business sense as well as a scientific sense,” he said. “For example, as these new biotechnology products hit the market, they create new challenges for reimbursement. There are tremendous business challenges around forecasting new therapies and making decisions about plants and equipment to build them. It is living with ambiguity.”

What became of his MBA degree? “I find I still use my MBA on a regular basis,” he said. “Those foundations don’t change. In fact, when new things come along like the Internet, a solid foundation in marketing, economics, and other areas allows you to innovate around those changes even better. The foundations don’t change, but you need to interpret the foundation for your current environment.”

The Grail: Lifelong Education

The very term “master” in Master of Business Administration implies a certain finality to the achievement. Yet with rapid shifts in technology and globalization, and even faster shifts in careers, earning a degree – graduate or undergraduate – is often just the beginning of a learning process. While the need for ongoing education has become increasingly clear over the past few decades, solutions are still emerging. Over the past few decades, life-long learning has become the Grail of executive education, and, like the Grail quest, the goal has sometimes been vague and the path to it a winding one. As the Economist observed in 1998, “As an ideal, ‘life-long learning’ is up there with peace, justice, and motherhood. Turning this fine idea into practice, however is not simple.”

Through a variety of formal and informal channels, Rechtiene and many other Wharton alumni are continuing to learn after earning their formal degrees. Some tap into networks at work or among classmates. Some find that 10 or 15 years after earning their degree, they need a “refresher” to stay ahead of business innovation or prepare for leadership roles in their organizations through programs such as the five-week Advanced Management Program (AMP). Wharton has experimented with new models and technologies to meet the needs of executives in developing new educational platforms such as the Fellows program and channels such as distance learning.

Why is ongoing education needed? Technology is advancing rapidly. Information is expanding. Globalization has created demands for new knowledge about cultures, languages, and business practices. What is perhaps even more significant, however, is that the work we do is changing far more rapidly than in the past. “Organizational change happens faster so there is a very good chance you will be doing different jobs,” said Peter Cappelli, George W. Taylor Professor of Management and Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. “Within the same job, you are asked to do a broader range of things. Companies change directions more quickly. The big consensus is that if you let your own skills become obsolete, if you become a ‘legacy employee,’ you are in trouble.”

While shifting work responsibilities sometimes requires retooling of knowledge in new areas, sometimes what is needed is more perspective. This is one of the reasons why executives come back for a program like the AMP. “They are often people who are maki ng career changes within the same organization,” said Cappelli, who is one of three academic directors of the Wharton AMP. “They are getting ready to go into senior management positions and need to broaden their perspectives because they have been in silos. In this case, it is not keeping skills up to date as much as broadening perspective.”

What Happens Next? Answering His Own Question

The world was quite different when Bob Mittelstaedt, Jr., earned his MBA at Wharton in 1972. There was no Steinberg Conference Center on the corner of 38th and Spruce. There was no Aresty Institute of Executive Education bringing thousands of managers to campus every year. There was no Wharton AMP. There was no Fellows program.

There was just an unanswered question.

As Mittelstaedt finished his degree, he visited two of the faculty members he had worked most closely with during the preceding two years – Gerald Hurst and Bill Hamilton. Sitting in each of their offices, he asked them a parting question: “This MBA program has been a terrific experience, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount; but how do I keep up after this?” The answers he received more than a quarter century ago were fairly “mushy.” He was told to read articles and watch certain journals. “In no case did the idea that five years from now you should take an executive education course get mentioned,” he said.

Back then, the early executive education programs that did exist, such as Wharton’s very successful Finance and Accounting for the Non-Financial Manager, were designed primarily for working managers who had never gone to business school. “As an engineer, I felt this experience of earning my MBA had opened up my mind in a whole bunch of different directions I hadn’t thought of before,” Mittelstaedt said. “I knew that I was leaving an environment where there is all this stuff to be soaked up. I knew I’d go away and get focused on a job and would not be likely to continue to learn in that way.”

Today, the set of answers to Mittelstaedt’s question of how to continue to learn has become much richer. Without consciously setting out to, he has helped to answer his own question. After continuing his formal and informal education at Wharton and in industry, he returned to campus in 1990 as vice dean and director of executive education. Under his leadership, Wharton has built one of the largest executive education programs of its kind, with more than 8,000 participants annually.

Today, there is a stronger sense that a degree is not the end of the learning process, but the beginning. “You got the best MBA in the world, but if it is more than 15 years old, even the best is outdated,” said Mittelstaedt, who still has books from his MBA courses on a shelf in his office. The core frameworks and knowledge from an MBA course in finance, for example, are still very relevant. “The difference today is that there are so many more vehicles available for financing and approaching a project, such as using reinsurers and financial instruments and techniques that didn’t exist thirty years ago,” he said.

A lot of learning still occurs on the job, but education can accelerate that learning process by creating a context for the new knowledge. “The MBA degree is a career accelerator, whether students recognize it or not,” Mittelstaedt said. “You have reached a point in your career where you want to accelerate your knowledge about business and the MBA gives you a jump. After a period of time, you need another burst of acceleration. Through executive education, you can accelerate the learning and improve the clarity of it. We provide deep insight and perspective.”

You Never Graduate

Jerry Wind, Lauder Professor and professor of marketing, first started teaching at Wharton in 1967, back when the Soviet Union was still a world power and man had yet to set foot on the moon. Over the years, he has helped initiate a series of educational innovations at Wharton – including the executive MBA program for working managers, the Lauder Institute for international studies, and reforms of the MBA curriculum, as well as founding and directing the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management, the first “think tank” on the future of management education.

His current brainchild, the Wharton Fellows, arose directly out of discussions with senior executives about the difficulty of keeping up with new knowledge and business transformations such as e-business and biosciences. The Fellows represents one of the most ambitious and creative attempts to develop a true platform and network for life-long learning. There is pointedly no graduation ceremony for the Fellows program. “You don’t graduate from the Fellows,” Wind said. “You are inducted into the Fellows. The Wharton Fellows is built around a collaborative process between faculty and Fellows. About half of the 100 executives who have joined the Fellows are involved in continuing to refine both the content and structure of the program. “The network of Fellows is two way,” he said. “We tell them about new research we are coming up with, and they identify challenges important to them so we can work together to develop solutions. We put together Fellows, faculty and experts. There is not an assumption that faculty know everything. This is a different concept of what education is.”

True to its focus, the program itself has been completely transformed since its inception – several times – in response to the input of executives and changes in the business environment. It started as a series of three, one-week foundation sessions focusing on e-business transformation followed by a series of shorter programs held in locations a round the world. The Fellows program has evolved into a continuous series of short “masters classes” targeting pressing emerging business topics, and offers members resources via an ongoing decision support network. “The objective and focus are the same, but the structure and content are changing dramatically,” Wind said. “As the needs of the world change so dramatically, it is tough to provide the right education in the bounds of a traditional program.”

Why the Virtual University Hasn’t Gone the Distance

In January 1995, speakers at a conference on the “virtual university” sponsored by Wharton’s SEI Center and Penn’s School of Engineering said the university was a dinosaur and that these academic institutions should pack up their ivy – covered walls and go home. Online education, like everything else on the Internet, was supposed to transform the way we live and learn. Like most of the dot-com hype, there was an element of truth in these insights, but the truth was much smaller and less dramatic than its proponents originally thought.

For lifelong education, new technology-based educational platforms – such as distance learning through Internet and satellites and interactive CD-ROM courses – were particularly promising. Part of the challenge of ongoing education for managers is that they need to take time away from work and family to travel to a program on a schedule dictated by the teacher, not the student. Distance learning offered the promise of learning that was close at hand, when you needed it. Like new lean manufacturing approaches to managing inventory, this would be “just-in-time” learning. Instead of stockpiling knowledge that you might need years later, you’d have the knowledge on tap when and where you needed it. Learning could be fluid and continuous.

Most leading universities created distance learning programs, and private firms crowded onto the educational landscape, bankrolled by streams of venture capital. Wharton created its own experiment in this area called Wharton Direct. Recognizing the value of classroom interaction, it was built around a set of local classrooms across the United States, linked by technology to teachers in a studio at Wharton. While Mittelstaedt expected this would be a small venture, the slow or disappointing results of all these online initiatives surprised everyone. “What we learned was that it is possible to produce an extraordinary product in terms of quality and interaction, yet you simply can’t duplicate the in-person experience in networking, the absorption of learning, structure, and process,” said Mittelstaedt. The level of engagement is not there in online education, particularly in a closed office. It is like what happens during a conference call, where participants check e-mail or look at papers during the call. Coming together in the same room is a completely different experience.

Interactive learning technologies still have valuable roles to play. For specific knowledge, technology-based programs can offer a low-cost alternative to classroom learning. They can bring a dispersed pharmaceuticals sales force up to speed on a new product very quickly, for example, but aren’t the ideal platform for learning about advanced thermodynamics, English literature or leadership.

Technology now provides a valuable supplement to in-class learning through pre-program education or post-course interactions and networking. The technology continues to develop, with the spread of broadband, development of Internet 2, and design innovations such as the simulations, Web-based exercises, and interactive programs developed at Wharton’s Alfred P. West, Jr. Learning Lab. The products of the lab, established in 2001 to explore new approaches to learning, allow students to engage ininteractive experiences such as securities trading, setting airline prices, or managing oil production in developing countries.

There is still much more work to be done, and there will be new developments in technology and design that will change education and learning. Early experiments in technology-based education, however, indicate that it may not be the solution it was thought to be to the challenge of life-long learning. An unanticipated byproduct of this work is that it has given educators and students a new appreciation for the classroom. This was an emphatic demonstration that the process of education involves much more than transferring information from teacher to student. It is built upon immersion, interaction, and engagement. The context for education is as important as the content. Technology offers platforms for collaboration.

Learning as a Way of Being

While the formal channels for lifelong education have continued to develop, much of the learning that goes on after undergraduate and MBA degrees is informal. Graduates tap into networks of peers from school, work, or professional associations. Meetings such as the Wharton Regional Alumni Meeting in Berlin in late May help alumni keep up with current business issues, and other alumni. “Having the forum in Berlin was a timely reminder of how important the political sphere can be for business success,” said William Erb, a 1989 Lauder Institute graduate and Executive Vice President and Regional Director-Japan of Amersham Health in London. “I welcomed the opportunity to get insights into successful corporate strategies of companies like Fujitsu-Siemens, Beiersdorf, and Deutsche Post. Many of the speakers at the conference seemed concerned that Germany could risk squandering the wealth that it has created since war (with negative consequences for all of Europe and beyond) unless German political leaders showed courage in tackling the structural problems with the economy.”

Many alumni pursue even more informal channels for education. After working in consulting, Jerry Michalski, WG’85, became a reporter for Esther Dyson’s Release 2.0, giving him a ringside seat on the development of the Internet and other emerging technologies. He is also an eclectic learner and traveler, and some of his most memorable courses at Penn we re on topics such as the ethnography of speaking and the history and theory of urban design.

Technology offers platforms for collaboration. Michalski points to the wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org/) as an example. It is an interactive encyclopedia project in which anyone can add entries. Online interactions through multipart y weblogs are another source of learning. “My community of friends online is my most important source of new ideas,” Michalski said. “If you haven’t found a multiparty weblog in your area of interest, you should build one. Weblogs are some of the best sources of random interesting things, like the stories you see in the newspaper that are next to the story you are interested in.”

Among his semi-formal learning activities is “Jerry’s Retreat,” an annual invitation-only, agenda-free event that he has held since 1996. He invites about 400 people to the gathering based on two criteria: that he experienced some kind of “aha” moment with them and that they have “good intent.” One of the standing features of the activity is for participants to bring a book to share that has changed their thinking. The event grew out of a realization that a lot of learning goes on in the white spaces of formal conferences. “We’d spend a year producing a conference and realized afterward that the coffee breaks were the best part,” Michalski said. “So we designed a conference that would be like the coffee breaks.”

What has Michalski learned since graduation? If you are really interested in the answer to the question, you can look inside his “brain” yourself. He has organized his knowledge of the past five years through a visual software program called “The Brain,” which he published online for all to see (follow the links at www.sociate.com). He notes that this visual format is not for everyone, but having some way to gather knowledge, forge connections among different ideas, and access it quickly is important to continuing the learning experience.

Learning About Learning

The options for lifelong learning continue to expand as Wharton itself keeps learning about learning. Wharton’s undergraduate and MBA degrees have been shaped and reshaped, and new opportunities for post-degree learning continue to be developed. “There is no single solution to lifelong education,” said Wind. “Wharton has engaged in developing a portfolio of options, and we continue to develop new options. We are creating a decision support system that will help participants to address issues ‘just in time’ instead of ‘just in case.’ As Benjamin Franklin says, we combine the theoretical with the practical. We are also looking at more ways of linking these different programs together to meet the needs of managers throughout their careers.”

How do you keep up with new knowledge?

Knowledge Through Networking

“I think you gain knowledge through networking. I learn from a couple of professional organizations, including a treasurers club and an private equity CFO organization. The CFO organization has its own website so if someone has a question, they can send it out to members. After a couple weeks, it comes back with all the responses. When I was at Wharton 25 years ago, people didn’t have PCs. I was one of the lucky ones to have a financial calculator. In these times, learning is more important than ever.”

Robert M. Hannon, WG’78
Vice President, Finance and Administration, Ticonderoga Capital
Wellesley, MA

Keeping Ahead

“From ’83 when I graduated until ’95 or ’96, there were no major changes in the way business was taught. After the Internet and the bubble, the world changed, so I decided to join the first Wharton Fellows class because I realized I had to understand what was going on and keep ahead. In 1994, I also was invited to join the Wharton Latin American Board, which has kept me involved with what is happening at Wharton and the University. Nowadays, the biggest challenge is time to digest all the information available and use it in one’s favor. You need to plan ahead and beat competition. When I add it all up in my mind, I need a piece of paper to remember and act fast. I even keep a pen and paper beside my bed.”

Claudio Engel, WG’83, Fellows ’00
Managing Director, F.H. Engel, SA
Santiago, Chile

Pulling Out the Old Textbooks

“There is so much turnover in the job market right now, I learn a lot from my colleagues. Once a quarter, they organize seminars at work where one person will talk about a problem they had and how they fixed the problem. I still use my MBA…I never thought I would use so much of it. I still have my text books, and I have used them in the past year.”

Suezann Holmes, WG’98
Alvarez & Marsal
London, England

Gaining Deeper Knowledge

“I went on to earn my PhD in finance and then taught at universities for 17 years, so I continued learning. I left the university to join a hedge fund in 1998 and then started my own company. At NYU, I designed a six-semester MBA curriculum to provide time for more depth. In the MBA, I learned the vocabulary of business, but the PhD was at a completely different level.”

Jamie Cuevas Dermody, PH.D., WG’78
Principal, Financial Engineering LLC
Delray Beach, FL

Sharing Ideas

“I learn through networking with other people in the field. We also have an association that meets several times per year. It is a good way to get to know your counterparts and share ideas.”

Lynn Rawlings, WG’83
Assistant Treasurer, Laclede Gas Company
St. Louis, MO

A Continuous Process

“I think of learning as a continuous process. I spent eight years in management consulting, which is a great place for continuous learning because it puts you in different environments and different industries. At the end of the day, your job is to focus on how to help the client solve a problem. I now learn through staying current on my reading and actively engaged in management discus- sions, networking with my peers who are in different industries and environments, lever- aging learning, and always looking for better ideas that may be applicable. We have an active learning network in our organization, including about 20 Wharton alums who have gotten there through different paths.”

Tracey G. Amos, WG’93
Director, Single Family Mortgage Business, Fannie Mae
Washington, DC

Wharton Magazine - Background

Type to Search

See all results