More corporations are turning to business schools for tailored training and development programmes to raise the effectiveness of employees and carve out a competitive advantage. Business schools have seen the customised portion of their business grow by 20 per cent each year over the past five years as organisations are increasingly opting for tailor-made development programmes that integrate training specific to the needs of the business and industry at large, with all the key components of a general business education. 'People are more tactical about how they are using executive development education in Asia,' said Narayan Pant, dean of executive education at Insead Business School. Where companies once focused almost entirely on function-specific training due to the shortage of skills in Asia, firms are now looking at developing executives' competencies around the strategic direction of the business. 'If customised programmes are developed properly, you could see up to 10 times the return on investment in the first two years,' Professor Pant said. Management development programmes give executives the opportunity to take time away from the workplace and reflect on what they do, share experiences with others facing similar challenges, boost confidence, garner new ideas and insights, and achieve a better understanding of self and others, according to findings from the University of Reading's Henley Business School. The school's corporate clients include Canon, IBM and Shell. Some of the most common themes companies are keen to address include issues of strategy and change, leadership and the management and retention of Generation Y. In partnership with the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, Hong Kong-listed conglomerate New World Development last October launched a 15-month executive development programme in order to prepare its senior managers for the unprecedented change and challenges in today's business environment. Adrian Cheng, executive director of New World Development, said: 'There is an increasing need for the company to respond more strategically to new competitive pressures, globalisation and rapid changes in technology, customer behaviour and the social economic environment.' The programme employs many delivery techniques, including case discussions, team studies, exercises, lectures and video recordings, which aim to make the learning more engaged and less didactic. Hugh Evans, director of corporate learning at the Henley Business School, said: 'Executive development these days is much more about the learning than the teaching. 'Fifteen years ago, companies might have invited a guru speaker to deliver a lecture on their area of expertise, but the training is now more focused on the experience of participants and triggers dialogues that generate specific actions relevant to the participants,' Mr Evans said. More employers are deploying diverse training approaches to raise interest and maximise effectiveness. Some of the more innovative learning methods being used in Insead Business School's customised programmes include learning expeditions to different countries and companies to understand an issue of development at first hand. An introspective 360-degree-based assessment identifies an individual's strengths and weaknesses while the use of virtual PC-based simulation games drives people to learn. Jorge Choy, director of executive programmes at the Richard Ivey School of Business in Asia, said that despite the different learning techniques available to companies, practical learning remained the most widely used. 'Companies like to focus on learning by doing, so action-learning projects are common because executives can apply what they have learned to the workplace,' Mr Choy said. For example, in learning about team dynamics, executives might be divided into teams so that they can work together to solve complex problems and learn about conflict resolution in a team setting, he said. Other instances could include applying the acquired competencies to a specific area of the company's business and then making recommendations to the board on how best to tackle the issue. Though customised training ticks all the boxes in achieving an economy of scale and heightening effectiveness, it often lacks diverse perspectives. Mr Evans said: 'It is more difficult to get an external point of view from bespoke programmes because you are bringing together the culture of one company into the room and therefore creating a microcosm of the larger organisation.' An alternative format that has only just begun to emerge is a consortium-based programme that draws together participants from associated industries but different companies. This offers participants a broader vision, though this format is logistically harder to organise. With the global recession setting in, business schools are expecting a mix of responses to training and development initiatives in the next year, ranging from programme postponements to accelerated efforts as some firms are keen to develop their employees in a downturn. Regardless of the outcome, however, business schools remain confident that customised programmes will continue to grow in the long term in tandem with the competitive business landscape. 'A customised training programme increases the confidence of people who are good at their jobs, validates what they have been doing and allows them the opportunity to pick up new ideas and concepts for leadership,' Mr Evans said.