At a time when enrollment in executive MBA programs is flat or declining, customized courses have become a growth industry. This brand of executive education involves an intricate collaboration between business schools and their corporate clients. The resulting course work focuses on the real problems the company has faced or is expecting to confront, and associated faculty often know as much--if not more--about the client companies than the executives who work for them.

"Our notion is that we are at the bridge between theory and practice," says Linda Ginzel, who is both academic director of corporate education and clinical professor of managerial psychology at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

Subjects being taught range from up-to-the-minute reports on developing markets and information technology to basic courses on marketing and finance, although usually the courses stress "soft" topics (problem solving, strategic thinking, negotiating skills) over technical expertise. Some programs take an afternoon, while others involve up to eight weeks out of the office in a one-year period. Some schools use faculty members, while others choose adjuncts with current hands-on business experience, or sometimes even host guest faculty from another institution to fill a company's needs. Courses can be taught on the university campus or the corporate campus, or at off-site hotels or conference centers.

Following are several examples of this new collaboration.

BTR, Plc.: Seeking Fresh Course Content In the early '90s, North American operations of BTR, Plc. faced a world-class challenge. With some 100 companies and 27,000 employees in North America, BTR was finding it increasingly difficult to recruit outside executives. "The problem was that with the shortage of talent worldwide, we needed to start home-growing our own general managers," says Jack Monahan, director of executive development and staff.

At the corporation's United Kingdom base, the company was relying on executive education to groom potential managers. Monahan was charged with translating that program from the Queen's English into the American vernacular. After examining the offerings of 20 universities and several training companies, he chose to go with the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business and Economics in Durham, N.H. for two reasons: "We liked their pragmatic approach to programming--in other words, their flexibility--and we liked their facilities [the New England Conference Center]."

As part of the program, since November 1995 BTR has been sending a select group of 16 or so executives to Europe for a program that meets one week every quarter for two years. Each week is devoted to a different subject area, covering such topics as interpersonal skills, finance, and international economics.

Monahan believes that BTR's executive education program is one of the finest in the country. "Some of the people we send to the UNH program are graduates of Harvard Business School. They have told me that they found this experience to be more pragmatic and project-oriented."

NORTHROP GRUMMAN: Facing a Changing Industry Northrop Grumman realized it would soon be facing a new marketplace in the early '90s. While the Los Angeles-based defense and aeronautics firm hoped that the U.S. government would remain its major customer, it was clear that in the post-Cold War era the Department of Defense would start behaving more like an ordinary commercial consumer. As a result, Northrop had to learn to act like a commercial seller.

The company looked around at business programs in its own Southern California backyard and selected the Anderson School at UCLA, in part because that school was willing to include faculty from its principal rival, USC, in the course. "We asked the Anderson School to put something together to give us a broader base," explains Dennis Rice, Northrop's vice president of planning. "Not Marketing 101, but something on a graduate level. We wanted to broaden our perspectives, to think in a different way."

Since initiating the intensive week-long course two years ago, Northrop has sent about 250 executives, with 30 to 45 students in each session. "We haven't gotten to the point where we can quantify overall results," says Rice, "but on the individual level, we feel very good about what we've seen. All students go back to their managers and give them a briefing about what they've learned and how they're going to apply it to their jobs."

Enrollment is drawn from all of the defense firm's many specialties, including engineering, finance, business development, law, and public relations, as well as from its diverse locations. As a result, Northrop has realized a secondary benefit: internal networking among employees who might otherwise never interact. "But that's a fringe benefit," insists Rice. "This is an intense course about marketing, not a rest and recreation type of activity."

MONSANTO CO.: Sharpening Its Business Edge Though there's no shortage of in-house science and technology experts at Monsanto Co., the company realized a couple of years ago that these same employees lacked necessary business knowledge. "We saw that we had a fair amount of technical people who didn't have a broad business background," notes Keith Colgrove, the St. Louis-based company's training and development manager for the U.S. agricultural sector. "And we were looking for a way for them to get that without having to send them to a two-year executive MBA program."

In 1996, the company turned to the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University. Together, they devised a three-week program on components of corporate strategy for 30 students, with the weeks widely separated to give the executives time to master what they'd learned and complete homework assignments. "The feedback from the program was very positive," says Colgrove. Although Monsanto has yet to repeat it, the company is considering doing so in 1999.

That would be about one year too early for the company to take advantage of the Olin School's response to the growing demand for its customized courses--a six-classroom, 65-guest room conference center whose principal function will be housing executive education programs like Monsanto's.

BLACKMAN KALLICK BARTELSTEIN, LLP: Building Big-Picture Skills The 200 or so accountants at Chicago-based Blackman Kallick Bartelstein, LLP, knew the firm's two specialty areas--accounting and tax law--backward and forward. Where they were a bit weak, according to managing partner Daniel Fensin, was in helping clients run their businesses--which was particularly important because most of the firm's clients are closely held mid-sized companies. "These people are entrepreneurs," comments Fensin. "They're focused on the next dollar. What they're not focused on is planning."

Fensin was skeptical about sending his accountants to business school. "Those courses tend to be very generic. They're not really effective," he says. While the firm's 25 partners did know the ins and outs of giving business advice to clients, he also doubted whether they were the best trainers.

The solution was to seek out a partnership with a local business school, Loyola University Chicago, to design a program specifically for the firm. What the school found, according to Roberta Jansen, director of Loyola's executive education program, was that the accountants "were good at math but tended to be introverted. What they needed was communication skills, so we worked with them on writing, negotiating, and on making presentations."

The first round of the Loyola course, begun in fall 1996, involved 12 people going to the Loyola campus once a week for a total of 20 half-day sessions. In the second round, the class size stayed the same but the course consisted of 10 full-day sessions. The second round also included a partner at each class.

The results are evident, according to Fensin. "Our accountants' understanding of our business has significantly improved, and they are much more proactive with our clients."

Three tips for those considering designing their own executive education programs:

1) Look for a school that will adjust its program to fit your needs--"The most important aspect to look for in an executive program is the ability to customize," says Lew Gildred, corporate development director at the Anderson School at UCLA.

2) Send a few employees to the school's open enrollment executive programs--That's why Monsanto Co. chose to do a program at the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis. "We have a good working relationship with the people who run the school's executive MBA program," comments Keith Colgrove, Monsanto's training and development manager for the U.S. agricultural sector.

3) Ask for written proposals from the schools you're considering--"It's amazing how much schools separate themselves in the proposal in terms of the level of professionalism, the level of service," says Stuart Greenbaum, the Olin School's dean. "Quality shows through."