Corporate Universities: A Powerful Model for Learning

Corporate universities were first created in the late 1980s as an enhancement to traditional training departments. This new approach was designed to align the training arm of companies with the organizations’ vision and strategy.

Corporate universities can range from a training department looking to brand its offerings to divisions of companies that offer accredited degree programs. Sometimes the focus of a corporate university is on making the outsourcing of training a core competence, while in other cases, the training is developed by a team of learning professionals within the organization. Corporate universities offer a powerful model for learning that compels learners to grow and develop. Most importantly, they can have long-term positive effects on a company’s financial health and stability.

There are some important differentiators between the corporate university model and a traditional training department. The primary difference is that corporate universities are designed to align with the strategic initiatives of the corporation, while training departments tend to be more centered on offering open-enrollment classes that are in high demand. Some other differences are illustrated in Table 1.

Examining the differences between corporate universities and traditional training departments can illuminate many of the weaknesses that have often existed in a company’s learning model. Becoming a corporate university can strengthen the focus on learning and challenge corporate executives to think about how learning can affect their organizations.

Advantages of Using a Corporate University Model

  • Provides a powerful model for people to embrace.
    Most of us grew up in a group setting in school and found ourselves inspired to commit to a lifetime of learning. Those of us who went to a university likely deepened our commitment to learning as we challenged conventional ways of thinking. The corporate university name compels people to renew that commitment to learning and engage in their individual development in a meaningful way.
  • Offers a unique branding opportunity.
    Perhaps some of the most powerful advantages are derived from the marketing possibilities that a corporate university offers. There are opportunities to develop a university name, a logo, print publications, Web sites, degree or certification programs, faculty and guest faculty designations and communication vehicles. Branding can extend beyond the employees of the training team to include strategic partners, members of the value chain, outsourced training companies and local college and university programs.

    David Purves, director of Franchisee Training & Development at Sir Speedy, realizes this advantage in his organization. “The people at Sir Speedy have a very positive association with SSU (Sir Speedy University). I’m often told that people associate SSU with superb training and high-value programs. I was recently wearing one of our SSU sweatshirts at a Sir Speedy event and had multiple people asking how they could get their hands on one. People also love sharing best practices at our SSU-branded events and at our training programs.”

  • Engages senior executives in the process.
    There is no doubt in most CEOs’ minds these days that we’re in a knowledge age. The trouble often lies in determining how to capitalize on learning initiatives. Within a corporate university framework, executives must ask what kind of difference the learning needs to make in the company. These leaders must identify the company’s primary challenges and determine what skills and knowledge are needed to create strategic competitive advantage.
  • Decreased turnover.
    Employees are far more likely to stay with their employer if their individual development is kept at the forefront. People like to be challenged as an opportunity to grow their knowledge and skills, and the framework of a corporate university often provides the needed structure to emphasize ongoing learning. This framework can include individual development paths, certification programs or structured opportunities for career advancement.

    Development of a more efficient and effective staff goes far for the bottom line. The power of the corporate university is apparent. However, running a corporate university is not without its challenges. In any change, initiative or meaningful culture shift, there is bound to be resistance. The disadvantages must be identified before they can be overcome.

Disadvantages of Using a Corporate University Model

  • Name-only corporate universities damage the opportunity for impact.
    The model does offer strong branding, as indicated before. But, if not carefully planned, the branding can be to your detriment. Referring to your training department as a corporate university by name only does more harm than good. Learners can become cynical about learning, and the brand can become that the organization’s commitment to learning is insignificant and not an area of focus.

    In order to negate this potential disadvantage, ensure that you carefully plan the transition to becoming a corporate university. Determine what you want the brand to convey. Carefully guard your brand and only allow it to be used for those programs or initiatives that are compatible with your mission. This is particularly important when considering the quality of speakers or particular training programs. Sometimes other departments in the company may want to borrow your brand and use it for their programs. Be careful to allow this only when it makes sense to do so.

  • Criticism that the learning does not convey “real-world” scenarios.
    Many people have criticized higher education over the years for being removed from what happens in businesses today and for being too idealistic in its approach. The same criticisms are often flung at corporate universities. Using guest faculty and having a passion for designing training materials that are created from actual scenarios can go a long way toward deflecting these concerns.

    Purves found himself avoiding this potential criticism early on in his career with Sir Speedy. “When I first started at Sir Speedy, the most important thing to me was to have a realistic approach to training. I prioritized time spent in our operations higher than any other task early on. I visited many of our locations and took a hands-on approach to learning our business. I’ve also owned a couple of similar businesses in the past, which also helped me build case studies that came from actual situations.”

  • Added expenses.
    Building and maintaining a corporate university is not an inexpensive endeavor. Companies that have demonstrated a strong commitment to learning in their organizations by instituting a corporate university spend 2.5 percent of payroll on learning – double the U.S. national average. The costs will be justified when you get the return on your investment, but creating a corporate university brand without determining how you will measure and achieve results is not in the best interests of your company. The view should be on the long-term results that can be achieved, versus the short-term savings.

Top Dogs in the Corporate University Arena
Since corporate universities have been around for decades, there are many examples to hold up as models of best practices. Some prominent corporate universities include Charles Schwab University, Disney University, General Electric’s Crotonville, McDonald’s Hamburger University, Motorola University, Oracle University and University of Toyota.

Each of these training groups represents the best of breed in corporate universities. They tie their initiatives to their organizations’ strategies, use technology to enhance learning, partner with the right training providers to maximize their organization’s learning and measure their results.

Designing a Corporate University

  • Determine with the senior executive team how learning supports the organization’s strategy and vision.
  • Identify how to align the training function with each of the company’s initiatives.
  • Create a corporate university name, logo and brand.
  • Develop a vision, mission and values statement for the corporate university.
  • Determine key initiatives and measures of success.
  • Assess current team members’ strengths and commitment to the change process.
  • Work with your marketing group to create a marketing plan for the university.
  • Create a rollout plan for the corporate university and ensure that it touches every part of the organization.

Running a Corporate University

  • Make marketing a core competence.
    Work closely with your marketing group to brand your corporate university. Be passionate and tenacious about the brand of your university and how you are perceived by your customers and stakeholders. Consider how you will advertise programs and events, what type of research needs to be conducted, how public relations can benefit your cause (success stories and best practices from the front lines and leadership teams) and how you will price your services.
  • Operate like a business.
    In business, there are fundamental areas of practice: finance and accounting, sales and marketing, training, operations, administration, information technology, research and design and human resources. Create plans and have individuals who are responsible for each area of a traditional business. These may not be full-time jobs, but someone will be accountable for and passionate about a very important aspect of your corporate university.
  • Celebrate learning and use the power of recognition.
    It is human nature to love to be recognized. Use this human need to your advantage, and maximize the power of recognition to drive your cause. Use any internal communication vehicles to recognize those who have committed to learning and those who have contributed to others’ development. Post photos on your intranet of people, capture stories of best practices and successes from the field, and find avenues of public recognition that will acknowledge contributors.
  • Be facilitators of learning.
    If you think of your team as facilitators of learning and not necessarily as teachers, you will find that a multitude of possibilities emerge. Jack Welch of General Electric was the teacher much of the time for Crotonville’s leadership programs, but you can bet there were people behind the scenes who were critical to the learning. You may find that your executive team not only consists of wonderful instructors, but also that they are challenged by the process and that learning needs are more often considered in organizational plans. There are also bound to be people in your organization who are experts in their field, or closer to the action than you are, and your programs can have greater impact by maximizing their expertise.
  • Embrace technology.
    Many of the first corporate universities were started in Silicon Valley. They certainly understood the importance of utilizing technology to deliver distance learning and virtual learning economically and effectively. Using these technologies, learning can become both continuous and immediate. Additionally, travel expenses can be minimized, and diverse learner populations can be brought together as communities of practice like never before.
  • Think of learning as an ongoing process.
    Learning should be a process and not just an event or training program. Your corporate university needs to have the tools to help create success in your organization, and that means more than putting on a class. Determine how you will assess learners’ knowledge, skills and needs, provide opportunities to learn in multiple ways (instructor-led, online asynchronous, online synchronous) and utilize reinforcement tools, support functions and ways that individuals can validate what they have learned.
  • Consider offering certification or degree programs.
    Instead of thinking on a course-by-course basis, determine long-term development plans for your employees and offer the chance to obtain a professional certification or corporate university degree. These designations can be strictly based on the requirements of the corporate university, or the training group can receive third-party approval for their programs.

    At Sir Speedy, recognition comes in the form of a company-specific diploma after new franchise operators go through the extensive initial franchise training program and pass an exam. “One of our franchisees frequently says that he has two advanced degrees: one from Wharton and one from Sir Speedy. He says that the only one he’s ever made any money off of is his degree from Sir Speedy,” said Purves.

  • Evaluate your learning initiatives.
    The king of measurement when it comes to training is Donald Kirkpatrick. His four levels of evaluation are often used by companies to measure the results of their training. Kirkpatrick’s levels are: reaction (How did learners react to the training?), learning (How much did participants learn from the training?), behavior (How did behaviors change as a result of the training?) and results (What types of results did the training achieve?).

    In determining how you will define and measure success, consider the results you strive to achieve in terms of human resources (retention, development, etc.), the impact related to customers and stakeholders and how you will achieve results related to business goals and strategies.

  • Build communities of practice.
    A community of practice is a group of people who come together to capitalize on their collective knowledge on a given job role or function within a company. They can be either formal or informal and often use some type of technology to enable the collaboration. By building communities of practice, you enable your organization to be more innovative, as you create more opportunities for interaction and problem-solving. You are able to speed the time it takes to get knowledge out to various groups, since you can capture learning as it occurs and instantaneously give others access to it.

Creating Success
A lot can be accomplished in an organization through the powerful model of a corporate university. Better alignment with the company’s goals and initiatives, buy-in throughout the organization to emphasize learning and the utilization of a powerful brand concept to promote ongoing development are all possible. Customers and shareholders also benefit from corporate universities, as training professionals focus more intently on multiple paradigms of successful learning.

Table 1:

Training Departments

Corporate Universities

Run classes based on popularity and demand.

Align learning opportunities with the company’s initiatives.

Use e-learning as a cost-cutting device.

Utilize technology strategically in order to support and reinforce learning.

Outsource training to minimize full-time head count in the department.

Create outside partnerships to support organizational goals.

Executives view training as an expense that should be kept as low as possible.

Senior management is actively involved in the learning process and sees a commitment to learning as a competitive advantage.

Bonni Frazee is the vice president of New Horizons University, the corporate university for the world’s largest computer training company, New Horizons Computer Learning Centers Inc. Bonni may be reached at bonni.frazee@newhorizons.com.