Bricks (and Clicks) and Mortar

Despite the increasing use of virtual and social network-based learning methods, companies are making large-scale investments in their physical corporate university spaces. Designing special rooms to enhance collaboration and reflection, global organizations such as Whirlpool and General Electric (GE) are placing a premium on face-to-face learning not by replacing instructor-led or classroom learning with technology-based options but by leveraging technology to enhance the learning experience and maximize classroom investments.

Whirlpool’s corporate university, which sits on 120 acres, has 50 hotel rooms, a 10,000-square-foot great hall and a lodge-like resort, opened in 1994. In 2008, leaders took another look at learning delivery methods to assess where changes were needed. At that time, 98 percent of learning was in the classroom, but Tamara Patrick, global director of Whirlpool University, said the company had to start using the virtual world in a way that went beyond blended learning.

Whirlpool developed its closed loop learning approach, which incorporates four elements into every program: leverage virtual space, use traditional classroom learning, ensure ways to apply and practice new skills and hold managers accountable by improving their coaching abilities and the tools they need to promote employees’ use of these skills.

“We feel very strongly about the physical space,” Patrick said. “It’s an excellent place for reflective learning. Content delivered there is primarily around leadership development and strategic levers like innovation and go-to-market skills, cost and quality, Six Sigma, action learning, higher-level skill building, networking, role playing and applying skills learned online.”

During the past few years the corporate university also has been redesigned to promote informal, collaborative learning via special nooks and rooms designated for conversation and by replacing solid doors with glass. Patrick said it’s Whirlpool’s way of mimicking the movement toward online social networking in person. In 2010 the company installed a “classroom of today” in one of its major training rooms. The classroom is technology-enabled with interactive whiteboards, polling systems and high-definition audio and video conferencing to connect colleagues and bring in external faculty or subject matter experts as needed. All of these learning delivery methods should enhance the classroom experience and engage the learner, particularly during action learning projects.

GE’s Crotonville campus in New York also has undergone what Jeff Barnes, director of the company’s global leadership development team, calls tremendous changes. Those changes include the physical facility — with more space for individual gatherings, reflection and more rooms to accommodate more learners in the years to come — but also include changes in content and learning approach.

Janice Semper, manager of executive development at GE, said the organization is looking at class design and content not only to enhance the learner experience but to ensure learning is contemporary and aligned with the company’s values and leadership model.

“People can get a lot of content outside the classroom,” Barnes said. “They can do a lot of the theory through e-learning and social media, but we find in this global world there is such a need for people to gather together to have a chance to meet leaders in person — one of our key components is leaders in the classroom — and there’s a huge advantage in people thinking and reflecting together and talking about how to take theories and concepts and apply them on the job.”

Because time is scarce, it’s critical not to waste face-to-face learning opportunities but to ensure they are spent connecting learners to the company and to each other in cross-functional courses. “Sitting with colleagues from different parts of the organization, [learners] get the bigger company mission and feel like they’re part of the story,” Semper said. “That helps not only to develop their skill set but to inspire them to go back and change their behavior.”

The changes at Crotonville began in 2009 as GE was updating its company values to align fully with the rigors and demands of modern business. Semper said the organization recognized that “You can’t teach 21st century leadership in a 20th century way or a 20th century environment. We want to make sure Crotonville reflects how we think about leadership today.”

Physical changes to the Crotonville space began in summer 2011. The first phase should be complete in spring 2012, with a second phase to be completed by the end of 2013.