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Strategy

Corporate Universities and Academic Institutions: Symbiotic Relationship or Broken System?

CLOs differ in opinion on the best way corporate universities should collaborate with academic institutions.

The Society for Human Resource Management defines a corporate university as “any educational entity that is a strategic tool designed to assist its parent organization in achieving its mission by conducting activities that cultivate individual and organizational learning, knowledge and wisdom.” The first corporate universities were created more than 60 years ago and, though changing, are still widely respected learning organizations.

Fred Harburg, former CLO of one of the first corporate universities, Motorola University, said there have been internal education training entities long before corporate universities even had a name. “They didn’t have the full breadth and scope of what we would call a corporate university, but they were certainly the foundation,” he said.

The partnership between corporate universities and academic institutions also has been changing. In 2000, when Harburg was still with Motorola, the firm’s corporate university partnered with Northwestern University to improve leadership development training. “We were recognizing that the old model made no sense given the business reality we were facing,” Harburg said.

Continuous Learning

Harburg said both Motorola senior leaders and Northwestern professors were given a say in the strategy, and the partnership paid off handsomely. “There was a benefit from the highest levels of our organization to have them learn from each other,” Harburg said. “The universities have the blessing of a lot of research and funding to look at technology for learning. And the corporations fundamentally understand their company and their culture in ways the university will never understand. So there’s this wonderful opportunity for a partnership of having each do what they do well.”

Similarly, in 2013, multinational telecommunications company AT&T Inc. partnered with Georgia Tech and Udacity to offer an online master’s degree in computer science to help develop tech skills among its employees. AT&T Vice President and CLO John Palmer said their partnerships focus on the pillars of affordability, accessibility and relevancy. “We need to build the bridge from the academic communities and the business communities,” Palmer said. “We’re driving a significant amount of relevancy with the degrees that are out there.”

Palmer said there’s an opportunity to focus on microlearning and specialty learning for specifications and certifications in the marketplace. He said there needs to be multiple avenues for people to continually engage both internally with corporate curriculums and externally with other firms in the academic arena so they are able to keep learning and honing skills needed for the future. “We all need to understand that learning is never complete,” Palmer said. “The years of getting a degree and riding out a 30-year career are over.”

Manufacturing company Caterpillar Inc. has maintained successful partnerships with Bradley University, University of Illinois, Georgia Institute of Technology, Purdue and others. Former president at Caterpillar University David Vance recalls the partnerships helping with leadership development. “Wherever there’s some really good thought leadership at a university, it makes perfect sense to partner with them,” Vance said. “You’re partnering to meet a specific need and you want cutting-edge thinking. That’s more likely to come from an academic setting.”

But Vance said if a corporate university doesn’t have a need that must be met through leading-edge critical thinking, a partnership isn’t needed. “We’re in two different worlds,” Vance said. “I wouldn’t create an artificial goal to partner with some university just because. Plus, that’s expensive.”

He said corporate universities shouldn’t want to be more like academic universities. “That’s not our mission,” he said. “Our mission is not to learn for learning’s sake; our mission is to help our organizations succeed.”

A Single Mission

Vance is not alone in his sentiment about organizational success being paramount. Daniel Gandarilla, vice president and CLO at Texas Health Resources University, said the partnership between corporate universities and academic institutions needs to change.

“I’ve always wondered why a school gets to dictate what the requirements are for a degree when, ultimately, we’re the ones that have to employ them,” Gandarilla said. “You would think that a school would come to Texas Health and ask us what knowledge, skills and expectations are needed and we will build our degree program specifically for you. But a lot of times schools operate independently and don’t ask.”

He said schools should be thought of as a supplier as opposed to the schools driving the bus, which causes a disconnect. “If I’m Apple, I don’t let just anyone provide me with the hardware in my phone. I’ve identified that I have a supplier that can make me things to the spec that I need, so I pay the supplier,” Gandarilla said. “So why don’t large organizations say, ‘We want this specific type of employee, and when they are done with their education we will have them exactly as we want them.’ ”

Gandarilla said anyone in charge of a corporate university needs to lead it strategically, as if they were the CEO of the learning function. “It’s probably a luxury to be able to do that, but the ones who are doing that best are the ones who will end up with the most successful corporate university,” he said.

Northwell Health Senior Vice President and CLO Kathleen Gallo agrees there is a gap between what competencies companies need from new hires versus what academic institutions are providing. “Whether it’s after undergrad or graduate school, corporate universities close the gap between [employees’] knowledge the day of graduation versus what they need to start work the next day,” Gallo said. “The world is changing so rapidly now, companies are more flexible to change what they’re doing in response to the new competencies their employees need. They can do that much faster than academic institutions.”

Gallo said that years ago, when a company was thinking about partnering with an academic institution it was to draw the knowledge out of the academic institution and infuse it into the company. Now, she said, it’s the opposite. “Now the partnership needs to be that the academic institutions understand and prepare on their end what the companies need. It’s a completely flipped model.”

Ave Rio is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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