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Q&A

Corporate U: The History and the Future

Fred Harburg, former CLO and president of Motorola University, shares his thoughts on the future of the corporate university.

Fred Harburg

Fred Harburg is the former chief learning officer and president of Motorola University, one of the first corporate universities. He was also the senior vice president for leadership and learning at Fidelity Investments and was chief learning officer at Williams Energy. Following, Harburg shares his thoughts on the future of corporate universities.

Chief Learning Officer: How have the fundamentals driving the need for a corporate learning organization changed over the past 30 years?

Coming from Motorola, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the first corporate educational efforts. That was when Paul Galvin, the founder of Motorola, realized that all the people who were assembling the radios and various devices that Motorola was creating at the turn of the century — many of them were illiterate. He said, “that’s going to change.” Not just as a gift, but as a responsibility, we need to make sure that everyone has basic literacy skills in the plants, to be able to live a more fulfilling life. What an inspiring way to start the idea of corporate education. Then his son Bob and grandson Chris carried that tradition on and Motorola arguably became the largest corporate university in the world.

Is the corporate university dead? Have we outlived its usefulness and we’re on to something new? That question probably comes from the legitimate notice that online learning is available from many sources and having a traditional corporate university faculty and staff who do a lot of the training — it’s probably not as attractive as it once was. When I first started in a corporate university it was very common to have a large staff of instructional designers. That doesn’t make a lot of sense because there is such talent available for instructional design at this point on a contractual basis. They’ve continued to refine their capabilities to feel like a part of the organization. The same is true for delivery.

CLO: Is the original model for the corporate university still viable? If not, how does it need to change?

It has always been changing. It wasn’t viable when it was identified. I look back with embarrassment at some of the things I created 30 years ago. Even at the time, it could have been better. If there was a model for the corporate university at the time, we might say it was brick and mortar, instructors, chalk board and flip charts, overhead projectors and transparencies that became power points over time, attendance records, evaluations and smile sheets. If that’s what we were calling the model at the time, which was probably a bad model, clearly that should be gone. But there is an element that should never be done away with and that’s the valuing of people as the most important part of a company and investment in their continuous growth. The extent to which it is done away with is a tragedy, not just for the company that will suffer the consequences of that attitude, but also for our entire society.

CLO: Are corporate universities still strongly aligned with business strategy? Or are they more about employee engagement?  

That’s like asking if I like my daughter or my son better. They’re both absolutely essential. As CLO of many organizations, I was also responsible for the succession planning. You can’t discuss bench of talent that’s available for key roles in the organization without discussing engagement. The regrettable loss of your most talented people is one of the greatest problems that an organization suffers. People are hopefully, as they should be, enlighteningly self-interested. The most talented people are going to move for opportunity first. They are going to be most interested in making full contributions, and the extent to which they are underchallenged is a huge loss. But you want every person to be engaged in an organization. You might call these the two pistons of the engines of the corporate university — the notion of strategic capability development and a tie to the business and customer on one hand, and the cultivation and engagement and full appetite and contribution of the employee in a way that’s satisfying to them and helps the organization flourish.

CLO: Does the need for a physical space still exist? Could all training be virtual?

Symbolically, there’s a wonderful feeling with the stewardship of morale and the pride that comes from having a physical facility, but I think the vast majority of people would agree that we’ve moved beyond the idea of brick and mortar. We have so many interesting spaces in which to educate and train if we’re going to have face-to-face training, and we should. There are things that happen when people are with each other in a physical space that cannot happen any other way. I’m a huge fan of what Cisco and others have done in terms of telepresence — I think it’s a miracle and saves time and effort — but there’s no substitute for physically being present with other people. I’m not a huge fan of a large brick-and-mortar investment, though there is a need for organizations to have a place where they can bring both large and small groups together. Having multipurpose facilities makes a lot of sense, but the old idea of a brick-and-mortar university is outdated.

CLO: How will technology play into the future of corporate universities?

If we look at history, the use of technology in learning is pretty shameful. I know we’re proud of what we’ve got at this point, but that it took us this long and that we were so clumsy at doing it is a warning about the future. We overpromise and underdeliver when it comes to technology in that we don’t understand the implications of what it will do. There is a great need for a basic understanding for the sociology and psychology that surrounds technology. We’ve focused on the technology and content so much that we’ve ignored the human element of the learning effort. The future of technology is really about the social component, about the human component, and about what works with human beings to help them individually and collectively learn at a more effective rate. I’m hopeful that the future will be more effective and better informed than the past was when we tried to implement learning technology.

A portion of this interview was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Chief Learning Officer as a sidebar to “The Future of the Corporate University.”

Ave Rio is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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