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Collaborating With Universities to Create a Continuous Learning Culture

Four years ago, a South Dakota-based health care organization developed a partnership with a local university to offer an online nursing degree program for its employees. Around the same time, an Illinois manufacturer brought a local university on-site to

March 27, 2004
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Measurement, Technology, Mentoring, E-Learning, Formal Learning, Learning Delivery, Informal Learning, Leadership Development, Measurement, Technology

Chief learning officers are well aware that education and training is critical to the bottom line. They know this from their own experience and from research such as the American Management Association 2001 Staffing Survey, which reported that "companies that increased their training activities were three times more likely to report increased profits and shareholder value than companies that cut back on training."

Partnerships with colleges and universities can help provide training activities that are specifically designed for your workforce and business needs, and they can do so in a cost-effective way. But many CLOs choose to "go it alone" using in-house trainers or bringing individual trainers from commercial firms on-site for company-sponsored education and training opportunities. Since the quality of this training is often very high, what is the added value of a partnership with a higher-education institution?

Employee Retention and the Power of the Degree
What can be gained by working with colleges and universities? One obvious answer is, of course, certificates, degrees and credentials for your employees. Although high-quality instruction can be delivered through in-house trainers, providing programs of study that are accredited, offer college credits and have value in the labor market is a much more difficult undertaking.

Degrees and credentials matter the most to your employees because they are increasingly aware of the central role credentials play in their employability. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the estimated lifetime earnings of high school graduates is only $1.2 million, compared to $1.6 million for workers with associate's degrees and $2.1 million for workers with bachelor's degrees. Though individual workers may not be familiar with the Census reports, they know from their own informal observations that earnings and opportunities increase with educational attainment.

Because degrees matter so much, they are an important motivator for your employees. Partnerships with colleges and universities can help you offer your employees college credit as a reward for their efforts to gain new skills and knowledge.

Some employers are concerned about footing the bill for degree programs, for fear that employees will leave for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. Employers, however, often benefit as much as workers do. In managing tuition assistance programs for 400,000 eligible workers annually, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has found that employees invariably choose courses of study that benefit their careers with their current employer. In addition, in an unpublished 2000 CAEL study of employees at a major telecommunications company, we found that tuition benefits had a positive impact on employee retention. Other studies support this finding as well: A 1999 report by Don L. Bohl in the Compensation and Benefits Review noted that human resources professionals rank "training and educational opportunities" as the second most important retention program.

In short, helping your employees gain degrees and credentials is a "win-win" for you, especially if you communicate your business goals to them and they can align their learning with those goals. You benefit from having loyal employees with higher skills, and they are rewarded with degrees or credentials that, at a minimum, give them peace of mind. Should their jobs unexpectedly disappear - as so many jobs do today - they have credentials that will help in both their re-employment and long-term employability.

Shaping the Skills of New Employees
Partnerships with colleges and universities are not just for the benefit of the incumbent workforce. Many employers routinely benefit from these partnerships because they help to develop the skills needed in new recruits.

This is a particularly important consideration for employers facing workforce and skill shortages. In a survey we conducted of employers in Oklahoma, for example, employers reported that there is often a disconnect between the skills that recent college graduates possess and the demands of the labor market. Strong working relationships with colleges and universities can provide an opportunity for employers to communicate their skill needs to the institutions, so that coursework is more likely to develop the skills that employers need.

Partnerships can also help employers find new employees. Many educational institutions work regularly with employers to select and pre-screen job candidates specifically for that employer - some will even provide guarantees of "workplace readiness" for their graduates. Creating these kinds of pipelines can aid tremendously in finding the best new talent for your company while keeping recruiting costs down. Educational institutions are often happy to provide this service. While you might really need to find new talent, they are just as eager to improve their performance in terms of post-graduation employment for their students.

Creating a Learning Culture
Most importantly, partnerships with educational institutions are central to creating a learning culture within an organization. In research that CAEL has carried out with employers in the Chicago metropolitan area called Workforce 2.0, we have identified nine "Exemplary Practices" in employee learning and development:

  • Leadership vision and commitment: The CEO and senior management are the driving forces in elevating the importance of learning and development.
  • Aligning business goals with employee learning: Top leadership adopts clear goals and communicates them throughout the organization and ensures that learning and development activities are aligned with the goals.
  • Learning and development strategically positioned within senior management: The human resources leader or the chief learning officer is part of the executive management team.
  • Leadership development emphasized at all levels of the organization: Management recognizes that leadership skills are essential for employees at all levels, and efforts are made to develop talent from within the organization.
  • Commitment to expanding skills and knowledge beyond job-related or technical skills: Investments are made to develop well-rounded, versatile employees through tuition assistance programs, customized on-site training and personal development options.
  • Informal learning opportunities are structured at the workplace: Investments are made to intentionally integrate work and learning through team projects, cross-training, rotational assignments and problem-solving exercises.
  • Strategic use of technology for meeting learning objectives: Innovative technologies are used to support and reinforce learning and to manage the firm's education and training offerings.
  • Alliances with educational institutions are central to learning strategy: Customized degree, certificate and non-credit programs are developed collaboratively to meet business and employee needs.
  • Emphasis on assessment of impact: A mixture of measurement strategies is used to assess the impact of training and development investments.

The common theme of these practices is that employee learning is embedded in the organization's culture and operations, sustained through a process of re-evaluation and continuous improvement.

One of those practices is the formation of alliances with educational institutions. In our research, we found that in firms with the most developed learning cultures - and where the firms were seeing the most business payoff from learning investments - the human resources staff was skilled at building successful partnerships with educational institutions. HR directs these relationships, establishes well-defined criteria for educational providers and expects them to be flexible in scheduling courses and developing course content that meets the company's needs. HR also routinely works closely with educational providers to create customized certificate and accelerated degree programs.

The result is that learning is more convenient for employees, with degree and certificate programs often brought on-site or offered online. In some cases, educational institutions allow students to enroll and order books from the workplace. These partnerships also can make possible cohort programs, where peers work side by side in the classroom, building camaraderie and shared learning in the organization. (For more information on Workforce 2.0, consult CAEL's Web site, or

Ensuring the Success of a Workplace Learning Culture
As the list of exemplary practices suggests, partnerships with educational institutions are important, but they alone do not create a learning culture. There are many things that employers need to do independently to make sure that learning is embedded in an organization.

The list of nine practices can be daunting to tackle all at once. In our consulting practice, we often advise companies to start with some concrete steps that are manageable and that make excellent building blocks for developing a learning culture in an organization. Four of those initial steps are:

  • Commit to a progressive tuition-assistance policy.
  • Make supervisors' coaching and mentoring around learning and development a priority and part of the performance review process.
  • Develop and promote internal career paths for employees.
  • Support informal learning in the workplace.

A Progressive Tuition-Assistance Policy
Many organizations provide some sort of tuition assistance to their employees, but progressive companies will make sure that their tuition program is truly supportive of their employees' range of learning needs and enables all learners to be successful. Important components of a tuition policy are:

  • Paying tuition "up front" through a voucher or letter of credit that is given to the educational institution: Many employees do not have the resources to pay for courses and wait for the company's reimbursement check. With a prepaid tuition program, employers will ensure that even workers with great financial barriers can pursue educational opportunities.
  • Educational advising for employees: Employees often know that they want to pursue education but do not know what to study to best position themselves with their current employer or in the larger labor market. Advising is an important service that helps save you and your employees not only time and considerable money.
  • Coverage for a broad range of courses and programs, rather than job-specific learning: A greater range of choice about what to study, where and how will enhance employee involvement in learning. But fear not: CAEL's experience in administering tuition programs has shown that even when policies are broad and comprehensive, employees usually choose study related to advancing their job or career-related skills, especially when the company actively disseminates information about the skills, abilities, competencies and knowledge that are desired.

Prioritizing Supervisor Coaching and Mentoring
Employers can help embed learning and make it relevant to the workplace by developing supervisors' skills and holding them responsible for supporting employee development. Their responsibilities around employee learning and development could include:

  • Providing job-shadowing opportunities.
  • Helping employees build development plans linked to performance evaluations.
  • Finding learning opportunities for employees through team assignments, committees and task forces.
  • Learning about career and education resources and child-care and transportation options and referring employees to them.
  • Describing career-path opportunities to employees.

Internal Career Paths
A key to ensuring that learning is an attractive pursuit for employees is showing them that there are real rewards - that their efforts in the classroom will be recognized through a change in responsibilities and/or improved pay. An excellent way to do this is to establish internal career paths so that employees know what skills are needed to advance to other jobs, either vertically or laterally.

For example, many health care organizations, needing to address a critical shortage in skilled positions, have established internal "career lattices," where entry-level staff can see how they can advance to higher-skilled and higher-paid nursing jobs or, at the very least, become specialists in their current positions. The key to making these career ladders, or lattices, effective is to make sure that they are well publicized within your organization, particularly for the group of workers you would like to gain new skills and advance in the organization.

Another approach is to collaborate with others in your industry on defining career paths and linking with educational institutions to provide the training needed for higher-skilled positions in the industry. Good examples of such alliances are the National Coalition for Telecommunications Education and Learning ( or the Energy Providers Coalition for Education (

Support Informal Learning
Although formal learning - and especially learning leading to educational credentials - is a critical tool for developing your employees, you also need to acknowledge and address head-on the fact that most work-related learning occurs informally, on the job. A 1998 study by the Center for Workforce Development estimated that more than 60 percent of the most critical knowledge and skills are learned at work, not in a classroom.

The trick for employers is to learn how to encourage informal learning and provide more opportunities for informal learning to take place. Examples of such opportunities include:

  • Cross-training.
  • Peer training.
  • Working in teams, especially cross-functional ones.
  • Problem-solving sessions.
  • Rotational assignments between departments.
  • Mentoring relationships.

These informal learning opportunities can provide a valuable complement to the formal learning that is offered, primarily by providing workers with exposure to the many functions and units of the company before deciding on a specialty area.

Partnerships with educational institutions are a critical tool for any company wishing to develop its employees. The institutions provide the degrees and the credentials that are needed to motivate employees, and colleges and universities can help to establish a cost-effective recruiting pipeline for new talent. But institutional partnerships are also critical for helping develop a continuous learning culture in your organization - provided that you do your part as well.

Pamela Tate is the president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a nonprofit that helps employers develop and administer workplace-learning programs and builds collaborations between companies and higher education institutions. Becky Klein-Collins is a project manager and researcher with nine years of experience in workforce development and practice. She has spent much of her professional career with CAEL. You can reach Pamela and Rebecca at

April 2004 Table of Contents

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