It's not your grandfather's corporate university—or even your father's, for that matter. While they still share some characteristics with the first one opened by GE in 1956, today's corporate universities (CUs) continue to evolve.
"People used to look at training as a benefit. Now it's seen as a way to stay on top of your game and help in your career progression," explains Susan Todd, president, Corporate University Xchange (CorpU). "Gens X and Y are demanding, 'How are you going to accelerate my progression on the career ladder?' Older people are asking, 'How can I add to my skills?' In both cases, the company's answer is the corporate university."
As such, it's not so much about the learning but about knowledge management and also alignment with business drivers, according to Todd. CorpU's recent benchmarking study found a significant number of learning and development (L&D) teams are being led by business leaders instead of training professionals. "This shows we can't just build a class and be done; there has to be a business impact," Todd says. "Companies are reorganizing L&D to integrate with broader talent management strategies. This integration and new standards within L&D allow companies to develop consistent competencies and values in the workforce, and accelerate people development to keep pace with the company's growth and innovation goals."
Another change Todd has seen is many more CEOs saying they want a corporate university, and they want to be involved in it. "There's not a lot left to drive competitive advantage," she says. "People used to think it was technology, but that's only if you are first with it; in the end, everyone just copies you. Now it's only if you have the best, most talented people in every aspect of the business, from sales to technology. If you see the CEO teaching the class and the company's strategy, that tells you something."
In some cases, the teacher learns more than the learners, Todd adds. "They hear the questions from the folks who have to make these strategies work. It becomes a two-way dialogue. When other leaders see their CEO teaching, they want to, too, and suddenly, there's a waiting list."
While CEOs may be open to the idea of a corporate university, most still will require some persuading before giving the go-ahead to establish one. Susan Sinkiewicz, vice president, Talent, Learning & Compensation Resources, LandAmerica Financial Group, Inc., recommends creating a well-thought-out and documented business case that outlines the strategy for the university and how it will impact the company. "Be prepared to deliver metrics supporting the strategy," she advises. "Have your executive team review and/or approve the concept. In our case, we first developed a corporate university concept paper, then a corporate university plan." LandAmerica's plan included the creation of a university governance committee to help set policy for the university. This governance committee is made up of the Executive Leadership team representing all the company's business channels and shared resources. "This keeps the corporate sponsorship engaged and active," Sinkiewicz says.
Likewise, it's key to communicate to your employees why the company is considering a CU and help them understand its importance, Sinkiewicz adds. "The more the company and employees can 'see' how managing talent and increasing productivity through focused learning events identified through performance reviews, succession discussions, and individual development plans can benefit them, the better the buy-in/acceptance from employees."
You also need to make sure employees are comfortable using the technology platform you choose. "Historically, our industry comprised many people doing manual searches of titles at county courthouses," Sinkiewicz says. "Very little, if any, technology was required, so implementing a technology-based corporate university here was more of a challengethan we anticipated."
Todd notes that many organizations are trying to get to a single, enterprise-wide technology and a be-all, end-all talent management system that can handle learning and development, assessment, succession planning, identification of high potentials, etc. "But there is no coherent approach to all of this right now," she says. "Raytheon, for example, is on the right path in that it sees the integration of learning and development and talent management and is building its processes around that."
Clearly, when it comes to corporate learning and talent processes, companies have multiple options. "Retailer Staples has a low budget but did a nice job building an L&D program with a small internal team," Todd says. "In comparison, Caterpillar employs more than 80 people in its CU. It has begun to outsource e-learning development, so internal staff spends more time consulting to the business rather than honing Web authoring skills. And recently, CAT U became responsible for additional talent management processes, including succession planning and recruiting."
Looking ahead, Todd sees continued innovation and evolution. "Think about the time we're facing now: increasing computer power, unraveling the genome, the ability to network and connect across the globe," she says. "There's huge power if we can unlock it." Todd believes we should be entering the Age of Extreme Enlightenment, and "organizations thinking and working together will allow this brilliance and knowledge to flourish. Hopefully, corporate universities can keep pace with that and be supportive with both formal and informal learning; subject matter experts; documenting and building knowledge bases; connecting with academic institutions; and bringing it all together through employees, customers, suppliers, and partners."
Sidebar: Quick Tips
- Obtain leadership support/commitment. This can mean making the case that if the company had a corporate university, it could save money by consolidating certain L&D functions. But it might be better to take a proactive approach by explaining, "We can drive higher value and accelerate the rate at which people close competency gaps if we have a corporate university." In other words, build a business case and be specific.
- Understand the business drivers. You can't deliver training and then try to find a benefit.
- Determine what the corporate university aims to accomplish. When Caterpillar started its corporate university, it was a recessionary time. The corporate university only taught Six Sigma for two years. There was a $1.4 billion savings to the bottom line after those two years. Senior leaders realized if they applied their training dollars to something critical to the business, it could have a massive impact for the company. It's less about training people on individual skills—which can seem like throwing seeds out an airplane window and coming back later trying to find your garden—and more about making it support business objectives.
- Figure out where to spend the money and find the right processes. Then think about the technology that will make it happen.
- Create a strong governing board. This should include representation from business leaders and regional units.
—Susan Todd, president, Corporate University Xchange
- Put the time into creating a business case/strategy document that will define and guide the university.
- Hold concept meetings to help create the strategy.
- Gain and maintain corporate sponsorship. Keep them actively engaged.
- Engage the employee population. Help them understand the "what's in it for me" factor.
- Choose a technology that is user friendly—and test the technology for user friendliness with pilot groups. Ensure the enterprise can support and is ready for the technology.
—Susan Sinkiewicz, vice president, Talent, Learning & Compensation Resources, LandAmerica Financial Group, Inc.