Evolving from the approach to learning and development adopted by giant US corporations such as General Electric and General Motors after the Second World War, the modern wave of corporate universities only emerged in Europe in the late 1980s.
And, according to joint research carried out last year by Dieu (the Danish Leadership Institute) and the Execsight Institute of Executive Development (a global association of training practitioners and providers based in California, US), their popularity endures.
Of the 50 European organisations that took part in the research, 37% have an established corporate university serving the business.
However, experts still struggle to define exactly what corporate universities are.
Director of Dieu UK, Inger Buus, says they are dedicated training and development arms “that are sometimes seen as independent from the business and set up as separate profit centres”.
According to Kevin Wheeler, a US-based consultant and author of The Corporate University Workbook – launching the 21st Century Learning Organisation, the main difference between a corporate university and a training department is the link between training and corporate goals.
He says: “Training departments are more focused on individual development that is delivered on an ad hoc basis whereas a corporate university development programme should reflect a detailed assessment of the business’s needs.
“The former is tactical, the latter strategic,” says Wheeler.
To a certain extent, corporate universities are by necessity as unique as the organisation which creates them and how learning resources are delivered depends entirely on the culture and organisation of the company itself.
Hilton Hotels piloted its university initiative in 2001. Challenged with delivering learning to workplaces in 70 countries around the world, the company chose to use the internet. Courses range from basic guides and customer service through to management programmes in organisation development and succession planning.
To encourage employees to dedicate time to the resource, much of which would be their spare time, Hilton also offered courses to develop life skills. One course even taught would-be socialites how best to host a barbecue party.
“People were used to being sent on residential courses,” says Andrea Kluit, director of international development and learning at Hilton. “But this gave them responsibility for their own learning.”
Cutting back on residential and surplus training courses is clearly one way corporate universities deliver return on investment for organisations. Martyn Levett, head of the University of Lloyds TSB, says the company’s initiative, created in 1996 following the merger of the two banks, caused the immediate cutting of training programmes from 800 to 400.
New courses were devised based on feedback from employee questionnaires on learning, development and morale.
“A lot of training is input-based,” says Levett. “We’ve focused on drilling down into relevant information to identify areas where we need to invest.”
The university gauges the impact of courses using the Kirkpatrick evaluation model, which measures the actual change of behaviour in the workplace.
Sue Harley, director of learning at e-learning content creators Futuremedia, says: “Gone are the days when organisations just threw money at projects. Organisations want value for money and need to look at the process from establishing the university idea to backing it up with a management system to track and measure users.”
But the university approach to development may have benefits beyond a direct return on investment.
Amanda Clewlow, operations manager at Barclays University, says it helped to gain recognition from Investors in People and reversed a situation where employees were leaving on a weekly basis.
“It [the university] has actually started to attract people to the organisation. Everyone understands the value of the university and that ties in with our HR mission to be an employer of choice.”
At web-hosting company Rackspace, UK managing director Dominic Monkhouse says standards at the company’s university, RackU, are kept high by practising an internal market for training.
“It’s certainly more cost-effective to deliver technical training through the university rather than use outside suppliers,” he says. “But if one business segment believes it can get better training externally then it will. This means there’s explicit market testing at all times.”
At aerospace and defence company BAE Systems, the university takes the form of an online knowledge pool from across the organisation.
Employees can find information on best practice and get in touch with an area expert. According to Richard West, organisational and e-learning manager at BAE, a feedback loop means every piece of information held on the system can be given a tangible value.
He says: “One of our five leadership competencies, which people are measured against, is sharing information, so the university is a great way of demonstrating that competency.”