Corporate universities can move training and development to centre-stage
within organisations, and their use as a strategic tool to gain worldwide
competitive advantage is increasing. Simon Kent reports
As Paul Henry, vice-president of SmartForce, points out, the label
"corporate university" can be used to cover a wide variety of
"The concept has evolved from the corporate training-centre function,
which tended to mean a traditional classroom-based, institutional learning
model," he says. "Today, with the emergence of e-learning, it tends
to imply some kind of technology platform through which learning can be
Certainly technology plays a major role in facilitating organisation-wide
education, but corporate universities do not start and finish on the Internet.
It is more useful to define them as the targeted provision of common education
resources to employees.
Such initiatives provide a focal point for training resources and align education
to corporate goals and individual training to each employee’s personal growth.
Increasingly, corporate universities are being acknowledged as an efficient
method of delivering training and can even operate as part of an employee
Crown Relocations established its university in 1997 to deliver an induction
programme to graduate recruits. Held in Sydney, Australia, the course ran for
12 weeks, giving students a mix of classroom and on-site education before their
This year, the course will bring 25 students to Los Angeles for an
eight-week programme including a one-month placement.
"We set up the university because we realised we needed to bring more
trained people into the organisation to manage the needs of the expanding
company," explains Norah Franchetti, Crown’s director of corporate
services for the European region and one of the programme’s principal
According to Franchetti, the university swiftly entrenches students in the
Crown culture, from how to answer the telephone to how airport and dock
operations are carried out.
While Crown University graduates have had marked success in attaining
management positions, Franchetti notes that there has been some friction
between graduates and serving employees, since the latter can view trainees as
"upstarts" or even be suspicious that the weekly reports compiled as
part of the learning process are a method of checking up on operations. As a
result, six of this year’s university intake will be drawn from the ranks of
current Crown employees.
Interestingly, while Crown University begins with a common geographic
location, Lotus Notes technology allows students to continue to share their
learning, as individual assignments take them all over the world.
At Edelman PR Worldwide, a similar combination of geographical events and
communications technology offers all employees access to learning resources.
Indeed, the scale of this initiative means learning delivered through Edelman
University blends with the concept of knowledge management within the agency.
Edelman’s chief executive officer in the UK, Tari Hibbitt, notes how Edel U
contributes to the management of intellectual capital. "The biggest
challenge for companies such as ourselves is to make sure we keep up to date
with new thoughts and trends," she says.
"A big focus of our training and development is to make sure we know
where the trends are and that we are ahead of those trends. Training and
development and how to share intellectual capital are an important competitive
edge for us."
Edel U offers employees access to a core curriculum, course outlines and
materials via the company intranet.
An international annual summer school takes delegates from Edelman’s 41
offices worldwide and addresses how these locations can enhance their work
While employees drive their own learning and can select training activities
for themselves, Hibbitt is adamant that training should always be carried out
in the context of individual career development.
"The Internet has given us e-learning, but there has to be a balance
between on-line and face-to-face training," notes Hibbitt. "In our
business, people work with other people in other offices and you can’t
communicate purely on-line or by phone. You need face-to-face training to get
those kind of skills."
And just as the organisation promotes a variety of training techniques, it
uses a variety of training resources, taking tutors from within and outside the
organisation. In this way, the company gains access to external skills and
knowledge as well as supporting the working culture.
General Motors University was created in 1997 and was, according to Darrell
Cope, a direct initiative to bring learning to the centre of the organisation.
Cope works as project leader for General Physics, which delivered the
technology infrastructure to support the learning provision.
"GM has been training employees since it started, but this was an
opportunity to formalise that training," he says. "The university
model was a way of reintroducing training as a modern concept in a way which
would gain attention within the organisation."
The university is structured into discrete colleges such as engineering,
brand management, legal and manufacturing. A college dean within each area of
the company ensures content is continually updated.
Cope notes that since the launch of the university, training has become
aligned with organisational needs.
At the same time, the creation of the university has eliminated duplication
of courses between departments and delivered a consistent standard across the
The benefits of standardising learning in this way are highlighted by Steve
Gold, senior director of Oracle Education for UK and Ireland. "Training
delivered online can be consistent from a multinational perspective," he
says. "In areas such as software training, that can be extremely
Oracle’s I-learning initiative is an Internet platform which can be used to
administrate the delivery of education in any format across an organisation. It
is used within Oracle itself to support the Oracle Learning Network, providing
product training as well as soft skills and management education.
"OLN has provided more freedom for individual employees to find the
learning they want," says Gold. "If they want to take an
instructor-led course, they still need to get sign-off for that from their
manager, but for other subjects they are able to dip into the e-learning on
offer and find out what they need there."
In years gone by, the provision of such wide-ranging training would have
attracted worried looks from many executives, concerned at the spend involved
and the possibility that having received this education, employees would move
Today, corporate universities are becoming a necessity.
"When you’re hiring, candidates increasingly ask the training
question," says Hibbitt, "It’s part of the deal now. Often when
employees want to leave an organisation it’s because they don’t know where they
want to go career-wise and that can be because the training and development
programme isn’t tight enough."
Henry says, "Learning is becoming a more strategic item. Directors
identify business priorities such as the need to launch products faster, and
the more enlightened ones are beginning to see that education fits in
To some extent, the establishment of a corporate university at last gives
training its proper profile within an organisation. No longer regarded as
simply an "add-on" function to pay lip service to, it can be the
central resource for developing and sharing the knowledge and skills which give
organisations competitive advantage.
Case study: Learning online 24 hours a day
Xerox Virtual Learning Environment is an intranet-based portal providing
access to all training activities within Xerox.
While training in the company has increased in line with the rapid pace of
change in technology, XVLE creates a single point of contact between employees
and educational resources. Technology based, it is open 24 hours a day, seven
days a week.
Featuring a custom-built learning management system which keeps up-to-date
records of individual training activities and manages career paths, the system
provides cross-departmental access to education activities. This means
technical engineers can view courses open to software analysts and even
complete online training in these areas.
Ian Sellars, manager of Xerox education support services, says this open
access is crucial to the success of the resource. "As soon as you start
restricting access to the learning environment, there’s the feeling that it’s
being policed," he says.
While offering access to online training, XVLE provides information on the
company’s other education resources, including the TV channel XTV, three
dedicated learning centres called Connexions, an entire library stock of books
and CDs and instructor-led training courses. In this way, while the initial
point of contact with education may occur through technology, the company still
provides a blended approach to training, offering individuals the chance to
train according to their preference.
This approach also brings opportunities for efficiencies within individual
courses – by delivering elements through distance learning techniques, the
organisation can reduce the time and cost of classroom-based education.
While XVLE is already proving popular within the organisation, Sellars
believes it is still early days for the initiative. "Any company needs to
be patient with a corporate university," he says. "It’s not going to
happen overnight and it takes time to become part of company culture."