Despite the uncertain climate in the leisure sector, hotel giant Hilton
International continued with its methodical approach to establishing an online
corporate university, and its launch provides useful lessons for all employers
wanting to establish learning for all. Sue Weekes reports
Just before the attacks on the US last September, the Hilton Group, which
develops, owns, manages and franchises 2,000 hotels, resorts and holiday
properties worldwide, had just finished putting in place and presenting the
basic design for the Hilton University.
It followed a pilot project, in-depth analysis, research and exhaustive
employee interviews. No one would have thought the group faint-hearted had it
decided to delay or shelve the project in view of the decline in world travel
that followed, but preparation for the university went ahead as planned and it
was launched on 6 February 2002.
John Guthrie, head of international management development for Hilton Group,
says: "We proceeded because we are in it for the long-term. In all
business and service businesses, the contribution of people is of central
importance. We have a great commitment to learning and development and careers.
This is intended as a global university for everyone at Hilton."
Traditionally, corporate universities, which provide a centralised learning
and development resource and reinforce the ethos of the organisation and its
values, exist as bricks and mortar institutions. With the advent of e-learning,
many have now added an online arm and some exist purely as virtual
universities, typically accessed via the company intranet or a web-based
Hilton’s university exists online and can be accessed via the intranet or
internet but in the medium to longer term it will become the gateway to a mix
of traditional, blended and online learning programmes. "It’s not a
building but it’s got to be lot more than an e or virtual university. We’ve
kick-started it with e-learning but ultimately it [Hilton University] is the
name given to all of our learning development and knowledge programmes,"
says Guthrie, also stressing the internal commitment to and investment in the
"This is not just an HR initiative that sits around. It comes straight
from the top and if anyone can be credited with initiating the product it’s
chief executive Anthony Harris. Those on the advisory panel include the deputy
group chief executive, the group finance officer and the head of global HR.
It’s a central part of our business so it’s got to be led by the people who run
the business and who have profit and loss responsibility."
The kickstart that Guthrie refers to was provided by e-learning providers
Intellexis and SkillSoft. As well as soft skills content, the latter is also
supplying the learning management system, SkillPort, which runs and hosts
online content. "For us it’s almost a textbook job," says SkillSoft
business manager Russell Harper. "It’s been about 14 months, which is a
long sales cycle, but the university is being built exactly how it should be by
starting small and building upwards. It’s also helped that so much interest and
enthusiasm has been generated to support the project."
Skillsoft, which provided the General Motors university (set up in 1927 and
widely considered the oldest corporate university in the world) with a new
suite of business courses, is a content rather than an LMS provider but Hilton
began using SkillPort and decided to stick with it because it serves its needs.
However, Harper says there may come a time when they need to upgrade it,
especially when the university carries more classroom and instructor-led
courses. "We’re quite honest with them about that. But at the moment,
SkillPort works fine for them."
Intellexis, meanwhile, is providing courses in financial skills, which are
designed to enable managers to understand the fundamentals of finance
irrespective of the job function. The two providers worked closely together to
ensure both sets of products ran under the LMS. "As a content provider, we
have been at great pains to see our products run under all the LMSs. The
developing industry standards [AICC/Scorm – see opinion page 27] are a good way
to enable flexibility of choice for a user," says Intellexis chief
executive Paul Palmarozza.
"Customers are moving away from using one-stop shops. A user such as
Hilton can now choose the best of breed in each subject area and feel confident
that these products will operate consistently under whatever LMS it selects.
This is not always the case but we have given a high priority to this level of
compatibility so it works for us."
Intellexis’ content was also chosen because it could be adapted to meet Hilton’s
needs. The course content shows how business decisions affect the financial
performance of an organisation and requires numerous examples to enable the
learner to make the connection with their own industry, company and job.
"To make our Finance for Managers curriculum even more appropriate, our
chief developer went to Germany to meet key Hilton finance and project people.
They worked together for two days, reviewing the product screen by screen and
developing new exercises," explains Palmarozza.
After a final review by Hilton, these were incorporated into the product to
produce the ‘Hilton Version’, which was then integrated into the SkillSoft LMS.
"The essential nature of the changes is based on the fact the hotel
business is a service business and that some of the management decisions are
different from those made by managers in a manufacturing business," says
The university is broken down into seven faculties. Four of these are split
across the group’s four main areas of activity, which reflect the organisation
within the hotel: operations; finance; business development; and HR. The other
three are the Faculty of Management Skills; the Faculty of Executive Education
(aimed at senior managers and which acts as Hilton’s business school); and the
Faculty of Research, which is a library and knowledge resource. "An
employee may aspire to be a team leader or senior manager we’re providing
learning journeys so that people can plan a career when they join," says
Employees access the courses in a learning and development room at the hotel
or from home. Since the university launched, 1,916 have been started and 1,059
have now been completed. "Out of those who’ve completed the courses, 90
per cent are recommending them to colleagues," says Guthrie, adding that
Harris e-mailed the workforce about the launch of the university, followed up
with localised meetings and communications from champions of the project in
In May, Hilton put the next phase of the project into action with its Food
‘n’ Drink Business multimedia learning CD-Rom.
This was sent to every hotel in the group and to hotel schools, recruitment
agencies and the trade press.
Complementing this is online tutoring support, devised in collaboration with
the Hotel School of the Hague, and which offers 30 hours of learning, designed
to be spread across a six-week period. It focuses on kitchen and service
management and includes an e-based assignment. The Complete Learning Approach’s
final component is a residential programme at the advanced level.
The business development courses and then the executive education programme
will be next. Guthrie is a great advocate of the methodical, planned approach
and this also gives learning and development a chance to become embedded in the
company culture at Hilton, a vital part of the overall strategy.
"When we set things up we were determined that it wasn’t going to be
training from 1978 with a Hilton wrapper on it. We want the learning and the
acquisition of knowledge to become worthwhile in itself," he says.
Giving employees learning journeys
Hilton Group’s requirements:
To create a Hilton University. Although accessed online, it
will be the gateway to a blend of training, from pure online programmes to
To create a learning and development centre for all Hilton
employees. People are of central importance in the service business so training
is vital. Hilton’s strategy is to give employees learning journeys when they
join the company
Is e-learning delivering?
It’s still early days. The university is being kick-started by
two programmes of e-learning and so far 1,916 courses have been started and
1.059 completed. Ninety per cent of those who have finished the courses
recommended them to others.
Hilton group’s tips for success
– The lead must come from the very top. This should not be an
initiative that stays in an HR cupboard somewhere. Those who run the business
and have profit and loss responsibility must be involved from the beginning
– Don’t just do it: plan thoroughly, run a pilot and trials and
get lots of user feedback that you can learn from
– Make learning and development a worthwhile activity for