Some months ago, my friend Michael Fernandes asked whether corporate universities (CUs) would go the way of the dinosaurs. This is a two-fold question. First, will the current digital revolution lead to the extinction of CUs? As I argued in a previous article, “Will Corporate Universities Become Extinct?”, those corporate universities who are just fancy training departments or who aim to be only curators of digital content will most likely go the way of the dinosaurs. But this does not need to be the destiny of all CUs and some, like GE’s Crotonville, have understood the challenge well. So, the second question is, how can CUs adapt to the asteroid-like digital innovations to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs? That is, what should the mission of a CU be to remain relevant in the digital era?
Deliver Bottom Line Value
I would argue that Corporate Universities should always have been focused on delivering bottom line value to the organization but it is even more important today. The digital revolution in learning is incredibly exciting and is transforming the way learning is found and consumed. Learners are no longer tethered just to their own organization’s offerings but can easily find content outside their company. And many CUs are partnering with providers to make much of this new content accessible to employees on their own learning management system. And here in lies both the opportunity and the problem.
The opportunity is to provide an amount and a diversity of learning simply not possible before at scale and reasonable cost, which is tremendous. The problem is that some CUs have responded by redefining their mission to simply curating all of this new and wonderful content for their employees. They rally under the banner of “Give employees what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.” While this approach sounds attractive at first, a careful inspection reveals some real problems, which in the extreme, could lead to their own extinction. This mission statement assumes that employees know what they need and when they need it. It also assumes that what they want will be aligned to the key goals of the organization. Neither assumption is necessarily valid and puts the CU in a very reactive role, really not much different than taking orders for training from business units.
The better path is for the CU to be closely aligned to the organizations’ business goals and to be focused on delivering bottom line results. While some are excellent at this today, most are not and it presents a tremendous opportunity for improvement. Such an approach would start with proactive meetings with the CEO, senior leaders and goal owners to determine if learning has a role to play in meeting the organization’s goals. If both parties agree that learning would help accomplish organizational goals, then the programs are developed and deployed, jointly managed by both parties. The goal owner and the CU will determine the target audience and the planned outcomes. This strong strategic partnership will help ensure success for the both the learning programs and the CU.
Of course, the CU should fully use all the advances in digital learning to deliver and reinforce this important content. In addition the CU should make available a wealth of general interest offerings which will help increase employee engagement and retention, but the primary focus should be on the business-related learning to drive business results.
The Unique Role for the Corporate University in the Digital Age
Corporate Universities can bring a customized solution to the specific business needs of a company. Indeed, even if digital courses are becoming more and more easily available to everyone, each company has proprietary content to which employees have to be exposed. This type of material is not accessible to outside vendors. Moreover, CUs have a special relationship with goal owners that cannot be replaced by outside vendors or partners. Successful CUs work with the stakeholders to decide whether learning is really the solution to a specific business problem, they determine the target audience, set specific learning objectives and most importantly, they make sure that learning is transferred in the work place to achieve business goals. This cannot be provided by outside providers or aggregators and is central to the mission of a corporate university in the digital era.
While dinosaurs failed to adapt to the altered climate caused by an asteroid that hit the Earth, corporate universities can and should adapt to the digital revolution. In fact, CUs are uniquely positioned to help the organization benefit the most from this transformation. But, to do so, their mission needs to be focused on delivering bottom line value to the organization while collaborating with stakeholders and senior leaders to align learning to business results.
About the Author: Dave Vance is Executive Director at Center for Talent Reporting. The Center for Talent Reporting is responsible for Talent Development Reporting Principles (TDRp), a groundbreaking, industry-led initiative to bring standard principles and reporting to all human capital processes.