Developing a Learning Culture

The Corporate University Shift: Why Great Companies Invest in Custom Learning

When you think of a corporate university, images of boring training sessions and hours of video might come to mind. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Corporate universities have evolved over the years. From Google to Disney, they’re now more than just an afternoon of mandatory video tutorials. And they’re more meaningful and effective than ever before.

Corporate universities can be a major play in employee productivity and retention and add value to an organization’s culture. Many employees love the idea of learning within a college-like infrastructure without leaving their office.

Join us now on a small journey into the world of corporate universities.

What Is a Corporate University?

A corporate university is an educational institution within a corporation. It provides learning and development activities tailored to the corporation’s employees, according to the corporation’s interests and needs.

That includes the delivery of company-specific management training and leadership development with the ultimate aim of maintaining corporate competitiveness in ever-changing markets.

Corporate universities can be online or have physical facilities just like a university campus—in fact, corporate universities can partner up with higher education institutions for expanded learning opportunities. Employees can even obtain professional certifications at different levels by enrolling in a corporate university.

Above all, a corporate university is a strategic tool of a corporation to achieve its business goals. But let’s talk more about the value they bring to organizations.

Why Are Corporate Universities Important?

You hope that employees come prepared and ready to tackle their jobs, right? But the truth is, what they learned at traditional academic institutions might not be enough. Sometimes, higher-education programs fail to prepare students for the real world of a high-level organization.

It’s just not possible to emulate the culture and context of an organization as if you were already its employee. And that’s the accuracy that corporate universities have that no academic institution will ever have.

On top of that, many employees join a company wanting to learn in order to move up in the company over their career. Why leave all that potential and drive behind? Corporate universities serve these employees’ learning and development needs too.

At the end of the day, a corporate university seeks to create prepared, educated, and confident employees—they’re a sort of incubator of great employees.

However, companies didn’t create successful corporate universities on the first try…or the next one. For decades, corporations struggled to find a model that appealed to their employees. So, what did corporations learn to find a model that worked? 

The Evolution of Corporate Universities

Corporate universities became popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1914, both GE and GM implemented corporate training programs on topics such as safety and compliance. Nevertheless, the idea didn’t catch on until 1950, when the corporate university model started emerging.

In the 1980s, most corporations adopted the idea of employee training to help create a more consistent experience across branches. So, the value of corporate universities gained traction. By the 21st century, over 2,000 corporations had one.

Nonetheless, despite the traction, workplace learning had a bad reputation. Employees perceived it as too corporate—centered on profit and productivity for the organization instead of the individual. But corporations figured out how to change that narrative.

A great corporate university model focuses heavily on the individual as it:

  • Offers different courses and delivery methods for different types of learners with different needs and interests
  • Credits learners for taking courses and completing training programs

A top corporate university proves that by benefiting employees individually, the entire organization benefits. Let’s discuss the benefits of an effective corporate university—for the corporation and employees.

The Many Perks of a Corporate University

Getting the executive buy-in to establish a corporate university can sometimes be a tough sell. And it’s particularly hard if your organization already outsources training programs. Be sure to highlight the advantages to the organization as well as to the employees—and those benefits often overlap. 

Here are the ways a corporate university is useful to a company (and its employees):

  • Increases leader retention. Keeping leaders in-house is an issue almost all growing organizations face. A corporate university gives learners the chance to progress to leadership positions. The institution is also a statement that the organization is serious about grooming leaders and promoting them from within.
  • Reinforces culture. An organization might be a great place to work, but onboarding and other training initiatives often don’t match the culture. A corporate university aligns with the brand and culture and helps solidify them across employees.
  • Supports innovation. Corporate universities are breeding grounds for new thoughts and ideas. Why? Because their structure fosters natural discussion and collaboration among students.
  • Provides complete control over how users experience content. Your learners have different learning styles—some learn best through videos whereas others prefer microlearning updates sent to their phone. Because a corporate university is not outsourced, you can choose the content delivery methods that suit your learners best. In the next section, you’ll find a list of dazzling corporate universities.

5 Noteworthy Corporate University Examples

Check out these five high-level learning organizations and how they’re using corporate universities to their full potential.

1. Google’s Googleplex

Googleplex—Google’s Mountain View complex—might be the closest a corporate university has been to a traditional university experience. In it, the magic of Google’s corporate learning happens, allowing its employees to:

  • Explore spontaneous interactions with each other as learners
  • Enjoy the campus’ architecture, which embodies Google’s soul—made of its innovative brand and groundbreaking culture
  • Spend up to 20% of the workweek on pet projects that uplift their ambition to stratospheric levels

2. McDonald’s Hamburger University

Employee retention isn’t exactly the specialty of the house at McDonald’s, but that’s where Hamburger University comes into play. McDonald’s was the first restaurant chain to create a global training center for its employees. By developing talent and leadership at Hamburger University since 1961, McDonald’s retains more of its most promising rising stars. Hamburger University offers more than training excellence. It equips McDonald’s staff with the tools they need to optimize resources while executing tasks. The staff learns restaurant operation procedures that deliver quality, service, cleanliness, and value.

McDonald’s corporate university professors are experts in restaurant operations and teach:

  • In the classroom
  • With hands-on activities in the lab or restaurant settings
  • Through goal-based scenarios
  • With e-learning modules

Employees receive training according to their desired career development paths. This allows crew members to progress to restaurant managers, mid-managers, and executives.

For instance, at the mid-level, McDonald’s Hamburger University’s students learn to successfully run a restaurant. And to become executives, they continue developing business skills and focus on top leadership skills. In the end, they’re ready to support McDonald’s employees, restaurant owners, and sales growth.

3. Apple University

Apple sets itself apart by doing things differently, and it expects the same from its employees. The company doesn’t just teach them how to do things differently, but also how to think differently. And those teachings are a fundamental part of Apple’s culture. In return, employees feel better prepared to take on leadership roles, speak up, and take risks—all for the sake of keeping the edge over the competition.

Apple’s first marketing brochure announced that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Apple University’s teachers instill the simplicity motto into the company’s workforce. The curriculum revolves around Apple’s culture, history, structure, and dynamics. Managers also study other companies to learn how they succeeded or failed. Classes are all in person and take place at the company’s campus. However, not everyone can enroll in the university’s courses. The elite business school is for directors, VPs, and other top managers and executives—by invitation only.

Steve Jobs created Apple’s corporate university in 2008 because he was sick for a long time. Jobs wanted to prepare the company for his succession. Successful corporate universities create a more prepared workforce for today while laying a solid foundation for the future of the organization.

4. Disney University

Disney’s corporate university is the learning and development setting that teachers and students dream of. It’s literally the Disneyland of education.

Everything is highly personalized to the Disney brand. From training materials to program names, Disney University reminds everyone about Disney’s incredible success over the years. The company’s university introduces the brand when onboarding employees on their very first workday. Culture, history, values, policies, and traditions—it’s all part of what Disney University students learn. Beyond an immersion in the world of Disney, the university also caters to employees’ personal professional development goals.

Disney University offers instructor-led classroom sessions as well as elearning and virtual classrooms.

5. Intel Network Builders University

Intel’s University includes a vast collection of online content, but it also incorporates face-to-face technical training. The online content supports virtual learning and has a global outreach. Delivering training face to face—think of hands-on workshops and webinars—supports the need for in-person engagement.

The goal of this corporate university is to boost the knowledge of professionals from the entire network industry. Therefore, it’s free, available to a public audience, and focuses on Intel technologies and digital transformation.

This is just a small sample of how companies use employee learning as a cornerstone for growth and excellence. But the million-dollar question is…

How Do We Create a Corporate University?

It’s not easy, but it’s possible to make a corporate university come to life. Here’s a good starting place for success:

  1. Gather the top executives around a table—a virtual table will do. Determine how your corporate university will support the company’s vision and strategic business goals. And don’t leave the table without their buy-in! That’s the basis from which you’ll get the resources you need. And that’s how your staff will trust your project and get involved in it with excitement.
  2. Sit down and think about what you want to achieve. Then, pick up a pen—or get yourself in front of a keyboard—and write down the university’s mission, vision, and value statement. And don’t forget the goals!
  3. Make your corporate university uniquely identifiable. Create the name, logo, and other brand elements to craft a creative logo that truly represents your brand.
  4. Gather a corporate training team. This is a team that will support the operation of your university. If you plan to provide in-person training or virtual instructor-led training (VILT), ensure that all trainers are excellent communicators. Consider gathering a training corp of internal managers, directors, and executives, plus external professional trainers and professors.
  5. Align the curriculum with the business. All the training courses, content, and activities should match your organization’s industry or sector. They should also align with your company’s culture and organizational goals. Choose the delivery methods that suit your learners best. Use technology in your favor. It should help you meet your corporate university’s goals while satisfying your employees’ learning preferences.
  6. Hire the best learning experience provider. Effective learning experience design engages learners and promotes information absorption, retention, and recall. And your provider should customize the courses they create to your learners’ profiles. That’s how you’ll convince your staff of the value of continuing education.
  7. Define how you’ll measure the success of your learning initiative. With the company’s business goals and strategies in mind, determine the goals of your initiative— are you trying to retain or develop talent—maybe a little of both. Ultimately, you want a plan to measure the impact of the university on your customers and stakeholders.
  8. Partner with the best business schools. Although some traditional universities fall short in preparing students to work at companies like yours, others don’t. And you can partner with the latter to give your employees the best of both worlds—academic and practical. Additionally, you’ll diversify your training offerings and teaching methodologies.
  9. Include certification programs. Your staff might have an interest in pursuing long-term development plans that prepare them to obtain professional certifications.
  10. Call in the marketing team. Work with them to create an internal marketing and communications plan to get your staff excited to enroll.
  11. Create a rollout plan. Make sure that it’s detailed and each activity has an owner.

A Corporate University Feeds Talent, Loyalty, and Leadership

Your company doesn’t need an exciting campus or a heavy brand name to create a case-study-worthy corporate university. So, roll up your sleeves and take action!

Remember that education is an investment. And if you invest in your employees’ futures, they’ll feel nurtured and will be loyal to your organization.

Today’s corporate universities don’t have to resemble yesterday’s boring corporate training programs. They can focus on the individual benefit of continuing education rather than purely the company’s most immediate interests.

The corporate university model allows for developing a curriculum that nourishes the talent that already exists in your employees. This commitment to talent and leadership development separates conventional organizations from high-level learning organizations.