Corporate Universities in a Nutshell

A corporate university is an educational institution that facilitates organizations to cultivate organizational and individual learning and knowledge. The primary goal of a corporate university is to provide the infrastructure for employee and management training and leadership development and to maintain corporate competitiveness in a changing economy.

The term “corporate university” might conjure images of boring training and hours of video, but don’t sell them short: When executed well, corporate universities can be a major play for employee productivity and retention.

While you hope that your employees come prepped and ready to tackle their jobs, the truth is that what they learned in their university and college programs might not be enough to prep them for life in a high-level organization. From contextual learning to an organization’s culture, there are things that employees just can’t learn in a traditional post-secondary environment. What’s more, many employees come to work wanting to learn and better their position—what about them?

It’s true that corporate universities have been executed badly in the past, but today’s generation of at-work learning and certification has taken a major step up with organizations that are doing it right. From Google to Zappos, corporate universities have taken on more meaning than just an afternoon of mandatory video tutorials. Like a traditional university, these corporate versions seek to make employees more prepared, better educated, and more confident at work. By emulating some of the best of the best, any organization can ditch the boring learning for something more meaningful and ultimately, more effective.

The Corporate University: Then and Now

Workplace learning can be traced back to 1914, when both GE and GM unveiled programs to educate employees on topics like safety and compliance. The idea, however, didn’t really catch on until 1950, when the term “corporate university” first appears on the radar. The idea that it’s not just training, but real education, seems to have gained traction in the 1980s, when most corporations adopted the idea of employee training to help create a more consistent experience across branches.

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Historically, workplace learning gets a bad reputation for being too corporate. Learners and employees can see through to the real reason they’re being trained, and it usually centers on profits and productivity for the organization—not the individual. The result is usually learners that are disengaged and bored by the content, and not particularly motivated to learn.

The idea of a corporate university is where traditional learning stops. Corporate universities focus heavily on the individual, from offering different courses and delivery methods, to crediting learners for taking courses and completing training. Instead of being purely for the benefit of the organization, a top corporate university proves that by benefiting employees individually, the entire organization benefits.

Corporate University Benefits: Why They Make Sense

When organizations already have learning in place, soliciting executive buy-in for a corporate university style training program might be a tough sell. But by highlighting the main benefits for the organization (disguised as learner benefits), it might be the spoonful of sugar necessary to make the plan go down just a bit easier.

Consider these benefits:

  • Content delivery management. Having complete control over the content delivery means organizations can choose the methods that suit learners best, rather than some canned training that is the same across the board. One learner might be more comfortable with videos, while another prefers microlearning updates sent to her phone. Either way, universities give organizations more control over how users experience content.
  • Setting the tone for leadership development. Keeping leaders in-house is an issue almost all growing organizations face. A corporate university approach gives learners the chance to progress to leadership positions while proving that an organization is serious about grooming and promoting from within.
  • Reinforcing culture. An organization might be a great place to work, but on-boarding and other training initiatives don’t always match. Corporate universities help to solidify the brand and culture across all interactions, acting as a major advantage for potential employees and leaders.
  • Supporting innovation and development. Which organization would be seen as more conducive to development and innovation: One that forces all employees to complete the same learning, or one that allows an individual approach? Corporate universities are breeding grounds for new thoughts and ideas, because they’re structured in such a way that allows for natural discussion and collaboration among students.

Convinced yet? Check out these seven high-level learning organizations and how they’re using corporate universities to train employees, create better change management, and encourage leadership succession.

1. Google’s Googleplex: Using play for spontaneous exploration.

Googleplex might be the closest a corporate university has come to mimicking a traditional university experience. The campus, combined with 13 different types of student settings, gives learners a chance to explore spontaneous interactions with other employees, enjoy the campus architecture, and also spend up to 20 percent of their workweek on pet projects.

2. Zappos Insights: Helping companies foster better culture.

Zappos insights isn’t just for employees, but any company that wants to operate the Zappos way. Zappos attributes its success to encouraging more transparency, engaging employees, and fostering core values, and Insights is a method for other companies to capitalize on Zappos’ dedication to a positive workplace culture.

3. McDonald’s Hamburger University: Developing talents for employee retention.

Fast food isn’t exactly known for its employee retention, but that’s where Hamburger University comes into play. By nurturing talent and promoting leaders, McDonalds successful retains some of its most promising rising stars. In fact, Hamburger University has a lower acceptance rate than Harvard, proving that the fast food chain is willing to invest in only the most promising scholars.

4. Kettering University: Prepping the next generations of STEM experts.

Known as the “West Point of industry,” Kettering started as a GM co-op. While it has split from the automotive giant, the co-op model still stands as a method of giving STEM employees the real-world experience they need in engineering, science, math, and other tech careers. Kettering is the real deal, offering degrees in science and engineering, as well as creating invaluable connections that help graduates get jobs (and change the world).

5. Kaiser Permanente Med: Creating a diverse medical field.

Kaiser Permanente announced plans to open a medical school that takes new technologies and a changing medical landscape into consideration, in hopes of attracting a more diverse field of motivated, innovative applicants. Hands-on learning will be combined with a curriculum that teaches students to adapt with patient diversity.

6. Pixar University: Putting emphasis on employee education… not just company learning.

The same company that brought us “Finding Nemo” is finding motivation in employees by focusing on the individual. By offering employees the chance to grow professionally through continuing education in everything from fine arts to skills training, Pixar improves morale with an eye on employee retention, in addition to corporate learning. The workplace culture is such that Pixar management hopes to keep employees around for 25 years (and another few decades of amazing movies).

7. Apple University: Establishing the “Apple Way” through better culture.

Apple sets itself apart by doing things differently, and it expects the same from its army of employees. Apple doesn’t only teach employees how to do things differently, but how to think differently as a fundamental part of their job. In return, employees feel better prepped to take on leadership roles, speak up, and take risks to keep the tech visionary’s edge over the competition.

Obviously, this is just a small sampling of how some companies are using employee learning as a cornerstone for growth and excellence. But your organization doesn’t have to have a sprawling Google-like campus or the imagination of Pixar to implement better education.

Some takeaways:

Pick one or two main goals for the learning. Each of the companies above had a laser focus on one or two goals their learning should accomplish. This creates more specific, more meaningful content that is much easier to digest when a learner understands the purpose behind what they are learning and how it fits into the large picture.

Make learning more personalized. By shifting focus from the organization’s benefit to the benefit of the individual, corporate universities help learners to see purpose of continuing education.

Make sure to cover the soft skills. By increasing leadership opportunities and improving communication, corporate universities allow employees to pick and choose their own career path at a given organization.

Design is everything. From the environment the learning takes place in, to the design of the learning itself, there is an effective way, and a poor way to set it up. Make sure to take the time to create an environment that promotes learning.

The result? Employees that are satisfied, nurtured, and loyal to the company that was willing to invest in their futures.

Today’s corporate universities hardly resemble the dull training programs of yesteryear. Developing a curriculum that truly focuses on the individual is the best way to extract all of that raw talent and potential from each and every employee. That commitment to change management, leadership succession, performance management, and talent management is what separates the low-level learning organizations from those companies that are truly great.