Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Corporate Universities and Learning Center: A Primer



Over the past forty years, the learning and development function within corporations based in the United States, Japan and Europe has become increasingly mission-critical, sophisticated and centralized. This trend is now accelerating within corporations based in the rest of Asia and the Middle East.

Corporations such as Infosys in India, Huawei in China, Singapore Airlines in Singapore and Etisalat in the United Arab Emirates have well-established corporate universities or learning centers. Other Asian and Middle Eastern corporations, both large and small, are pouring impressive resources into strengthening their learning and development function, including establishing corporate universities or learning centers.

Indeed, according to Annick Renaud-Coulon, the founder and chairman of the Global Council of Corporate Universities (GlobalCCU), Paris: “A tidal wave of corporate universities has touched the shores of the developing world. There are about 4,000 such institutes in the world. The number has more than doubled in the last decade.”

This primer is intended to provide an overview of the definition and functions of, and best practices in establishing and deepening corporate universities and learning centers.


A Corporate University (also referred to as a Corporate College, Corporate Academy or Corporate Learning Center) is a centralized training or education function within a corporation focused on the integrated development of employees on a basis aligned with the corporation’s values and business requirements.

Such a function is rarely regulated or accredited and authorized to issue formal degrees, only occasionally has a separate legal identity and may or may not operate from a dedicated facility. Accordingly, such function may best be understood in the context of a spectrum of learning and development initiatives, ranging from training programs (which would generally not be considered within our definition), to Corporate Learning Centers (which may or may not come within our definition), to Corporate Universities.

In Europe, corporations tend to stay away from, and, in some countries such as Germany, are prohibited by legislation from, referring to their learning initiatives as “universities”. The degree of formality, practicality or comprehensiveness that a corporation wishes to convey with respect to its learning initiatives may also have a bearing on the manner in which such initiative is designated.

Set forth below is a description of the spectrum of learning and development initiatives, considered in terms of functions, degree of concentration, posture towards alliances and deployment of technologies.

 Spectrum of Learning and Development Initiatives


A Corporate University may perform a wide range of functions and fulfill a wide range of purposes. These functions and purposes need to be well defined, properly prioritized and adequately resourced.  A taxonomy of such functions, considered in terms of advancing corporate objectives, advancing individual development and advancing human resource objectives is set forth below.


Corporate University Functions 1
Corporate University Functions 2Corporate University Functions 3


Corporate University Elements

Critical Questions

Establishing a Corporate University is not a trivial task and will take up substantial management and financial resources and will require considerable contributions from business units and internal experts.  It should also be recognized that most corporations end up increasing their learning and development expenditures through a Corporate University. And, despite considerable drain on resources, the “death rate” for Corporate Universities is high.[1] In many cases, well-resourced and strongly backed initiatives, even at leading corporations such as ABB and Ericsson, have been quietly shelved or allowed to operate at a considerably diminished scope.

Accordingly, it is critical to be absolutely clear as to the reason, functions and purposes for establishing a Corporate University and as to stages that will be followed in the development of a Corporate University.  The following are some of the critical questions that should be satisfactorily considered in connection with establishing a Corporate University:

What are the primary needs that will be addressed by the Corporate University?

Corporate Universities that are established to fulfil a CEO’s need to establish a legacy or a management team’s sense of corporate arrival may flounder unless these institutions tap into deeper organizational needs.  Successful initiatives to establish Corporate Universities are grounded on clearly recognized and well-grounded needs such as: (1) the need to compete effectively by having a more capable work force; or (2) the need to retain employees by making them more ‘mobile’ across the corporation’s spectrum of job functions.  In a number of cases, Corporate Universities have been successfully launched and perpetuated in the context of a major, sustained change management exercise.  In these cases, the CorporateUniversity can serve as a visible, high touch institution that embodies the change program. Well-grounded needs that are closely addressed in the CorporateUniversity’s mandate are an important part of the formula for success.

What functions and purposes will the Corporate University serve?

As previously noted, Corporate Universities have been used to serve a wide range of functions and purposes. This does not mean that they can serve all these functions and purposes. It is important that a limited number of targeted functions and purposes are identified and prioritized.  This enables the management and curriculum of the Corporate University to be structured around coherent, achievable objectives.

Should the Corporate University start with a wide or lean focus?

A widely focused Corporate University (Singapore Airlines provides a good example) will address all types of learning and development requirements and a wide range of employees.  A leanly focused CorporateUniversity (for example, Seagate’s quality-focused initiative in Asia) will focus on a narrow curriculum range (such as leadership or quality) and a correspondingly narrower range of employees.  There are also a proliferation of hybrid models, such as a lean strategy that develops a rich range of programs (for example, on leadership), and a wide strategy through e-learning that reaches out on a shallower basis to a wide audience.

Who will lead the Corporate University and what role will management and experts play?

In a number of successful cases, corporations have looked outside their institution to recruit leaders for their Corporate Universities.  BAE, Charles Schwab and General Motors have even hired academics to lead their initiatives.  Whether internally or externally recruited, the four most important qualifications for leadership appear to be: (1) ability to articulate and communicate a commitment to individual excellence in the context of advancing corporate objectives; (2) an ability to conceptualize and deliver a high quality curriculum; (3) an ability to marshal human and financial resources; and (4) an ability to master and deploy a proliferating range of learning technologies and methodologies.  Equally, if not more important is strong commitment to the initiative by the corporation’s management and internal experts: at GE it is almost inconceivable that a senior leader can emerge who has not devoted a substantial amount of time to advancing its Corporate University.

What are the budgetary resources that may be allocated to the Corporate University and how should these be prioritized?

Funding and sustaining a Corporate University can be an extremely expensive undertaking.  On the one hand, it is important to obtain adequate resources for the initiative. On the other hand, it is important to not spend so much as to render the initiative an easy target for budgetary cuts when the need arises.  Most critically, any funds secured for the initiative need to be properly prioritized.  In our experience, the five most costly prioritization mistakes are: (1) spending far too much on facilities and physical infrastructure; (2) spending too much on external executive education programs that have a narrow benefit and are not adequately integrated with corporate objectives; (3) spending large amounts up front on information technology rather than incrementally; (4) not spending enough on incentivizing internal experts to become teachers and mentors; and (5) not spending enough on curriculum and content development.

What are the learning and development gaps that should be initially addressed by the Corporate University?
A thorough learning gap analysis, preferably conducted by a consultant to ensure an objective perspective and comprehensive review, is an essential best practice measure.  This exercise should include surveys and interviews of employees as well as key stakeholders.

How will the Corporate University build up an internal constituency?

Bringing on board internal departments and experts is critical to success.  This task includes internal marketing initiatives, small e-learning projects to provoke interest, incentive programs for participants and training and support programs for experts. For example, Siemens provides internal experts with considerable training and support for internal experts in order to help enhance their capabilities as teachers and mentors.  To enable experts to quickly develop online content, a leading initiative in South East Asia established an instructional design centre staffed with instructional designers, content developers, graphics artists, software programmers and project managers.

What kind of alliances should the Corporate University build?

A successful Corporate University inevitably involves a network of alliances with academic universities, individual experts and academics, corporate bonding service providers, instructional design firms, e-learning companies and technology service providers.  Best practices in building alliances include: (1) inclusion of partners in the process of formulating objectives and designing solutions; (2) ensuring deep integration of solutions provided by partners; (3) inclusion of partners in the measurement and review process; and (4) standardization of contracts to enable cross-deployment of IP assets.

What kind of measurement metrics and processes should the Corporate University utilize?

Some leading Corporate Universities (Caterpillar, Xerox) intensively use Return on Investment (ROI) and other metrics to evaluate the performance of their Corporate Universities.  Others believe that broader measurements are all that is needed and that the creative process is stymied by too much measurement.  It is important for each corporation to develop metrics and measurement processes that are tailored to its own objectives and culture.


Corporate University Trend


As corporations expand and mature in Asia and the Middle East, they will increasingly look to strengthen their learning and development functions.  In some respects, the emerging corporate leaders in Asia and the Middle East are fortunate in that they can leverage the experience of other corporations both in the region and globally.  But they need to advance in measured ways to ensure effectiveness and sustainability of their initiatives.

Recommended Links

**Global Council of Corporate Universities (Global CCU) - http://www.globalccu.com 
**The Global Association of Corporate Universities and Academies - http://www.corporateuniversity.org.uk/acua/acua.htm 
**American Society for Training & Development - http://www.astd.org/ 
**The Masie Center - http://www.masie.com/ 
**CorpU - http://www.corpu.com/services/cu_design/ 
**Handbook of Corporate University Development (Paton, Peters, Storey & Taylor) - http://www.gowerpub.com/default.aspx?page=641&calcTitle=1&isbn=0566085836&sPassString=Y **Corporate Universities: Lessons in Building a World Class Work-Force (Jeanne Meister) - http://www.amazon.com/Corporate-Universities-Lessons-Building-World-Class/dp/0786307870 
**The Corporate University: Alive and Well Certainly the Old Model is Long Gone… But you should see what they’re doing now (Sue Todd) - http://www.corpu.com/site_media/journal/2006/1.pdf 
**Turn Your Corporate University into an Efficient Learning Organization Development Tool (Daniel Belet) - http://www.eclo.org/pages/uploads/File/ECLO%20Publications/Daniel%20Belet%20-%20Turn%20Your%20Corporate%20University%20Into%20an%20Efficient%20Learning.pdf 
**Business, Corporate Universities and E-Learning (John Jones) - http://www.techknowlogia.org/TKL_Articles/PDF/278.pdf 
**The Fujitsu Management Academy – Global approach with local flexibility (Liz Bert) - http://www.mannaz.com/articles/fujitsu-global-approach-with-local-flexibility 
**Allianz Corporate University - https://www.allianz.com/en/careers/develop-at-allianz/training-development/allianz-corporate-university/corporate-university.html 
**Corporate Universities: A catalyst for strategic human resource development? (Holland & Pyman) - http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=1537561&show=abstract

About Knowledge Platform

Knowledge Platform is a leading next-generation learning solutions company. Headquartered in Singapore and with offices in Delhi, Dubai, Islamabad and Tokyo, Knowledge Platform’s learning solutions - Strategy, Enablement, Content, Technology and Communities of Practice – enable institutions to design, develop and deepen innovative and effective learning strategies.

For additional information visit www.knowledgeplatform.com or contact Carsten Rosenkranz at crosenkranz@knowledgeplatform.com or Michael Dalichau at mdalichau@knowledgeplatform.com.

[1] European Corporate Universities & Academies Network (ECU ANET) - An Overview of Corporate Universities (2006).

To know more about Knowledge Platform, feel free to visit http://www.knowledgeplatform.com/.

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