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Corporate Universities Getting a Refresher

June 22, 2007
Corporate universities first emerged as training mechanisms in the 1970s. Championed by such early adopters as General Electric Co. and Motorola Inc., the concept rapidly took hold among many large organizations. More than three decades later, the idea is still going strong, although their purposes and applications are changing.

    Rather than populating them with a slew of training courses, companies instead are taking a more targeted approach to struc­turing in-house universities, experts say. Global competitive pressure, coupled with an exodus of retiring baby boomers, is pushing many U.S.-based multinationals to zero in managerial and leadership competencies.

    "The management ranks were cut so dramatically after the dot-com [collapse] that companies found their pipelines had run dry," says Sue Todd, president of the Corporate University Xchange, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based research organization.

    Today, companies are more concerned about top-line growth rather than bottom-line cuts to their workforces, Todd says.

    Campbell Soup Co. in Camden, New Jersey, launched its initiative, Campbell University, about a year ago. It spans Campbell’s business and operating units, including such food brands as Swanson, Pepperidge Farm and Godiva Chocolate.

    Campbell kept its university structure intentionally simple, with about 30 program offerings, says Mindy MacKenzie, its corporate vice president of human resources. Except for compliance training, the company shuns e-learning modules "because usage rates are so low."

    "We’ve taken a comprehensive view of trying to provide education, making sure that we define learning as being broad. It’s not just going to a training class [but also] being mentored, having a coach, learning on the job—all those things," MacKenzie says.

    Much of the training is geared toward improving the engagement skills of its managers, which Campbell ranks as a top priority for retention and career development.

    "We launched Campbell University because we needed to clearly articulate [to employees] the learning and development opportunities at our company. We’re focusing on what gives us the biggest bang for our buck, which is why we’re focusing on improving manager quality and bringing our leadership model to life" through a set of fundamental values, MacKenzie says.

    At Caterpillar Inc., a maker of heavy construction equipment, a corporate university was founded in 2001 in response to the company’s aggressive growth plans for Asia and Eastern Europe. When executives began analyzing the skills and competencies of its leadership, they found a gap.

    "We came to the conclusion that we could not achieve [the company’s] strategic 10- and 20-year goals unless we improved the learning environment," particularly by upgrading the competencies of the company’s 6,000-plus frontline managers, says David Vance, the retired former head of Caterpillar University and now a private consultant on corporate training.

    It was no small task. Up until that point, each of Caterpillar’s 28 global business units provided training autonomously, taking care of their individual training needs as they arose. Caterpillar pulled together a team of people from across its various business units around the world, sequestered them in the company’s hometown of Peoria, Illinois, for six months and gave them the task of developing a corporate learning strategy based on long-range business objectives.

    Although training programs were set up for individual job functions within Caterpillar, "what we focused on was providing centralized leadership to a decentralized learning function," particularly by developing a common global vision for learning, including leadership development.

    Caterpillar has been recognized by Corporate University Xchange for using its university to align training needs with business goals and for advancing knowledge sharing among its 94,500 employees and 105,000 independent dealers.

    Getting an exact figure on the number of corporate universities is difficult. Todd says some organizations choose not to publicize their training initiatives for competitive reasons, while still other firms simply apply the label of "corporate university" to their training function but fail to build in the strong governance or accountability that corporate universities typically entail.

    Even so, the traditional structure of corporate universities is undergoing radical change. Bersin & Associates, an Oakland, California-based firm that tracks trends in corporate training, predicts that 2007 will see more companies migrate away from offering huge catalogs of training programs in favor of a shared-services concept in which learning organizations focus "more heavily on strategy, alignment, measurement and performance consulting."

Workforce Management, June 11, 2007, p. 23 -- Subscribe Now!

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