Quick take: As businesses continue to face ongoing challenges, finding the right strategy for employee learning and development is crucial. A specialist shares her views on how corporate universities can successfully fulfill this role supported by online learning.
Currently, it is more important than ever for companies to develop learning programs that align both with business and organizational goals. Finding the right strategy for employee learning and development is one of the biggest challenges companies face in their efforts to drive better business results, and corporate universities (CUs) are a great resource to engage and prepare employees to face the changing needs of their organization.
Annick Renaud-Coulon is a worldwide expert in corporate universities, the founder of the Global Council of Corporate Universities (GlobalCCU), a network that gathers and highlights and President of Univencis (France).
In this interview with E-Learn Magazine, she shares her vision about the current landscape of corporate universities, the role that learning technologies play in improving their dynamics and the future of employee learning and development.
How do you see the current landscape of corporate universities around the world?
Corporate universities continue to develop and become more professional around the world. There has been a staggering amount of change in this field over the last 10 years, and that will likely continue, mainly due to new and digital technologies. Today, CUs are heavily impacted by technological innovations, whether in the production of learning and development activities, marketing and branding, communication with stakeholders, maintaining client loyalty and optimizing their business models, or in their resources in general. Although there may be changes with technology, one thing that does not change, is the deep sense of these learning and development structures. It is important to remember that a corporate university is not a training center.
Here is my definition of a CU: it is an educational structure designed to help private and public, commercial or noncommercial organizations challenge and implement—through learning and development management—their strategies in terms of human, economic, financial, technological, digital, communication, social and environmental terms, while embodying the culture, the identity and the brand of the organization by all of its stakeholders.
Which would you say are the biggest benefits corporate universities offer companies and employees?
The biggest benefits for employees are: they receive a better induction into the organization, gain improved professional and personal development, and learn new technical and behavioral skills, which allows them to feel at ease at their job. This improved development increases their employability and mobility (thanks to an openness to the world), and ensures they have a better understanding of the organization, its stakeholders, clients and suppliers, as well as products and services.
For companies, the biggest benefits are reciprocated. What businesses expect from their CUs is to optimize their overall performance in business, innovation, image, reputation and so on. They expect pragmatic results; learning solutions that are very different from what traditional universities teach. Because of this, CUs cannot be in competition with educational systems that have different missions—each needs the other.
Where would an organization start setting up such a project?
Creating a CU should be done with as much involvement as possible from the CEO of the company and not at the bottom of an HR silo. Without the CEOs involvement, the CU would be too far removed from the realities of the business and could only have a truncated vision of what is really happening on the ground—not the full needs of internal and external stakeholders.
This point is crucial, and it makes a real difference between a training center and a corporate university. Physically, it is important to set-up such a project near the company headquarters. As it is called, a ‘corporate’ university, it would be ideal for it to be located at the ‘Corporate’ headquaters.
What kind of skills and abilities are corporate universities focused on developing?
While a training center is always focused on technical skills, employability and the security of individuals—a true CU is a strategic and operational lever centered on the business and culture of the company. I like to say that it is a strategist’s factory, a place where minds work together on the decoding of company challenges and the world (near or far) that surrounds it. One of its main objectives is to identify any risks that may impact the performance, and even the longevity, of the company itself.As a result, it is difficult to list the skills and abilities a CU develops. Everything depends on the company and its activity sector, the health of the company in its ecosystem, its strategies and projects, the nature of its workforce, etc. Nevertheless, you can find programs, projects and events with varying contents such as: strategic, induction, technical, functional, leadership and management, pedagogical activities, such as research and development.
What role do continually evolving learning technologies play in improving the dynamics of corporate universities?
Digital technologies are undeniably a fantastic source of innovation and performance for corporate universities.
- In the production and development of an educational offering totally in tune with technological trends, corporate universities have gained a considerable contemporary image by creating virtual environments that enable learners to transfer or to create content through multimedia, mobile phones, TV channels, audio lessons, videos posted on YouTube or external social networks. They develop virtual libraries, e-books, educational games, self-development electronic tutorials with online assessments, webinars, communities of practice in blended learning, virtual reality training programs, , etc.
- They are able to maintain their attractiveness and the loyalty of their client system (who orders, who uses, who pays) —thanks to a strengthened ability to mobilize their stakeholders around interactive platforms such as chatbots, blogs, collaborative learning devices, communication and geo-localization of sophisticated, enriching comments posted by users, virtual Personal Assistants, etc.
- In their marketing and brand management towards their internal and external stakeholders, they create and run e-learning portals for employees of the company, and some of them also for their families and even for external target audiences or for any public.
- CUs optimize their business models, since they can reach a considerable number of people around the world 24/7, adapt content to learners who can study in their own language, remotely deliver certificates for participation in programs, reducing travel, rental and maintenance costs, etc. When implementing company business strategies, some invite their CEO to be the promoter of the company’s strategies on their e-learning platform.
But the race for digital modernity must not blind corporate universities. Fortunately, it is very rare for a CU to be completely online. Corporate universities must be vigilant, develop a holistic, very human and efficient offer, harmoniously combining face-to-face and virtual, tradition and innovation, and constantly prove their raison d’être (reason for being), which is to:
- Mobilize collective intelligence
- Create social bonds within the company
- Enable employees to unite around the company’s brand and culture and meet to exchange, confront, discuss, cultivate and understand transformations in the world
- Challenge the future
- Support the implementation of business strategies
- Lead networks or transformative projects and respond with education and learning to solve core business challenges
And while much of the work cannot be handled outside business walls—let alone through the Internet or social networks—corporate universities must consider digital technologies as a tool, not as the absolute answer.
How do you see the importance of online learning for corporate education?
Online learning for corporate education has its positive and negative effects. Today, it is common to use distance-learning technologies. Technically, corporate education has moved from standard e-learning to mobile learning, gamification, virtual reality and other inventions—all of which are more attractive than the other, with shorter and shorter learning times. Some of the ways online learning is important for corporate education include:
- It gives learners the impression that learning is effortless (and that it can happen within a short amount of time), and that it does not encroach on other professional or personal activities.
- It gives corporate education managers the impression that online learning costs less. There are, of course, significant gains when it comes to reaching large cohorts within a limited amount of time, or to highlight, in an intelligent and attractive way, the scientific or technical elements of certain skills to be acquired. It is absolutely undeniable. And there is no need to give suppliers, who compete constantly to create new innovations, the belief that online learning today is an instrument of conquest of competitive advantages in an enormous global scale market. The online learning tools are now more efficient and user-friendly, and have quickly become the most effective way to reach the targets of corporate education, regardless of location and time.
- It gives the impression that it costs less for the company. On this last point, nothing is less certain, because—what value are we talking about (economic, political or moral), and how are we able to measure the true return on investment? Yet, when you ask professionals in corporate universities what their online program-monitoring rate is by the beneficiaries, it is extremely low, except for gamification. Some of them say this self-service does not contribute to alignment or loyalty, but could be a reflection of poor management, lacking human resources maturity and/or minimal concern for employee development. The question arises as to what is of real value for people and for corporate education. The connection or the content? The communication or the action? The innovation or the tradition? The individual or the collective? Online learning should be used wisely and certainly not on its own.
The problem/question is the transformation of corporate education itself into its mission of transmission. Today’s educators tend to use online learning and technologies more than necessary, focusing on the quick and visible success of the short term, and forgetting about the long-term.
Program managers have slipped into a path where communication takes pedagogy’s space . They reinforce individualism and the loneliness of the masses riveted to their smartphones, locked in their bubble, which makes one lose sight of common sense. It appears that if it is not solidly supported by well-prepared educational teams, having integrated all the ambitions and missions of Corporate education, as well as all the issues of the environment, – here and there, yesterday, today and tomorrow – online learning and technologies are not necessarily the best way to serve their client system. We are at a point where Corporate Universities have to become a space of digital detoxification.
What are the determinant success factors in developing and implementing a corporate university?
The determinant success factors for corporate universities are to draw their legitimacy from the CEO and senior management team—playing a strategic role inside and outside the organization, and dealing confidently with the effects of progress.
Also, creating professional brand marketing and communications that align with the brand, as well as developing a high value-added offer that does not exist anywhere else in the learning and development sector. It’s also its capacity to bring teams together (physically, around learning events, and virtually, through digital devices and online delivery formats) to solve real organizational problems and develop a holistic approach to business education where the human and the digital can support each other. Lastly, develop an agile environment that can meet the short and long term needs of the organization.
What should organizations look for when choosing faculty members for a corporate university? In what aspects does that process differ from what takes place at a traditional university?
Corporate universities need to have faculty members who, just like traditional universities, have multiple skills such as strategic, educational, logistical, administrative and communication competencies. As a CU reflects the business and the company culture, they also need pragmatic team members with a good relationship to time and space, so they can effectively deal with short- and long-term goals and in a globalized space. It is also better if they already have solid experience within the company, or at least its sector. In some countries, where traditional universities are very reputable, CUs may be run by deans who have an academic background. There is no rule in this matter—it really all depends on the vision that business leaders have of their corporate university and what they want to do with it.
The Future of Corporate Universities According to Expert
For Annick, there’s a huge future ahead for corporate education. Here are some of the main trends she identified:
Web giants Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft (also known as GAFAM) in the United States, or Baidu, Alibaba and TenCent (also known as BAT) in China, as well as other digital technologies or social network providers, have begun to invest in the knowledge economy. The financial impact of this is huge—as they inject mass standardized learning content of their choice at a low cost into their educational technology pipeline. Moreover, they promote them directly to the targets of their choice that they track down through browsing Net history. And, like academic education, corporate education will have to continue to be innovative and transform itself so as to not be overthrown by the digitization of the economy and our societies.
2. Training is dead. Long live learning!
As many workers become more vulnerable in their professional lives, others are developing their careers according to their goals and with much success. There are strong aspirations to work differently, to be listened to and have a welcome space for exchanging, sharing and debating ideas. In a short period of time, the act of learning has transformed itself—its unit of measurement has gone from weekly, to daily, and now, to up to the minute—and it must be enjoyable.
This is a great opportunity to note that traditional training is dead. While there are still companies that offer training based on the three-sided relationship—trainee, trainer and knowledge—is this not obsolete in the new knowledge-based economy? This means having to re-think the principles of corporate education…which methods to use, which stakeholders to mobilize, as well as the marketing and communication of learning.
3. The Mobilization of Collective Intelligence
Corporate education has to mobilize collective intelligence, which is never the sum of individual intelligence. Individuals in charge of corporate education will need to be more open to the outside world, to develop their sensors on world changes, geopolitics, the economy and sociologies at work. The advent of CUs has made it possible to elevate corporate education to the strategic level, and to make it a powerful lever for action thanks to the ability to make teams work together.
4. Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility
In this interdependent world where we live in, companies must also tackle the implementation of their social and environmental responsibility and go beyond standard communication. However, I believe it requires that employees go through an education space. CUs and corporate education, in the broad sense, must be involved in the implementation of corporate, social and environmental responsibility. It will be a huge transformation to undertake in western countries, where little effort has been made by corporate education, compared to emerging countries, where there are some very remarkable approaches in this area.
5. Partnerships with Education Systems
Corporate education in general, and CUs in particular, will have to establish more bridges with education systems, without replacing traditional universities, business schools or professional schools. These two worlds should consider themselves as complementary, and combine forces to maintain an edge over emerging technologies and AI.
6. The humanity of the company in a world that is dehumanizing
While technologies are useful, they also create a desperately one-dimensional world. A world of voluntary submission that is very intrusive in our personal lives. A world that threatens our fundamental freedoms. And an unidimensional world based on a dominant culture and language to the detriment of others. Bets are open to know who will win the battle for world leadership between the United States and China. The consequences are on our varying cultures and way of life, and more fundamentally, for our individual and collective freedoms, and therefore, for our democracies.
If we take just the example of facial recognition, 170 million smart cameras are already installed in China, and that number will rise to 600 million by 2020.1 Today, if Mark Zuckerberg is struggling, it is because a wave of revolt against the GAFAM is beginning to rise on the part of politicians and public opinion, and that is good news. Nevertheless, if we imagine that Americans may be able to follow Europe in its requests for protection of personal data, it will not be the case in China—where private life doesn’t have the same importance.
Corporate education will therefore, increase its efforts to develop learning in judgment and thought, critical thinking, as well as the pleasure of working with others. It will be a place of education only by becoming a place of culture—not only company culture, but general culture made available to employees. Therefore, corporate education will contribute in its own way, to our world emerging from the populist, individualistic, destructive, robotic and dehumanizing rut into which it sinks into a little more every day. Corporate education will remain a link in the education chain throughout life. With humility, it will have to learn for itself. Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition, said Montaigne. Is there not a more beautiful survival manual?