Corporate Universities – A Case Against

There are lots of versions of corporate universities.  I actually worked with one client (Amtrak) who’s senior leadership decided they needed to have an Amtrak University.  The senior training leader–when it was clear she couldn’t fight this decision–simply relabeled the existing training and development  resources a “University” and set up a “campus” at an existing training site in Wilmington, Delaware.  Nothing else changed (in terms of content offerings, structure, focus) but hey….they were a University now.

I’m sure not all organizations that adopt a “university model” follow that approach.  But I”m skeptical of the value of adopting a Corporate University approach to learning, development and performance within organizations.  And I’m not the only one who holds this belief.  The esteemed Ruth Colvin Clark has noted some similar issues around a move to corporate universities.

I think there is a tendency to assume that a “university” has more prestige and functions at a higher level than a training department–and that this is therefore a good thing.  We (meaning people in general) often view the term “university” positively and assume that the work is more rigorous (rather than the converse of referring to your organization’s L&D shop as a “kindergarten”).

But this focus on making or branding an organization’s learning and development shop as a “university” seems to me to be mis-guided.  First, it places the emphasis on education versus performance.  The primary reason for learning and development in most organizations should be to improve performance.  That’s why most training evaluation measures (looking at reaction to the training or even if learning took place) don’t seem very relevant to me.  I can enjoy the training or even learn a lot yet fail to get better at my job.  When the focus is on learning rather than performance, it’s too easy for learning/training professionals to be unaccountable for results (“don’t blame me why results didn’t get better–the participants enjoyed the class!”).

Additionally, I’m not sure Universities provide a great model to help guide training and development functions.  While there are plenty of great examples of innovate learning approaches with higher education, most educators would say that the majority of universities still operate with very traditional models and approaches to teaching and the organization of knowledge.

Plus, the way that a number of organizations have treated the creation of a corporate university was with the centralization of the learning function (to create a “campus”).  The irony with this approach is that one of the better examples of innovation with many schools of high learning has been the decentralization of learning–moving out to the field, off the campus, away from a central-visible school.

I would argue that many organizations who’ve adopted a university model have done so either to “keep up with the Joneses” (i.e. seeing it as a trend they need to follow) or as a way to enhance the prestige of the training department.  I think a far better way to enhance prestige of L&D is to demonstrate a strong track record for being focused on and effectively building performance.

Leverage Points and Performance Work

Anyone who has studied systems thinking or looked at the science of complexity is familiar with the concept of leverage points.  A leverage point within a system is a point where a little bit of action produces a disproportionately large amount of impact.   For instance, if we have a fire in a room, it may take a lot of water to put the fire out.  Or, if the room is airtight we can simply shut the door and the lack of oxygen can shut the fire down almost immediately.  In this instance, the access to oxygen is a leverage point for the fire.

Donella Meadows has done some great work around leverage points for complex systems.  Besides identifying the 12 types of leverage points, Meadows has also determined generally which ones provide more leverage. Continue reading