Sep 112011

Corporate University: Is the Traditional Corporate University Dead?

Corporate University: By Karl Moore and Phil Lenir, Leadership|9/07/2011

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Are traditional Corporate Universities dying off? Through some work we have been doing with Henry Mintzberg, Phil and I recently came aware of a fascinating corporate training program at ING Bank in Amsterdam.  ING is a global financial institution of Dutch origin, offering banking, investments, life insurance, and retirement services to 85 million customers in 40 countries. I have taught some of ING  employees  on the MBA at the Rotterdam School of Management – always impressive people.

The story concerns two of ING’s learning professionals, Mireille Jansma and Jurgen Egges, who oversee “innovative learning.” (Their job title alone piqued my interest.) In an effort to make corporate learning more responsive to rapidly changing trends and to expand its reach into ING’s total workforce, Jansma and Egges devised a strategy that they called “Connect, Connect, Connect.” Abbreviated Connect3, the name reflects their philosophy that the most effective corporate learning derives from connecting (1) people with information, (2) people with people, and (3) communities with communities.

The Connect3 strategy consists of a sort of 1-2-3 punch of coordinated “learning events” all focused on expanding the corporate learning platform.

First, Jansma and Egges gather articles and reports about relevant trends in management, banking, and finance. Next, they broadcast out what they call “Research Alerts” – a summary and links to the articles – using the social bookmarking site Diigo and via an email blast to any ING employee who signed up for the alerts.

Periodically, when an important Research Alert deserves serious attention, they host a “Knowledge Café” – an open meeting where the topic is thrown open for debate and discussion. Some cafés are open to specific groups of managers but others are available to anyone in the company at any level. Jansma and Egges produce a video to explore the topic before the Café is held, and managers can follow up on the same topic via small discussion groups and relevant materials from a firm called CoachingOurselves, run by by Phil and grounded in the work of of my colleague Henry Mintzberg.

When I heard about this, I was frankly rather impressed. I couldn’t help but think, “This is indeed innovative.” But what hit me most is that this type of corporate learning sits in such stark contrast to the world of standard corporate universities.

It made me ask myself: Are corporate universities on their way out? Are they anachronisms in today’s world, the dinosaurs of training? I pose the question with all due respect. Yes, corporate universities have come a long way and their ranks have increased for decades. The greatest corporate universities like GE’s Crotonville have reputations as solid as Harvard B-School. But can they remain the bastion of learning and the tower of knowledge in this new era of globalization, fast-paced technological change, and constantly disruptive business models?

With their focus almost exclusively on classroom learning, fixed topics, a formalistic student-teacher relationship, and lockstep planned curriculums, can they train the next generation of leaders, managers, and employees with what companies need to succeed in an increasingly competitive, chaotic world? Ultimately, I believe corporate universities will likely survive to the extent that they provide the core courses in management and leadership development, modified to account for the new skills corporate executives will need in the future—skills like creativity, flexibility, adaptability, and innovation leadership. But corporate universities will need to begin changing – pushing learning down into the everyday work world of their people, as ING is doing.

For the same reasons that I devoted a prior column to how corporate strategy can no longer be designed by a small group of executives sitting in a posh hotel suite, corporate learning can no longer be confined to a rigid set of classroom courses. Too much is different in today’s world, and learning has to begin reflecting this reality.

Decades ago, Peter Senge talked about the “learning organization.” This is now truer than ever. The corporate learning departments of the future must cultivate a “culture of learning” throughout the organization. The keys to this culture include encouraging reflection, enabling knowledge sharing, and instituting learning as a continuous process. While there may still be value in formal classroom learning, more of it will need to happen informally, through initiatives like webinars, brief workshops, and ING-style Knowledge Cafés. Companies will need to transform learning from a formal event or activity into something more akin to what is called collaborative (or social) and emergent learning. These types of initiatives focus on topics that are highly relevant and in-the-moment for managers and workers, and where the sharing of ideas and exchange of opinions lead to creativity and innovation.

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