A pioneering programme aimed at chief learning officers offers a hint of the direction being taken by the next generation of corporate universities and learning departments.

Wharton business school and the Graduate School of Education will soon be offering a doctor of education qualification to chief learning officers and those about to take up such a post.

The initiative reflects the increasingly professional approach to corporate education, which is being managed by ever more senior executives.

“In a knowledge economy, recruiting, retaining and developing people is one of the most important strategies organisations need to pursue,” says Jon Spector, vice-dean of the Wharton School and director of executive education.

“Surprisingly – given this – there are no programmes designed for CLOs.”

The Wharton programme will comprise five certificate programmes, research activities and a dissertation. Executives may also attend one or more certificate programmes without pursuing a degree.

The part-time course is designed to help give senior executives the tools to manage the development and learning activities of the some of the world’s largest companies.

As well as focusing on learning strategies, the programme will also help CLOs work with other senior executives such as the chief executive and chief financial officer.

“A successful CLO must be – and must be seen to be – an effective member of the senior management team of any large institution,” says Prof Spector.

Since CLOs are the prime decisionmakers when it comes to buying the executive education programmes offered by schools such as Wharton, it is perhaps unsurprising that a business school wants to consolidate its links with these executives. However, the launch of the course also reflects the fact that those heading education have risen up the corporate hierarchy.

Whatever companies are calling their learning departments, corporate education remains a priority for the world’s biggest organisations, particularly as demographic trends mean many of their older, more experienced employees are starting to retire.

For some, the branding of learning departments as “universities” remains important. Martyn Levett, head of performance in the talent and learning directorate at Lloyds-TSB, believes that the University for Lloyds-TSB brand is, for the bank, an important attribute of the seven-year-old organisation. “We have a brand that’s well recognised across the group.” he says. “And that reinforces learning as something positive.”

Others, however, are shying away from the title in favour of less academic-sounding organisations. Cerner, a healthcare technology company, recently created a business unit called Cerner KnowledgeWorks.

The new organisation is not only responsible for the content, distribution and management of Cerner Virtual University but has allowed the company to broaden its horizons by bringing executives such as business strategists, system implementation professionals and knowledge managers into the unit.

“The companies now considering a new way of learning are really moving away from the term ‘university’,” says Jeanne Meister, a corporate education consultant.

“It implies that there’s a campus and that you graduate. The new emphasis is on getting the learning into the hands of the workers to improve performance – however you do that.”

In delivering this learning, however, corporate universities and learning departments are no longer going it alone.

The increasingly common “shared services model” has seen companies outsource everything from technology, helpdesks and the provision of online content to the more strategic elements of course design.

University for Lloyds-TSB, for example, works with external providers to come up with “blended learning” programmes, where information delivered via the web is supplemented with face-to-face training.

It also taps into the resources of institutions such as the Chartered Institute of Management and Nottingham business school.

“It adds value by having [programmes] accredited by external organisations,” says Mr Levett. “It provides employees with something that benchmarks them and is portable as well.”

For business schools this is good news, since it means more customers for their executive education courses and custom-built programmes.

Elaine Eisenman, dean of Babson Executive Education, has found her school being regularly contacted by corporate universities. Babson, she says, will often be called on to expand a company’s offerings or to work alongside its executives and internal faculty.

“Corporate universities are finding that – when they use their own people only – there’s a narrower focus. It is industry-specific, much more practical and more applied,” she says. “By coming to executive education providers, they can get a broader perspective.”

Business schools hoping to tap into the outsourcing trend in corporate education will, however, require a more flexible partnership approach, rather than simply offering companies their pre-designed part-time executive courses.

“In order to do something like this, a business school has to have some consulting capabilities to work with the corporation and figure out what part of their standard MBA programme can be customised,” says Ms Meister.

“So the executive education programmes that will be able to play well with corporate universities are the ones that can partner, rather that just come in and deliver.”

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