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At worst, a corporate university is a loose collection of training programmes developed when a company discovers there is a need for a course.
At best, however, a corporate university can be one of the key components in the success of a company - especially when headed by someone with enthusiasm and a passion for education.
John Rogers, the head of Barclays University Business School, would appear to be the right man in the right job.
With a desire to encourage employees to learn as well as want to learn, he is the driving force behind the corporate university’s business school.
This drive has helped the Barclays corporate university blossom: forming links with Learndirect, a network of more than 2,000 online learning centres.
They offer access to e-learning opportunities and academic accreditation; encourage all employees to take advantage of the learning on offer and offer a three-year degree level qualification.
Barclays university was established in the early 1990s and the business school evolved several years later.
Over the years, says Mr Rogers, Barclays had invested significantly in learning but wanted to embed learning in the business and connect with the employees doing the learning. “It was push more than pull,” he says.
Focus groups showed that employees wanted control over their learning, choice of access and flexibility to suit their working styles. In the beginning the corporate university was more symbolic. “What we were doing was building a brand,” he says.
“In the early days,” he adds, “it was almost always content-free, because we were trying not to be too concerned about the content but more about the cultural change.”
Moreover, much of the learning Barclays was trying to encourage was already instituted within the company.
Barclays did not spend much time benchmarking its corporate university, known as bu. There was already a clear idea of where it would be positioned.
“We were very driven by wanting this to be a university for our people as opposed to it starting out as a university for senior management development,” he says.
Initially the university was quite separate from the company’s existing training function because the latter was to be re-engineered with staff being laid off and it was thought that merging the two would send the wrong message.
Indeed, it is only in the past year that bu has begun to take over all the learning in the group and offers all its 60,000 UK employees the opportunity - if they wish - to take advantage of bu’s offerings.
“Now we are adding this corporate identity over all we do, we have established a character for bu,” adds Mr Rogers.
Towards the end of 2002 bu identified a need for strategic leadership training for the group’s emerging talent.
“We made the decision to put a programme together which we would partner with a business school,” says Mr Rogers.
“And, because of that we used that opportunity to establish the bu business school - something that is content-specific - the target audience being senior leadership of the bank and executive level.”
The business school now runs the Lead to Win Minds programme with London Business School faculty. There is also a Take the Lead programme, which covers leadership and management and is targeted at first and second line leaders.
The programme is a series of classroom and e-learning based modules and 8,500 employees have signed up.
The programme recently won an excellence in e-learning award from the US-based Corporate University Xchange, a corporate education research and consultancy company.
All the bu business school content is outsourced “because of the type of learning I am trying to develop,” says Mr Rogers. However, the majority of learning done in the corporate university is designed and delivered in-house.
The bu business school made the decision to accredit content and started working with academic bodies. And last September it began offering exclusively to Barclays staff a certificate, diploma and BA hons in leadership. All three are accredited by Nottingham business school at Nottingham Trent University.
Mr Rogers says there has been an excellent response to the accredited programmes, with 58 Barclays staff currently studying for the degree.
However, whereas all learning within bu is free, those who wish to study for the certificate, diploma or degree must pay for it, ranging from £1,250 to £7,000.
Mr Rogers envisages bu business school working more closely with traditional business schools and building a more complete portfolio. But in spite of the outside accolades, endorsements from academic bodies and internal enthusiasm, he is not complacent.
“I am aware that you have to work very hard to keep it in the customer’s focus,” he says.
“You need to focus on keeping the corporate university intellectual. Stimulation needs to be retained, otherwise learning will quite quickly atrophy, it will revert to a rather limited list of things that have to be done, rather than being an engine for the human imagination.”
Mr Rogers sees part of his role as encouraging learners to take responsibility for their education and making it convenient and accessible for them to learn, so they can choose where and how they learn.
The corporate university is broadening its horizons.
It is also in talks with some of its external customers about supplying them with content from the Take the Lead programme.
For those unable to reach its headquarters in London, Barclays has centres in Manchester, Luton, Birmingham, Newcastle and Bristol so there is no excuse for employees not to take advantage of the opportunities.
“Our philosophy, at the heart of our approach is that we are in this for the learning and that learning happens on the job, it does not happen in the classroom,” says Mr Rogers.
“Much of the structure for learning we are developing now is about placing that responsibility for learning with our employees. For me it is about intent and position and in this way to bring it to life.”