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Corporate universities were once the new kids on the block. But they have grown up and now command respect from the companies they were set up to serve, and have begun to give business schools food for thought.

“Corporate universities are [today] attaching more importance to working within the company to identify problems and work towards learning solutions,” says Gordon Shenton, associate director of quality services at the European Foundation for Management Development.

“The corporate universities are not just providing programmes, but are working with the line managers in order to provide a better service in terms of needs analysis, and then working towards programme design.”

Swiss Re, Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen Coaching, to name just a few, now boast their own corporate universities, which are able to tailor appropriate training for employees. And such is the established nature of corporate universities that the Brussels-based EFMD has created the corporate Learning Improvement Process (Clip) to provide an assessment tool allowing for benchmarking, collaborative learning and sharing of best practice.

Once, corporate universities frequently encountered hostility from business schools; today, collaboration is the name of the game.

National Semiconductor University, for example, has worked with Stanford University for more than 10 years on the annual AeA/Stanford Executive Institute. Others have followed suit.

“From my perspective, business schools and corporate universities are complementary,” says Jan Ginneberg, vice-president of learning and head of Alcatel Lucent corporate university. “At the beginning, when corporate universities were starting, there was a bit of antagonism, but no longer.”

Alcatel Lucent, the telecommunications equipment supplier, has 21 corporate universities across the globe and, when necessary, these work with local business schools.

“We can tap into the local, regional, and sometimes global, programmes [of business schools],” adds Mr Ginneberg. As much as 50 per cent of the university’s spending on learning on employees is supplied from outside, he adds.

He says the corporate university does not exist merely to replace all learning, but sub-contracts to business schools as well. “We do the learning consulting, but we don’t want to have trainers for nonproduct-related matters and so we go to business schools [for professors].”

Alcatel Lucent takes its role seriously: about 60 per cent of staff have been through the university.

Another university with ties to business schools is the EDF corporate university in France. Established five years ago, from its inception it worked closely with business schools: Insead and ESCP-EAP in France and Cranfield School of Management in the UK. It is currently also working with Eada in Spain, and has started to work with IMD in Lausanne and Columbia in the US.

“Right from the beginning, that was one of the founding principles of the university, to work with business schools in so-called partnership,” says David Jestaz, director of the French power group’s corporate university. While the business schools deliver the programmes – such as strategy execution, leadership and cultural change – EDF co-designs them.

Relationships with the business schools are very cordial, says Mr Jestaz. However, the university takes a hands-on approach, analysing the company’s needs, assessing demand and relevance and working within the company to refine the concept ahead of any collaboration with business schools.

“When we work with the business school we are very focused on customer [employee] satisfaction, so the business school knows we want a very high satisfaction rate and if there is a drop in satisfaction – we are monitoring on a regular basis – we get back to the business school,” he says.

EDF focuses on those business schools that are willing to have open-minded discussions with it, adds Mr Jestaz. However, occasionally it encounters schools unwilling to work closely with it, offering off-the-shelf programmes.

Mr Shenton at EFMD says this is not isolated. As a result, “there is a widespread scepticism in the corporate university community about business schools’ willingness to invest in corporate education”.

Times are changing and corporate universities increasingly exhibit a strategic ability to work within the company, identifying needs and problems and then coming up with learning solutions.

“Business schools have got to understand these changes within corporate universities. They do not understand how sophisticated coroporate universities have become,” he warns. As corporate universities become more confident, they will also be more able to recognise areas where their needs would be better served by business schools. Co-operation will become more established. “For me, the corporate university is the docking station where the business school enters,” says Mr Ginneberg. “They are connecting, not competing.”

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