Overcoming Obstacles to Creating a Corporate University

By Kathryn Tyler Apr 1, 2012
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April CoverExperts say taking proactive, early steps can help HR professionals successfully launch a corporate university. Some common obstacles and pitfalls include:

Renaming a training department a “corporate university.” “A few years ago, many organizations renamed old training departments ‘corporate universities’ with no noticeable outcomes. Employees think of it as a gimmick. Just renaming the training department doesn’t gain a lot of respect,” says Mark Allen, Ph.D., a Pepperdine University professor.

Failure to use existing learning resources. Chances are, somebody has already built what you need, says Joseph Cabral, senior vice-president and chief human resource officer of North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. “Leverage that as much as possible. Learning organizations like to share,”he advises.

Leslie Teichgraeber, vice president of PepsiCo University, says her team “looked at what was in the system, took what was best and built on that to launch it globally.”

Lack of credibility among business units accustomed to managing their own training. “A main obstacle is credibility with the business units,” says Dave Fogleman, vice president of Sprint University. Learning officers need to understand the challenges and finances of the business units they are supporting. Establish operational credibility within the first year, he says.

“When we began, different sectors, lines of business or regions already had varying curriculums in place,” Teichgraeber says. “For groups with mature curriculums to get on board, we needed to partner and demonstrate how the PepsiCo University programs supported their business strategies. After building credibility with original programs, we have worked to streamline local offerings and reduce duplication.”

She explains PepsiCo University’s approach: “Our original strategy was not to build curricula that already existed, but to fill in the white spaces that operating groups felt were critical areas to address. We earned our stripes. One of the first programs was a noncompeting course, the First Time Manager Program. We designed it to be different from any other in the system, including different content, objectives, learning methodology and prework,” Teichgraeber says.

She adds that one of the factors in gaining employee credibility was the First Time Manager Program’s use of post-course continuous learning tools, such as using Outlook calendar software to remind graduates to complete certain takeaway activities. “No other program in the system did that. It’s so easy to go to a program and then go back to work and fall into the same patterns. We try to get the learner to engage peers and managers for behavioral change. We had to show the business groups we knew what we were doing and build programs that were as relevant—and maybe even better—than those they built on their own.”

Resistance to change. Defense Acquisition University serves 147,000 military and civilian employees of the U.S. Department of Defense. The biggest obstacle to getting the university off the ground was people who had grown too comfortable in the outdated “training department” model and failed to use hard data to show how their activities supported the organization’s goals, says Christopher R. Hardy, Ph.D., director of the university’s Global Learning and Technology Center. 

“People will try to wait you out, slow-roll you. If you do away with classes they love because they aren’t supporting the organization, you become very unpopular. You can’t underestimate how much people will resist change,” Hardy says.

Failure to track training-related metrics. Hardy says his organization had no way of measuring results until the enterprise hired a chief financial officer whose mission was time-accounting and measurement. As a result, the organization could quantify how many hours it took to prepare and deliver a course, and how much those hours cost in instructor salaries. “It changed how we run the place. Now, our meetings are all about data,” Hardy says.

Without a system to track metrics such as course cost per student, it is nearly impossible to determine the quantitative benefit to the organization. “Another obstacle was the lack of the ability to quantify operational improvements and success. Business systems had to be implemented that provided real metrics—a time-accounting system, cost-accounting system, budgeting system, survey system, data mart and executive dashboard—to provide the means to measure employee performance and progress,” Hardy says.

Lack of assistance to help learners design development plans. Employees “may be uncertain how to develop a suitable training plan,” says Terry Nulty, executive director for Accenture Talent & Organization and Accenture Academy.

She says a corporate university should include a framework of the various job roles within the organization, the tasks that belong to these job roles and the competencies required to execute those tasks. Then, managers can prescribe training to fill an individual’s skills gaps, and can update and realign training based on evolving strategies and changes in roles, tasks and required competencies. Focus not just on your organization’s current needs, Nulty advises, but on building a pipeline of future skill needs.

The author is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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