Corporate Universities: Transforming Learning, Accelerating Results

For any corporate university to succeed, it must create value for the enterprise it supports. To build the organization’s market performance, learning must select a value proposition and deliver results.

Corporate universities and learning functions within organizations come in as many shapes and sizes as the businesses they serve. With the variety of demands, challenges and choices involved in running the learning function for an enterprise, how can you stay focused and operate like the bottom-line entity you need to be?

The first order of business for any corporate university revolves around the answer to a key question: “How will you create value for your enterprise?” Ultimately, you want to help build performance in the marketplace. Your charge is to contribute to your company’s competitive advantage through learning.

We can turn to Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema’s thought models, presented in “The Discipline of Market Leaders,” for an operating philosophy worthy of consideration. Successfully used across a variety of industries by forward-thinking organizations, the Treacy-Wiersema model gives corporate universities a fresh, proven approach for helping the enterprise compete in a terribly complex business environment. The premise is really quite simple: Pick one of three “promises”–make sure it’s the right promise for the good of your enterprise–and do it well.

Laying the Foundation: Value Discipline

“No company can succeed today by trying to be all things to all people,” Treacy and Wiersema write. Likewise, no learning organization can be successful by dabbling in a little of everything. For the sake of the enterprise, learning must be strategically focused around bringing value.

Treacy and Wiersema identify three specific “value propositions” inherent to the success of any organization: operational excellence, product/service leadership and customer intimacy. These value propositions are essentially promises to deliver on certain costs, quality levels, performance standards and convenience expectations. The secret behind the success of the model lies in choosing the one value that aligns best with your enterprise and putting it first—making it drive all of your thinking, decision-making, processes and culture. The result is a learning organization that is sharp and focused, with much greater impact.

Putting a corporate university spin on Treacy and Wiersema’s thinking, we might define each value proposition as follows:

  • Operational Excellence: Offering low-cost, low-hassle learning products/services, keeping the experience simple, convenient and hassle-free. This option provides the most economical solution for the enterprise.
  • Product/Service Leadership: Offering the best, most innovative learning products by becoming a product leader. Choosing this driver means learning innovation will be an ongoing priority with a strong push toward cutting-edge learning products and services.
  • Customer Intimacy: Supporting the establishment of long-term internal customer relationships in order to provide learning solutions tailored to specific needs. With this choice, the internal customer becomes the key driver of the learning function. The corporate university plays a consultative role, offering custom solutions, rather than simply supplying an off-the-shelf product or service.

Certainly, your learning operation needs to be good at all three value propositions, but you can’t excel in all three. The selection of a value proposition is the foundation that shapes every subsequent plan and decision you make as a learning organization. It defines your function, dictating the processes, support tools, systems and ultimately, the business model around which your university will operate.

Selecting a Value Proposition

There is a very disciplined thought process to help break down a strategy for value creation and then build it back up. This strategic thinking starts with the enterprise vision. The vision can be a short phrase that defines the future state, generally reflecting a five- to 10-year commitment. The vision paints a picture, so your workforce can “see” where the company hopes to be. Next comes the due diligence needed to clearly understand how the corporate university can lead the overall enterprise toward the vision. Whatever form of analysis you use, an understanding of organizational and customer needs, financial concerns, competitor impact analysis and human capital issues–all framed by the overall vision–is crucial to identifying the best value proposition fit.

This model has tremendous impact at the learning-function level, even if the enterprise doesn’t theoretically operate from a value-proposition standpoint. As long as the corporate university’s proposition supports the vision, everyone wins. Because a company’s vision projects into the future, the learning organization may need to change its value proposition as business evolves and the enterprise changes. Also, the value proposition selected by the corporate university need not be the same one chosen by the overall enterprise. Re-evaluate periodically to ensure alignment. After all, the ultimate measure of your success comes through your role in achieving business results.

Once you’ve nailed your value proposition, your driver is in place. You can now articulate your own mission—generally a two- to five-year commitment in support of the value proposition and the enterprise vision. This strategic thought process leads to tremendous insight into enterprise needs and the corporate university’s role in moving the organization forward. Understand the vision, conduct your analysis, choose your value proposition and craft your mission.

The value proposition chosen will drive your operating model. Each requires different support systems and metrics. The value proposition and the operating model together form the value discipline by which you will live.

Operational Excellence Model

Those learning organizations that select operational excellence will put a priority on mastering consistency, speeding up learning and streamlining delivery processes. The business structure is centralized, allowing for standardized operating procedures and coordination over the entire learning system. Harsh economic realities and new competition at the enterprise level have made operational excellence a necessary choice for some corporate universities, requiring efficiency and cost-effectiveness to be driving factors behind learning decisions for the enterprise. Fortunately, new computer information networks and learning systems make this possible, and aggressive use of technology can mean time savings and convenience. The operationally excellent learning organization can exponentially impact business by using its learning management system not only for operating processes, but also for measuring, monitoring and generating valuable talent management and performance data with which to make management decisions.

Scenario 1: Operational Excellence

Acting on its global vision, ABC Company plans to expand its marketing services operations to the Far East over the next two to three years. This is a costly venture with great promise. The value proposition of the enterprise has been defined as “customer intimacy.” ABC Company’s learning organization is comprised of highly skilled traditional trainers who have become self-taught developers of instructional content. Now, as ABC expands its size and scope, the learning organization operates in a reactive mode and struggles to build additional curriculum to meet the changing needs.

Result: With the enterprise’s global vision as an impetus, the learning organization collects data and trends from both external and internal environments, and concludes that the best way to reach all employees with learning opportunities in this part of the world is to deliver electronic-driven course materials that focus on customer service and consultative selling. Since cost-sensitivity is of essence, the university outsources its e-learning and LMS capabilities to manage costs, becoming more of a broker of learning intervention. A thoughtful transition plan reduces the head count of professional trainers over time. As internal training needs are identified, a core of learning professionals works with vendors to select appropriate course offerings, many of which are off-the-shelf. The company values the learning, thanks to the increasing number of targeted courses and curricula made available to all appropriate employees with no up-front developmental costs. In addition, the cycle time for providing the scheduled learning is immediate. ABC Learning is able to reduce costs while providing faster response and delivery time for internal customers, staying true to its value proposition of operational excellence.

Core Processes: This model requires a process for researching, reviewing and obtaining the best vendors based on price, speed and value. Some learning organizations have outsourced this process to take advantage of expanded resource networks and the potential of special pricing. The model requires a continuous search for vendors and learning products that provide the right solutions for your workforce. Overall, the process needs to be systematized, streamlined and replicable.

Culture Shift: The knowledge and skill sets required of core staff shifts from training and developing to knowledge of how to search for improved vendors, negotiate, process links for internal corporate communications and manage projects. Your culture becomes more of an enabler than one of strategic partnering.

Product Leadership Model

For learning organizations serving enterprises whose core competencies are already central to the delivery of learning–like technology companies or outsourcing enterprises–a product leadership operating model can be the right value choice. With the enterprise genius at their fingertips, the university’s learning processes can wrap around new learning inventions and product development, positioning the corporate university itself as a prototype for cutting-edge organizational learning. The business structure needs to be loose enough to foster invention and allow leadership to quickly reallocate development and delivery resources around breakthrough training.

Scenario 2: Product Leadership

HIJ Inc. is a fast-growing Fortune 500 company that focuses on quick delivery of cutting-edge Web-based technology. HIJ Inc. has come to realize its innovative knowledge and intellectual capital can bring competitive value for companies in new and varied industries. Most recently, HIJ’s research and development group discovered that their knowledge could support the learning communities of higher education and corporate learning.

Result: For years, HIJ’s learning function provided traditional training for its workforce. Outside-the-box thinking helped the learning group see its ability to capture the intellectual capital of the enterprise in a way that folds into the comprehensive e-learning technology environment for HIJ. The learning organization partnered with HIJ’s R&D department to study how knowledge companies can gain a competitive advantage through technology-based learning. The research culminated in the development of leading practices for using interactive learning technology internally. These practices, in turn, are viewed by HIJ as a new way to sell its technology—a new product for a new market. Thus, the learning function serves both as a state-of-the-art organization through its e-learning innovation and as a laboratory for the latest in e-learning delivery. It leads corporate learning by exploiting the company’s technological know-how and plays an integral role in the enterprise’s core business—R&D.

Core Processes: The product leadership approach requires structures that support collaboration. In HIJ’s case, teams of creative instructional thinkers must engage with the best R&D minds of the organization. Technicians need the knowledge and resources to move quickly to upgrade and change out applications. Systems and processes must be in place to facilitate ongoing innovation and change, including a vehicle to communicate with the workforce during any upgrade.

Culture Shift: Traditional learning professionals have no place in this environment if innovation and creativity are not a part of their genetic code. Everyone representing this learning environment must support the actions required to replace the old with the new to lead and embrace change.

Customer Intimacy Model

In recent years, corporate universities have tended to select customer intimacy as the model of choice. However, to succeed, the knowledge, skills, tools and processes required are very different from those of traditional training departments. The organization must consist of learning consultants (performance consultants, not trainers) who know the business of the enterprise, as well as the business or functional owners, and who can apply tools and processes that directly link learning with results. The business structure must allow these consultants to get to the field, close to the end user, to truly assess operations and goals, and identify learning needs.

Such an inside, consultative role preserves the intellectual capital of the enterprise (compared to out-tasking or outsourcing this role) and puts corporate universities in a unique position to help unit leaders see and understand the root of a problem rather than focus on a symptom. The insider’s knowledge actually can be used to change the way a unit does business.

Scenario 3: Customer Intimacy

MNO Company is a leading pharmaceutical company with high-speed internal product development processes. The company’s ability to identify market needs, develop drugs and test them, and get the drugs into the marketplace has been the single driver of success for MNO. The ongoing product portfolio requires agile change management practices with a focus on efficient and effective learning interventions.

Result: For several years, the corporate university focused on fast cycle time with a value proposition of operational excellence in support of the need for speed. Now, with efficient programs already in place, the learning organization determined that it must have performance consultants who are as knowledgeable in pharmaceuticals and marketing as content experts in key functional areas. These experts often engage in the proprietary conversations and meetings of their respective groups, essentially becoming team members. They are positioned to readily identify performance needs and provide customized learning solutions, getting the right knowledge to the right employee at the right time.

Core Processes: The corporate university requires relationship management and disciplined processes for the interchange between learning consultants and their respective internal customers. Learning consultants apply mapping techniques and processes that allow them to quickly connect employee behavior with business results. Depending on the level of intellectual capital at risk, the learning organization may opt to outsource some of the field instruction, so the learning team can be free to focus on the unit customer—listening, problem-solving and delivering total solutions.

Culture Shift: A core of the corporate university team must know the business and individual functional units extremely well and at the same time, have the training knowledge and tools to bring the right learning solutions to the business unit. To this end, the university may choose to pull internal experts from the business side of the enterprise to function as subject-matter experts (SMEs), engaging actively with learning consultants to determine custom solutions. This operating model is not about teaching—it is all about consulting strategically.

The Results

Each of the scenarios demonstrates one of many choices. However, in all cases, there are circumstances that make the particular value discipline right for the situation. The reasoning behind the value discipline selection and discussion on how this selection might play out in terms of the operating model (core processes) and the culture can be instructive as to how the learning function delivers value to its organization.

As Treacy and Wiersema explain, “It takes discipline to stick to your value proposition and bring value to the organization. But good business requires good discipline.” Consider building the value thought models into your leadership development curriculum to start your organization down the value proposition road. Teach your organizational leaders to use value proposition thinking to help define their needs in the units or areas they represent. Incorporate the thinking into your organizational models, and build it into your strategic planning curriculum.

Yes, the value proposition approach is a huge mindset and cultural shift, but the payoffs are just as big. It’s the kind of thinking that brings you back to center when you need it, helping to ensure bottom-line value for your company.

George A. Wolfe, Ph.D., is dean of Steelcase University, a corporate university supporting the learning needs for Steelcase Inc.’s workforce. Steelcase is a global work effectiveness company whose knowledge, products and services enhance the quality of people’s lives in work environments. George can be reached at

February 2005 Table of Contents