Steelcase University: Value Proposition and Process

Steelcase Inc. is a global work effectiveness company whose knowledge, products and services enhance the quality of people’s lives in work environments. In 2000, Steelcase opened the doors to Steelcase […]

Steelcase Inc. is a global work effectiveness company whose knowledge, products and services enhance the quality of people’s lives in work environments. In 2000, Steelcase opened the doors to Steelcase University, which provides strategic learning and development support enterprise-wide. With the creation of the university, corporate learning became centralized so development processes could be replicated to ensure cost-efficiency and consistency.

Steelcase University leadership seized the chance at startup to apply Michael Treacy’s value proposition thought principles within the corporate giant. After careful analysis, customer intimacy was selected as the driver for the learning organization, aligning strategically with the company’s vision for facilitating workplace productivity through work environment solutions. The university structure was built to directly support the customer intimacy mandate, playing a key role in how the organization goes to market with internal customers.

The Steelcase University team consists of learning consultants, course development and design experts, technicians charged with the technology infrastructure and course management, and trainers (including in-house Steelcase University trainers, Steelcase content experts and outside training contractors). Learning consultants have responsibility for forging a strong client connection, focusing on improving performance to achieve business results. “Part of our orientation with new unit customers involves helping them through a paradigm shift—moving away from the traditional view of training, where the focus is on what people should learn,” said Mark Meuser, senior learning consultant. “We help clients see that current business results are based on what people are doing now. To change results, we have to reset standards for future performance, gain management alignment to the new expectations and change what people are doing, not just what they learn. To this end, we have to get close to the customer. Our goal is to link work-unit objectives and essential business goals at one level and individual capability development needs at another. Among other things, we sit with management, talk with employees and analyze processes to determine the learning and development opportunities.”

Once unit needs (and gaps) are identified, new standards are established to align with desired business results. Learning consultants work closely with subject-matter experts (SMEs) who continuously help leverage Steelcase intellectual capital and keep the learning based on real-world performance in support of critical job roles. The combined intelligence is handed off to a group of highly competent project managers, instructional designers and course-tech developers who identify or design and develop a learning product. The final product is often a blended solution that specifically targets the business or functional unit.

Once developed and tested, final modules are loaded onto Steelcase University’s learning management system, and the course management team promotes and manages the coursework (e-learning and blended solutions), tracking employee talent through a proprietary Web site portal, accessed globally. Training experts drawn from Steelcase University trainers, Steelcase content experts who’ve been trained to teach or outside contractors handle course delivery.

The organizational structure and the operational business model actively support the university’s value proposition, ensuring learning solutions stay closely tied to the customer. The structure and model are designed to allow for out-tasking as necessary, facilitating work flow while protecting the intellectual capital of the highly competitive enterprise. As demands fluctuate, developers, designers, tech developers and trainers may be contracted to work inside the university, reporting directly to learning organization managers who ensure adherence to Steelcase University processes. “For us,” said Deb Tolsma, supervisor of learning solutions, “the out-tasking model is extremely helpful because we can keep our full-time project management resources focused on knowing that customer—identifying and relaying changing needs. The contract staff then executes the custom design and development of the proprietary solutions. This approach serves our clients better than depending on complete outsourcing.”

Clearly, the customer intimacy driver serves the learning organization and Steelcase Inc. well, ensuring targeted learning solutions through learning consultants and talented developers; facilitating timely delivery through structural flexibility; and, in the end, achieving business results by affecting performance and what people do on the job.

George A. Wolfe, Ph.D., is dean of Steelcase University, a corporate university supporting the learning needs for Steelcase Inc.’s workforce. George can be reached at

February 2005 Table of Contents