Will Corporate Universities Become Extinct?

Michael Fernandes, a friend of mine who is presently conducting an international survey on corporate universities, recently posed this question. He asked whether corporate universities would go the way of the dinosaur. Just as an asteroid brought an end to the age of dinosaurs, is it possible that the digital revolution in learning currently underway may bring an end to corporate universities as we know them today? (By “digital revolution” I am referring to the exploding amount of learning content available to employees through the web outside the organization’s learning management system.)

It is a great question and obviously a very important one. I think the answer depends on the mission of the corporate university. If the mission is simply to provide learning opportunities for employees then I think the answer may be yes. A significant number of corporate universities today have just such a mission. Some provide learning as a mechanism to increase employee engagement or improve attraction and retention of the best employees. Others simply want to provide learning opportunities for their employees without regard to higher motives. In either case, the digital learning revolution over the next five years is likely to produce learning aggregators who can provide more learning opportunities at lower cost and with greater ease than any corporate university. Presently, corporate universities are busy looking for ways to make it easier for their employees to find and access this content, and the new term capturing this role is “curator” which is meant to convey the shift away from learning creation. It seems to me that this role is not sustainable in the long run for each corporate university. Industry aggregators, working at scale globally, will be able to provide this service much less expensively and at the same time offer a much greater breadth of learning opportunities. Why, then, would an organization continue to fund a corporate university to provide learning opportunities?

However, if the mission of the corporate university is to help the organization achieve its business goals, then there will always be a place for it. First, organizations often want customized programs which will require management from the corporate university even if an outside provider is selected to help. Second, some of the content is likely to be proprietary and will never be available from outside providers or aggregators. Third, even if the desired content were available outside the organization, there will always be an important role for the corporate university to work with the stakeholder to determine whether learning is the solution, identify the right target audience, set the appropriate learning objectives and content, and most importantly to work hand-in-hand with the stakeholder to ensure the learning is transferred in the work place. The issue of learning transfer or application, so vital to results, cannot be accomplished by an aggregator so this will remain the realm of the corporate university.

So the corporate university need not suffer the fate of the dinosaurs. A good corporate university with a mission to help the organization achieve its business goals by partnering effectively with stakeholders and senior leaders should live long and prosper. On the other hand, a corporate university whose only mission is to provide general, unaligned learning for its employees faces a much less certain future. In fact, it is hard to imagine how it will survive. This should serve as a warning for all those who are currently rushing toward becoming a first-class curator of digital content. If this is your only mission, you are likely rushing towards extinction.

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