The Future at "Corporate University

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The "corporate university," the "learning organization," "lifelong employee learning," and "knowledge-creating companies," are now part of the American business culture bandwagon that recognizes the links between learning and continuous improvement. What is its impact on companies large or small? How did this movement come into being? Where is it going?

The idea of a corporate university brings to mind for many their past college days. For contemporary American business the word university is an effort to collectively organize the delivery of information and learning to any employee. The current torrent of books and articles represents a rediscovery, or renaissance, as business grapples with the knowledge explosion felt throughout contemporary society.


This has happened before. Between 1895 and 1920 businesses in the United States upheld general learning for all Americans by supporting the nationwide effort that established universal, tax-supported, public education. A highly literate workforce was seen as an asset in most workplaces to support assembly-line manufacturing based on Frederick Taylor's principles of scientific management.

During World War I (1914-1918) business took education a step further into the workplace by adopting Charles R. Allen's four-step method (show, tell, do, and check) as the standard method for on-the-job training (OJT) that supported burgeoning assembly-line war industries.

World War II (1941-1945) sparked an expansion of workplace education. Job instructor training (JIT) was designed as a train-the-trainer system for first-line and second-line supervisors to support the vast expansion of assembly-line production in the U.S. defense industry. More than two million employees received corporate training in JIT, job methods, and human relations.

For the first time in American history, the Engineering, Science and Management War Training program (ESMWT), established during World War II, and the GI Bill, exposed millions of adults to college courses on almost every aspect of management, technology, psychology, and education. The idea of the corporate university was not far behind for by the mid-1950s, these newly educated managers formalized the use of in-house training and education programs. These early corporate universities were built around the concepts of management behavior and managing human resource development (HRD).

By the mid-1980s the Carnegie Foundation reported that business had invested more than $40 billion in the employee education efforts, reaching almost eight million employees annually. This represented a wide range of in-house education programs, seminars, and institutes teaching everything from computer skills and management techniques to sales and customer service. In addition there was a growing emphasis on basic skills training.

As the idea of offering a diversity of educational programs to a broad array of employees took hold, American companies began to formally build corporate university facilities. The Xerox Center in Virginia, the RCA Campus in New Jersey, the Holiday Inn University in Mississippi, and the Motorola, Arthur Andersen, and McDonald's facilities in Illinois, began to look very much like traditional college campuses with classrooms, dormitories, and recreational facilities. The growth of these facilities, and their relative impact on overall American business culture, began to establish the idea that employee education meant something far more than just narrow training. By 1988 eight corporations purported to offer about twenty college-level degree programs! The U.S. corporate university existed both as a broad educational concept and as an accredited degree-granting institution.


Today corporate universities of all types and sizes operate throughout the country, from Procter & Gamble College to IRS University. Yet all share a common mission: to transform the department, corporation, agency, or institution into a learning organization.

Just visualizing this concept of learning in a business environment is an enormous problem. Calvert, Mobley, and Marshall provide a useful blueprint for putting the theory of a learning organization-and corporate university-into practice.

Wabash National in Lafayette, Indiana, shows how the concept works in real life. In 1985, working from a card table and three folding chairs in a downtown Lafayette, Indiana, office, Donald J. Ehrlich began Wabash National to build truck trailers. This company's managers, besides calling suppliers whom they already knew for orders, also called on Purdue University's management department for training. "The philosophy was that the people at Wabash were either going to make it or break it," says Chuck Fisk, vice president of human relations in a front page story from the Wall Street Journal (September 7, 1995).

They began classes for workers who wanted to become welders and for recent immigrants who wanted to learn English. A worker complained to Ehrlich that he was wasting his profit-sharing (part of the company's participatory motivational culture) on parking lot improvements. Ehrlich responded by adding a course in business basics. Now everyone can learn the difference between a capitalized expense and an operating expense. This is part of a series of classes in business economics, statistical process control, the just-in-time inventory system, and team building.

All workers and managers have the opportunity to improve their skills (to comprehend the message), receive training in basic business systems, and then be educated in the problem-solving, decision-making, team-building process. Wabash depends on its workers to learn how a company makes a profit and how rapid growth and constant change will keep them profitable. Ehrlich says at Wabash, "We're trying to get workers to think about building trailers."

Over the last two years workers have participated in 164 practical teams such as the air-brake stroke and free-play adjustment team. These groups have saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars through practical, thoughtful production innovations.

Does Wabash support a corporate university? At Wabash, Jerry Ehrlich says, "three Einsteins would be no match" for a factory full of workers attending classes and contributing ideas. This is the essence of the learning organization/corporate university concept.

American business is at the end of an era of only managers controlling people, information, and ideas. Victor Hugo was right: "Nothing in the world is as powerful as an idea whose time has come." We have entered the era of the corporate university concept for every organization large or small.


The corporate university philosophy will become more pervasive throughout U.S. businesses with each passing year. Some say the next step will be a "virtual university," where workers cobble together learning from courses offered through in-house training, private seminars, and educational institutions. Distance learning, or "education on tap," cannot satisfy every employee educational need. However, the mixed use of high-performance, computer-assisted learning, and face-to-face instruction will continue to steadily grow throughout the corporate classroom, putting both large and small business players on a far more equal information/ learning footing.

Enter the "virtual training organization" (VTO). This "learning university" approach offers a varied menu of learning methods, including interactive computer technology, self-directed learning tools, and customized packages of print materials. The VTO university may feature self-paced workbooks, self-study courses, CD-ROM instructional packages, and a formal mentoring-coaching process.

In Silicon Valley, National Semiconductor's University is both global and virtual. It networks various academic institutions, business learners, training suppliers, and customers on three continents. This university's goal is to spread a learning vision and philosophy that develops the intellectual capital for future change.

U.S. business has passed from an era of large corporate bureaucracies to a new period where even bigger businesses are trying to organize around smaller work units. This is the ultimate goal of the corporate university philosophy and the ultimate challenge for future training and development professionals.
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