Article

Do corporate universities create a competitive advantage?

June 13, 2022

To centralize learning or not to centralize learning? That’s the tech skill development question. At the beginning of the pandemic, a stunning 79 percent of organizations were planning or researching a corporate university or center of excellence model for technical training. This surprising number came from a Training Industry research study, and the reasons for the trend have become starkly apparent in 2022.

Executives want to align learning programs with strategic business goals, and it's not possible to do that with decentralized training approaches. If your organization is still operating with a decentralized model, you’re missing out on the ROI available from a shift in your approach. Check out the research findings below to learn more.

 

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Corporate university data from early in the pandemic

When asked to describe their current training model, 56 percent indicated a decentralized or partially decentralized approach. In contrast, fewer than 10 percent responded with “Corporate University.” The numbers below, compared with the 79 percent figure, illuminated an impending shift toward centralized, holistic learning approaches.

This graphic shows that 38 percent have a centralized approach to technical training today; 29% have a decentralized approach; 27% have a partly decentralized approach and only 6% utilize a corporate university model for technical training. This 6% number is why the 79% is so striking. What is causing so many to explore a corporate university or center of excellence model for their technical training?

 

Centralized models come in many shapes and sizes, but here are two common ones:

  • Corporate university: An educational entity inside an organization. It’s a strategic tool to conduct individual and group learning activities in service of organizational goals.

  • Center of excellence: A team, a shared facility, or an entity that provides leadership, best practices, research, support, and/or training for a focus area.

A corporate university often lives under the L&D umbrella, though this is not always the case. In contrast, a center of excellence often resides in a technical department such as R&D or IT.

What can these models do that’s not easily achieved with decentralized and federated models? Training Industry and Pluralsight acquisition DevelopIntelligence co-hosted a webinar last year to explore the survey results and this question in particular.

Webinar participants shared these pain points

DRAWBACKS OF DECENTRALIZED TRAINING

  • Lack of uniform standards across groups

  • Differences in training approaches and formats

  • Uneven quality of training

  • Duplication of efforts

  • Inefficient contracting (four versions of the same course from four different providers)

“We don’t usually know what the other training teams are up to,” reported one attendee. “Sometimes, we end up duplicating work on certain projects because of that lack of awareness.”

Another noted, “When moving from ILT to video due to COVID, it was like the Wild West with no standards.”

DRAWBACKS OF FEDERATED TRAINING

  • Inconsistency in standards

  • Very different levels of quality in learning solutions

  • Lack of clarity regarding who leads generic skills training

  • Conflicting or different messages in the training

  • Duplication of solutions

  • Difficulty tracking the various training initiatives in a central LMS

One participant said, “It’s hard to stay plugged into all the various departments that might be launching new processes or products.” Some of these could benefit from “our assistance with design and delivery, so they don’t go ‘rogue’ and do something on their own that might not be the most effective.”

When the pandemic hit, the federated model experienced an added challenge. “We have several internal departments/practices that typically lead their own training. However, when moving virtually, each struggled to virtualize their content,” explained one attendee. “They came to our HR team for assistance. This has created an overload of work and a backlog of projects.”

Those using or considering a corporate university model described challenges, too. One attendee wrote, “Tech training changes so fast that keeping up is nearly impossible. The shelf life is short. You have to weigh the time required to develop content versus the lifecycle of that content.” This begs the question, “Who updates the curriculum and how?” And this leads to a broader discussion. Departments within an organization often disagree about who should own the learning programs for software developers and IT professionals.

Stakeholders had mixed opinions about the best place to house technical training

Should it live in a department that specializes in adult learning and instructional design? Or, is it best to house it with technical subject matter experts in R&D and IT, relying on them to create and teach curriculum? The answers to these questions influence the training delivery model companies select.

The majority of the 280 survey respondents leaned toward housing technical training outside L&D.

This graph shows that 55% believe technical training should be administered separately from L&D to be most impactful. 63% believe technical training strategy, resources and processes should be the responsibility ot IT leaders/CIOs/CTOs. It is possible to have a corporate university under technical leadership instead of L&D leadership. And it is common for a center of excellence to be house under R&D or IT.

Webinar participants voiced competing views about this in a written chat discussion. “IT departments or specialists aren’t necessarily the best teachers,” remarked one attendee. Another countered, “I think you need to have some understanding of the subject matter to own and deliver the training, which you might not get in traditional L&D.”

A third chimed in, “We are IT Training and nested under IT. Whenever we get together with other L&D groups, we find that our work doesn’t fit the traditional L&D model in our organization. So, I think it makes sense for us to be split out.”

“But I think those conducting the training need to know how to deliver content in a way such that it facilitates learning,” wrote a fourth. “Learner engagement is key for sure,” remarked another.

Many agreed that it’s important to blend subject matter expertise with adult learning best practices. However, they had differing views on the best way to accomplish that.

This debate underscored the difficulty of centralizing technical training

The rapidly changing technology landscape makes it challenging to keep courses up-to-date. Every time there’s a software update, for example, someone may need to revise the curriculum.

Arguably, those who work with the technology every day are the best equipped to maintain the training. It’s hard to justify a centralized training model when many believe technical teams should own the updating process.

Yet the pendulum was and still is swinging toward centralized delivery models

There’s a vexing issue that offsets the concern about curriculum updates. Every hour an internal SME spends on training design and delivery is an hour away from day-to-day work. A growing number of organizations are seeing this as an unacceptable cost. They need their technical experts focused on mission-critical technical work.

The beauty of CUs and CoEs—regardless of who owns them—is an unwavering focus on best practices and efficiency. Corporate universities and centers of excellence rely on input from SMEs to create accurate, effective technical training. Those SMEs can be internal, external or a blend of both. Yes, coordinating schedules between a CU or CoE and subject matter experts can be difficult, but both models are committed to involving SMEs to ensure training is fresh and relevant.

The potential advantages of corporate universities and centers of excellence outweigh the downsides

In summary, a corporate university or center of excellence can address many of the common challenges voiced by webinar participants. And these models can drive a broad range of improvements. Both CUs and CoEs enable companies to…

  • Negotiate better terms with outside suppliers, since purchases are larger.

  • Improve quality and consistency of training across the organization.

  • Track learning outcomes and ROI more methodically.

  • Ensure alignment of training to corporate goals, not just departmental objectives.

  • Invest in learning infrastructure that might have been outside the budget or expertise of individual departments (such as AI-driven learning paths).

  • Integrate learning programs with other organizational systems, such as career pathing and performance management programs.

Though it can be hard to get buy-in to the idea of centralizing technical training, organizations are finding a path forward. They’re now viewing a CU or CoE as a way to streamline resources and create more impactful learning solutions.

For questions about corporate universities and centers of excellence or to brainstorm, contact your Pluralsight representative or email [email protected]