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Corporate "universities" Expanding Into New Territory

Potsdam, N.Y. -- The expansion of corporate “universities” is likely to have a significant impact on traditional higher education, according to Brenton Faber, a technical communications professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. Faber received a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to study the role corporate universities play in higher education, and for the past year he has made this the focus of his research.

According to various reports, by the early 1980s there were approximately 400 corporate universities in America. That number grew to over 1,600 in the 1990s, with 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies managing their own university. These companies include Motorola, Toyota, Anheuser-Busch, General Electric, numerous software and networking companies, and even the Walt Disney Corporation. Many corporations have built “campuses” where employees are sent to learn in a college-like setting.

Unlike traditional training programs, most corporate universities are designed to be change agents within organizations. Faber notes that corporate universities often serve an entire organization, from the newly hired college graduate to directors and vice presidents who are also heading back to school for new ideas and new approaches to doing business.

College students are increasingly spending summers or full semesters in corporate training programs specifically designed for potential future employees. Faber says that this kind of traditional/corporate university connection will increase in the future as students realize they can take courses from the very companies they hope to work for.

Since many students attend college for the purpose of obtaining the credentials needed for a job, corporate universities offering career-specific educational tracks are a tempting alternative. “Traditional universities are going to have to reconsider how they market and justify some of their programs,” Faber said, “especially when companies will be offering the same kinds of courses in business, information technology or communications, and then tie employment offers to participation in those courses.”

While corporate universities primarily serve a company’s internal training needs, Faber’s research has uncovered an increasing number of companies offering educational services to customers and the general public: “Companies have started to realize that by providing clients with educational services they can add significant value to their products and increase the revenues a product generates.” For example, Ottawa-based Cognos Corporation in Canada is developing sophisticated client based training for customers and end users. These programs can be taken through a World Wide Web interface or on a CD-Rom.

Many corporate universities have become centers of instructional innovation. Some corporate universities have even pioneered unique classroom learning techniques to help their employees learn. For example, at the Accenture Consulting (formerly Andersen Consulting) educational center, Faber observed “immersion” learning techniques. “Most courses relied on students’ active participation in solving real business problems,” Faber reported. Working in teams, employees immersed themselves in extremely complex role-play scenarios that required them to interpret data, report to an actual client, and then be evaluated by one of the company’s senior partners. “It was a very intense week-long experience for the students,” said Faber. “They were pressured to perform at their best in front of peers, clients and senior partners for 10-15 hours a day. Some students even worked through the night, just like they had in college, to get a project done for the client the next morning.”

Faber argues that corporate universities have become a necessary part of “new capitalist” companies. In order to keep their employees at the leading edge of their industries, the companies’ educational programs need to change and adapt much more quickly than higher education has been able to. “These are less hierarchical, more globally-focused companies,” explained Faber, “that leverage their access to knowledge and specialized skills to quickly change and evolve to meet their clients’ needs.”

“Most corporate university officials talk about the ‘shelf life’ of their courses,” said Faber. “After six months, most of these courses are past their expiration date.” In response to this need for rapidly changing course content, companies have developed what they call “just-in-time” or “on-demand” learning. This involves putting courses on CD-Rom or Web sites. “Ideally,” said Faber, “an employee can download a 40-hour course on the way to a new job, learn it in a day or two of down time over the weekend, and then show up for the next job ready to go.”

This new culture of learning, with its rapidly changing program content, will affect higher education, according to Faber. “Companies are looking for us to make sure that our students have good solid fundamentals,” Faber noted, “but they also want us to teach students how to learn, and to become people who are always looking for new ideas and new learning opportunities.”

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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