Why Winning Organizations have Corporate Universities

by Martijn Rademakers

Top-performing organizations such as Apple, Canon, Shell, Mars and IKEA have established their own, company-specific corporate universities. They are not the only ones.

Thousands of organizations around the world are following suit and either start, build, or upgrade their corporate learning activities – either called corporate university, academy or campus.

The challenge for executives to continuously align their organizations to a constantly changing world is not getting any easier. One thing is sure, though: winning companies have the capability to learn not only faster but also in a smarter way than the competition. They are not only able to keep up with the strategic developments in their environment, but also to stir up the competitive landscape themselves.

Currently, corporate leaders see the following two questions emerging on their strategic agenda: Adaptability (or: ‘being agile’) and being attractive to talent. Both have learning as an important driving force. That offers opportunities for organizations to kill two birds with one stone.

A useful example is Apple. Observers argue that Apple interprets adaptability as changing the environment in their favor instead of vice versa, but it is safe to say that the company masters doing both at the same time. Constant adaptation is one of the cornerstones of the Apple strategy to outperform its rivals. In the book Inside Apple (by Adam Lashinsky), it is described how CEO Steve Jobs, shortly before his passing, secured the source of Apple’s adaptability by establishing a corporate university: the Apple University. Not a real university, but the American denotation of what is known in Europe and Asia as a corporate academy.

The core of what the Apple University does, is keeping the ‘think different’ culture in alive all its facets. Not in the preserving sense of ‘what would Steve do?’ but focused in the future that is shaped by the people at Apple themselves. That is what strategic learning is all about. ‘We are focused on inventing the future, not celebrating the past’, as Apple executive Phil Schiller recently noted aptly. The Apple University is therefore not a mere learning factory that organizes courses with coagulated knowledge, but a strategic vehicle to let the organization excel through learning and knowledge transfer the Apple way. For talents, the Apple University embodies a very attractive proposition: learning and having an impact on the organization and its environment at the same time. Chances are, Apple will not have to spend very much on personnel ads.

It is not just the well-known company from Cupertino with the fruity logo that has discovered the corporate university as a strategic instrument. Many have preceded Apple, including many thousands of large and smaller organizations around the world. Ultimately, these organizations are interested in a clever cross-fertilization between learning and strategy. Thereby, they are not just increasing their adaptability, but they are also attracting, building and retaining the talent they need to excel now and in the future.

The long-term success of corporate academies has not gone unnoticed. IKEA has its ‘College’ to drive international growth, Mars Inc. has its Mars University to accelerate and leverage strategic change, Pixar has its Pixar University to stimulate knowledge exchange and creation between artists and computer experts. More and more companies are rethinking and reshaping their learning capabilities from a strategic perspective. After all, constant adaptation to a dynamic business environment without learning is simply impossible. Moreover, attracting, building and retaining top talent takes the ability to offer distinctive learning opportunities.

No wonder leaders of winning companies around the world consider corporate universities as a must-have strategic asset.

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