Prioritizing + Maximizing: The Impact of Corporate Universities: The Effectiveness of CUs Is under Scrutiny from Senior Management, Forcing Them to Be Smart about How They Spend Their Time and Resources

By Li, Jessica; Abel, Amy Lui | Talent Development, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Prioritizing + Maximizing: The Impact of Corporate Universities: The Effectiveness of CUs Is under Scrutiny from Senior Management, Forcing Them to Be Smart about How They Spend Their Time and Resources


Li, Jessica, Abel, Amy Lui, Talent Development


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The field of employee learning and development has grown exponentially in the past decade. According to the ASTD 2010 State of the Industry Report, U.S. organizations spent approximately $125.88 billion on employee learning and development in 2009--a $65 billion increase from 2001 when ASTD began tracking this data.

The field has also been evolving from the traditional instructor-led approach to a learner-centered systematic approach that focuses on learning and development to improve individual, team, and organization performance. During the last two decades, the corporate employee learning and development function--specifically the corporate university (CU)--has not only increased significantly in size, but also in its strategic importance in the organizational structure. CUs have played an important role in human resource development in organizations worldwide and have received the attention of scholars and practitioners for research purposes.

CUs are often charged with complex and multidimensional tasks in a strategic role to support individual, team, and organizational learning. The CU label often suggests the strategic importance that a company has on the employee learning and development function. Research has shown that superior employee knowledge and competencies contribute to positive competitive advantages and financial performance within organizations.

Given today's difficult economic situation and limited support and resources for developmental initiatives, the effectiveness of the CU is under scrutiny from senior management. CUs need to be smart about how they spend their time, energy, and resources by aligning all learning activities with organizational goals.

There have been numerous articles and case studies about the different practices of CUs, but rarely have these efforts examined how to effectively manage a CU and how to best allocate its resources for optimum results. In an effort to investigate these questions, we first conducted a thorough literature review to understand the wide array of methods and approaches used by CUs to operationalize the employee learning and performance function. These practices can be summarized as specific dimensions, grouped into profile categories.

Given the diversity of practices, it is a daunting task for CUs to address all of these dimensions at the same time. This is especially challenging in light of current resource constraints. Therefore, we sought to identify the key functions for a CU to inform resource allocation for optimum effectiveness and efficiency.

We conducted a survey of 210 CUs across industries and geographies in North America. We then used statistical analysis to reduce complexity in the dimensions and identify the most strategic areas of focus for the CU. The results suggest that there are five essential strategic areas on which CUs should focus:

1. alignment and execution

2. development of skills that support business needs

3. evaluation of learning and performance

4. use of technology to support the learning function

5. partnership with academia.

Alignment and execution

The success of the learning function depends foremost on its alignment with corporate goals and the execution of its learning strategy. First, the CU needs to have a clear learning vision and mission that aligns to the company's overall goals and objectives. This can be achieved by a learning governance board, composed of leaders from a variety of business units. This executive committee works alongside the CU to develop learning strategy for the organization.

Second, the university needs to partner with corporate HR leaders to analyze employee skill gaps and to develop learning programs that support employee development. The CU can be viewed as a critical component of the organization's strategic HR management efforts. …

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