Education in the Workplace:
An Examination of Corporate University Models

©2001 Denise R. Hearn

edited 11/19/18


According to Jeanne Meister, the phrase "corporate university" can be defined as a"...centralized strategic umbrella for the education and development of employees ... [which] is the chief vehicle for disseminating an organization's culture and fostering the development of not only job skills, but also such core workplace skills as learning-to-learn, leadership, creative thinking, and problem solving," (1998, Ten, p. 38). Jeanne Meister is the president of a New York consulting firm that specializes in corporate university management called Corporate University Xchange(CUX). She claims that corporate universities are developed by those corporations who have shifted their focus from employee training to employee education as a result of "the emergence of the knowledge economy" (1998, Extending, p. 52). The phrase "knowledge economy" expresses that these corporations have recognized their responsibility to provide employees education that can evolve with changing business needs in order to foster the business' sustained success. Many corporations believe that through continued employee education, they can "achieve strategic goals and performance improvement" (Meister, 1998, Extending, p. 52).

In 1993, corporate universities existed in only 400 companies. In 2001, this number jumped to 2,000. Nelson Heller states that according to CUX, this number will grow to exceed 3,700 by2010, which is more than the number of private United States universities (2000). In an interview with Lillian Beltaos, dean of the School of Applied Media and Information Technology at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Sandra Dillich found that "companies form corporate universities in order to systemize the training function, maximize the investment in education, drive change in the organization, spread common culture and values, develop the employability of the workforce and remain competitive in the marketplace" (2000, p. 25). Judith Mottl further believes that the primary factor for developing a corporate university is to "improve employee productivity and keep staff in touch with the latest technology" (1999, p. 23). While, Jill Vitiello explains that corporate universities do not only focus their curricula on junior and midlevel employees but often provide leadership and executive development education as well (2001).

With the mission of corporate universities in mind, this paper will examine the models that companies use to establish such programs. Recommendations for developing successful corporate universities will be reviewed. In addition, actual examples of corporate universities will be presented and the technology they use to support these programs will be discussed.

Creating a Corporate University

As established, CUX is "a for-profit education research and consulting firm that's been helping organizations launch and implement corporate universities since 1997" (Nelson, 2001, p. 1). CUX's consultation includes an audit of a company's educational strategy and an implementation of a corporate university program. The educational audit follows a 5-step model developed and tested by CUM This model includes "a full learning audit and assessment, a series of design workshops, the creation of a business case and recommendations to senior management,implementation, and finally, further recommendations and review" (Nelson, 2001, p. 1).

Following the completion of CUX's 5-steps, there are a variety of methods in which corporate universities can foster the continuing education of their employees. Jeanne Meister explains to her clients that there are ten primary steps to implementing and sustaining a successful corporate university. First, the executives or top management of an organization must form a governing body for the corporate university, much like that of a traditional university, which will establish and profess the organization's commitment to the program. Secondly, the vision or strategic plan of the corporate university must be crafted; thereby,determining the organization's goals for the program. The organization must then recommend a funding strategy. Most commonly, corporate universities are either funded through corporate allocations or through charges placed on individual business unit budgets. Next the organization must determine its audience or stakeholders who will use the corporate university service. In addition to determining the audience, the organization must also determine how the needs of the audience will be met while continually pursuing the strategic goal of the corporate university. (Meister, 1998, Ten).

Following the completion of the above tasks, corporate university organizers must develop a template for how products and services will be designed to achieve university goals. The organization must also select suppliers, consultants, traditional universities and for-profit firms who will act as learning partners, if appropriate. The use of technology and resources to be used by the corporate university must then be determined. Additionally, a measurement system should be developed that will allow the organization to continually monitor its progress against the university's strategic goals. Lastly, the governing body must communicate the vision of the corporate university constantly and consistently. All stakeholders should be made aware of the mission, products and programs that make up their organization's corporate university. (Meister,1998, Ten).

Meister warns that these ten steps may take eighteen months or more to achieve. In following the CUX model, Meister believes organizations can reach the primary corporate university goal of "preparing an organization's employees to take full advantage of the emerging opportunity and to institutionalize a culture of continuous learning aligned to core business strategies" (Meister, 1998, Ten, p. 41).

Organizational Models for Corporate Universities

Margaret Kaeter, in her article Virtual Cap and Gown, believes that there are three primary organizational models for Corporate Universities. These models include Classic, Education Portaland Tailored Training. The Classic model refers to tuition support from the employer that allows employees to pursue a degree from a college's standard curriculum. In this case, students must apply to the college, be accepted and complete required credits to graduate. In some cases, the student's coursework is done via distance education techniques that may include the Internet, mail and videos. (Kaeter, 2000). The Classic model is also referred to as the Hybrid model. As Meryl Davids explains, using this type of model has encouraged corporate universities to provide their curriculum to non-employees, as well. (Davis, 2000).

Through Education Portals, corporations work with traditional universities or training businesses to provide college courses on-line. These universities may provide the corporation with its own corporate website (portal) which provides students with a virtual campus complete with a company's logo. This model of the corporate university "offers a seamless blend of courses designed by colleges, commercial training suppliers, and the company's own training staff' (Kaeter,2000, p. 119).

Corporate universities may also follow the Tailored Training model which refers to those traditional universities and corporations who are "working in tandem to develop distance learning courses designed to address a company's specific needs" (Kaeter, 2000 p. 119). In this case, corporations can direct universities on which components of their standard curriculum should be passed on to their employees. Additionally, this partnership allows corporations to add their own input and information into the training materials.

Educational Methods and Materials

Corporate university education is designed and presented in a variety of formats. Most often, curriculum is designed and presented through satellite communication, web based instruction,virtual reality and/or virtual campuses. Through satellite based education, employees from different locations can be brought together in real-time to participate in the course at the same time through video conferencing. Web-based learning is conducted via the Internet or through a corporation's Intranet. Meister explains that web-based courses allow corporations to "customize learning experiences for individual needs and preferences, and provide the ability to measure performance"(Meister, 1998, Extending, p. 52). Virtual reality offers simulated training that mimics actual employee job duties, while virtual campuses link each of these media components by computers.

Accreditation of Corporate Universities

In 1974, the American Council on Education's Program on Noncollegiate Sponsored instruction (ACE/PONSI) was founded to evaluate "instructional courses and programs offered by business and industry, labor unions, professional and voluntary associations, and government agencies and makes recommendations for college credit based upon such instruction" (Thompson,2000, p. 323). By 2000, ACE/PONSI recommended that courses from over 250 companies receive college credit. These companies included McDonald's, Bell Telephone and The Ford Motor company.

Following this lead, Gordon Thompson explains that the Arthur D. Little corporation "has created their own in-house educational institutions that offer accredited degrees" (2000, p. 324). When offering degrees, workplace education programs are referred to as corporate colleges. Thompson explains that he supports the notion that corporate colleges have often been established to offer skills to employees that were not otherwise available. He also found through his research that 14institutions met the definition of corporate colleges in 2000 (2000).

Corporate Effects on Traditional Universities

Gordon Thompson believes that accredited institutions may pose a threat to traditional universities as they compete for students and faculty. Conversely, corporate universities are similar to traditional universities in that they are spawning lifelong learning. Furthermore, many traditional universities have found corporate universities to be a benefit rather than a threat. Gordon Thompson found that corporate funds have become increasingly important to traditional universities, consisting of more than "20% of the voluntary support for higher education in the united States" (2000, p. 327). With universities, corporations are able to customize higher education needs to fit their "just-in time skills development," as quoted from Bruce Pietrykowksi, by dividing college courses "into sub-units each with its own set of learning outcomes" (2001, p. 299). He continues by stating that "these units can then be combined and recombined to create modules or courses that can lead to certificates that validate a certain type of knowledge or skill set as desired by company or industry standards" (2001, p. 299).

According to Nelson Heller, "about sixteen percent of all corporate education partnerships today are with traditional colleges and universities." (2001, p. 1). As an example, Intel now offers its employees the opportunity to enroll in a MBA program through Babson College which offers students a degree that primarily focuses on Intel cases. Likewise,Valencia Community College earns between $1.5 to $2 million in revenues by supporting the college education of Walt Disney World and Universal Studio employees. (Heller, 2001).

According to Meryl Davids "corporate university advocates are quick to admit that their program don't take the place of top-notch universit[ies]" (2000, p. 19). However for those students who can not geographically attend top-notch universities, corporate programs no offer them the opportunity. The true burden of corporate universities on traditional universities may actually be felt in a lowered interest in the graduate business schools that offer executives leadership courses. These courses are offered at a cost of $4,000-7,000 dollars and can now be offered through one'sown corporate university at a minimal cost. (Davids, 2000).

Examining Corporate Universities

To measure the success of the entity of a corporate university, one need not look far to find information on a variety of well-known organizations that have established and sustained successful corporate universities. Several of these organizations have been examined and summaries of their corporate model structures are provided below. In each of these cases, one can recognize the common thread through each organization's corporate university to be that of technology and its use in providing cooperate education. Motorola

Motorola established Motorola University as its corporate university and was "one of the first learning organizations to institute virtual reality in manufacturing training" (Meister, 1998, p. 53). To provide its employee education, Motorola University uses virtual manufacturing labs to train line workers by modeling the equipment instead of using the actual equipment for training purposes. These labs can be used at any Motorola site via the companyintranet through CD-ROM programs. (Meister, 1998). In addition to serving its own employees,Motorola now provides for-profit Learning and Certification services to outside sources as an independent subsidiary of the parent company. (Nelson, 2001).

The Boeing Company.

The Boeing Company provides education to its employees through the Leadership Center. Jill Vitiello explains that a large component of Boeing's curricula focuses on executive learning. As she mentions, newly promoted supervisory personnel must complete a web-based curriculum within 30 days. This training includes topics on C6company policies and procedures, finding and using resources, and understanding fiduciary responsibilities" (2001, p. 42). Entry level managers"spend one week at a local training site studying performance management, reviewing organizational structure and learning state and regional laws and regulations that govern [their]industry" (Vitiello, 2001, p. 42). Managers are also "required to take core leadership courses at the center at five specific turning points in their careers: when they receive their first management assignments, become managers of managers, prepare for executive responsibilities, begin their first days as executives and assume the challenges of global leadership" (Vitiello, 2001, p. 42).

Boeing's primary means of evaluating the success of its Leadership Center is by conducting employee surveys on as annual basis. These surveys have indicated, as Vitiello summarizes, that "executives and managers who have attended programs ... are more satisfied in their jobs than those who haven't yet attended the programs" (200 1, p. 42).

Walt Disney

For those employees hired to work at Disneyland, California, their career begin at the University of Disneyland with an orientation and 40-hour apprenticeship program, most of which takes place on rides. In the classroom, these new hires are given "a very thorough introduction to matters of managerial concern and are tested on their absorption of famous Disneyland fact, lore,and procedure" (Van Maanen, p. 65). Professional Disneyland trainers are responsible for the instructional design, methods and materials they provide in the courses. Course topics include park operations, appearance standards, and Disneyland values. (Van Maanen, p. 68).

For those employees hired to work at Walt Disney World, Florida, they are offered the opportunity to enroll in Valencia Community College. In addition, Disney also trains outside professionals on their successful traits. These three-day professional development programs are designed to provide non-employee executives with Disney "magic" that can be provided in their own industries. This program takes place at the Disney Institute, a 47acre Orlando, Florida campus. The executive program costs $3,000 and includes admission to surrounding Disney parks. Disney is said to offer this program because it believes such an offering enhances their reputation. (Davids,2000). Federal Express

Using exit interviews to determine deficiencies in their business, Federal Express found that many employees left the company because of a lack of career development. As a result, the FederalExpress Quality University was established. This learning strategy allows more than 140,000employees to educate themselves through web-based education. Additionally, Martin Delahoussaye explains that when FedEx employees cannot find a suitable course in the Quality University, they fund up to $2,500 from Federal Express to take courses at outside sources (2001).

United Health/United Technologies Corporation

United Health, a health care provider, offers corporate education through its Learning Institute. Using distance learning technology to offer 24/7 access to course work, United Health partnered with United Technologies Corp. and the Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Distance learning technology is provided by RPI and includes video, nondegree seminars, technical courses and desktop training. These courses are offered from Boston University, Carnegie Mellon,Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to employees at both organizations. (Mottl, 1999). The Learning Institute operates on a tuition basis, even within its own corporation. Like many corporate universities, a hybrid funding model requires those who attend the Learning institute to pay for training form their own business unit budgets. (Davids, 2000). OracleCorporation

Oracle University supports those employees from the Oracle Corporation through web-based learning. Oracle University provides its more than 32,000 employees and partner organizations with up-to-date product knowledge. The university consists of a virtual campus and a network of regional classrooms. This campus is comprised of industry knowledge, sales methods,technical skills, and Oracle-specific processes. (Meister, 1998). The General Motors' Saturn Corporation

Saturn Consulting Services primarily offers corporate university curriculum to noncompetitive non-General Motors employees. The education is primarily geared towards executives and includes information on leading change, team development, and customer care. Meryl Davis explains that the company also "formed a strategic alliance with $20billion aerospace and defense giant, Raytheon Co.... [and] in this arrangement, one of Raytheon's training divisions,Door Training acts as the international distraction arm for Saturn's Consulting service, delivering Saturn's content to other global organizations" (Davis, 2000, p. 19). Bell Atlantic

Bell Atlantic offered its telecommunications technicians the opportunity to earn an Applied Science degrees in Telecommunications Technology through Bell Atlantic's Training, Education,and Development department. This opportunity resulted from contract negotiations in 1994. The programs' curriculum, which was custom designed by Bell Atlantic and its union, was offered through twenty-five community colleges. The curriculum included topics in general studies,electricity and electronics, telecommunications, introduction to voice/data, LANs and WANs, and advance technologies, as well as, leadership and teamwork.

Overall, students were required to earn 60 credits through the four-year program. Classes were held during company time, one day per week for two semesters per year. To enroll in the program, employee seniority and scores on the ASSET Test (standard college entrance exam) were considered. The program was free to employees and included books and fees. In 1998, 92 students were awarded degrees. (Mottl, 1999).

Ford Motor Company

Ford Motor Company calls its corporate university FORDSTAR. FORDSTAR is a"network that enables Ford to provide training, access to experts and product information, and networking opportunities straight to [their more than 6,000] dealerships" (Meister, 1998, Extending, p. 52). This training is conducted via one-way video and two-way audio through a digital worldwide network. FORDSTAR programs are designed for employees in their credit,technical, sales, services and parts departments. Nearly 1, 100 sites can be accessed at the same time, reaching up to 300 employees in a single session. Ford's satellite system allows employees to obtain the information and training they need when they are available to participate. (Meister, 1998,Extending).

Ford assesses the education it provides employees through various measurement techniques. Primarily, each session requires a progression of steps. If employees are not able to progress through the course, educators can quickly recognize their deficiencies and make changes to curriculum or learning techniques as necessary. FORDSTAR cultivates its educators by providing instructional designers and instructors with their own orientation courses. These"courses focus more on learner's roles and responsibilities than on the role of the instructor"(Meister, 1998, Extending, p. 52). Dell Computer Corporation

Dell Computer Corporation's university, Dell University, provides education to its employees via web-based embedded learning. Jeanne Meister explains that embedded learning stems from "the premise that old learning methods are woefully inadequate to keep up with business needs of companies at the forefront of a rapidly changing industry in which knowledge must be constantly updated" (1998, Extending, p. 52). 35-45%of Dell University's curriculum is delivered via the web. The university's mission relies on catering to the various learning styles of their employees. (Meister, Extending).


As stated by Daniel Twomey, et al, "developing a corporate university expresses [an organization's] commitment to the value of investing in human capital" (1999, p. 340). Companies that develop corporate universities believe that in focusing on employee competencies, skills, and abilities, they are ensuring their competitiveness and future success. Corporate provided education has been found to improve employee satisfaction and employee retention, as well as, provide a competitive advantage for many organizations. (Twomey, et al, 1999).


As Jeanne Meister concludes, corporate universities are built on a system that understands"the chief concern for knowledge workers in nearly every industry and occupation is the short shelf life of their knowledge, causing them to have to constantly retool their schools" (1998, Extending,p. 52). Employees benefit from the corporate university movement in more ways than simply being able to perform their assigned jobs better. They also learn skills and possibly earn degrees that can be carried through their career, making they, themselves, more marketable to the workplace. Corporate universities are the "fastest growing segment of the adult education market" (Meister,1998, Ten, p. ). Additionally, those corporations that provide corporate universities tend to have an advantage over the "eligible employee pool," in that they are often perceived as "employers of choice" (Meister, 1998, Ten, p. 53).

In closing, corporate universities strive to achieve their mission of developing programs that are clearly linked to business objectives and organizational strategy. These programs are designed to convey corporate culture and focus on learning beyond on-the job training. By doing so, many employees throughout the United States and abroad are offered educational opportunities that might not otherwise be available to them.


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