What’s the future of corporate universities?

Laurence Smith takes a crystal-ball look at the future of corporate universities

I was recently interviewed on this topic and was asked whether I saw corporate universities disappearing, or having to change in form and function to remain relevant. The answers are “no”, “yes”, and “absolutely”. Corporate universities will not disappear, but I do believe they have to radically transform to remain relevant. And that if they do so, they can become even more effective.

There are five critical success factors to making this happen. Some are trends that are happening anyway but that organisations will need to accelerate; others are simply good practices that we need to implement more effectively.

1. Make the Chief Learning Officer role strategic, supported by a strong administrative Chief Operating Officer.

When I was being interviewed for the Chief Learning Officer role at LG Electronics in Seoul, the CEO was somewhat surprised when I said I would not be basing myself at the learning center, but rather sitting alongside the Chief HR Officer at headquarters.

My point was that I was being hired to support the CEO’s agenda of globalising LG Electronics and proximity in both location and mindset to the leadership team and the CEO himself would be critical to achieving this. I would need to be intimately involved in understanding the strategy and ensuring that the organisational and human capital capabilities were being built in support.

Fortunately, he agreed. I was also lucky that I ultimately ended up with an absolutely excellent Chief Operating Officer who ran the learning center and was an administrative and managerial genius. This division of roles we sometimes described as flying from London to New York: taking off in a 747, but landing in an A380.

His job was to make sure the passengers had a great trip and never noticed that the entire plane had been re-built around them. My job was to totally re-architect learning to position LG Electronics for a global future.

What is also critical for the success of a role like this is that either the Chief Learning Officer should report directly to the CEO, and probably manage Organisational Development and Talent in an integrated way, or must report to a visionary Chief HR Officer, and partner effectively with their peers.

2. More effective governance mechanisms to measure and drive learning, and also enable transformation.

At DBS Bank, under the initiative of Lee Yan Hong, we built an excellent governance mechanism of learning councils that tightly aligned learning and talent priorities with the strategic objectives of the business. CEO Piyush Gupta encapsulated his strategy execution in an annual scorecard which cascaded down to his Group Management Committee (GMC), made up of about 20 direct reports.

Each of the GMC members built their own scorecard reflecting their specific priorities and how they would achieve them. This likewise informed my own scorecard.

I would sit quarterly with each of them, supported by the Business Learning Partner managing that relationship and walk through the learning and talent priorities to achieve their plans. We would agree on priorities and resources, and review results from the previous quarter. This enabled us to have a very intimate relationship with each of the GMC members, and assure them of their team’s readiness to meet their business goals.

Perhaps most importantly, it also provided a forum to engage them in support of the CEO’s strategic transformational initiatives, be it purpose, values and culture, or the digital mindset transformation. This was most impactful because it ensured that cultural and transformational initiatives were measured, managed and driven with the same rigour as ‘normal’ talent and learning priorities.

3. Accelerating organisational innovation through experimentation and the customer journey.\

I think there is an increasing need for the corporate university to focus on developing strategic capabilities across the organisation. Chief among these is speed of innovation. It is very simple: organisations that learn faster, that become aware of, and adapt new technologies before their competitors, will win.

There’s always been an argument that it’s often better to be a fast follower. I no longer believe that to be true.

“Being a fast-follower is no longer the best strategy”

Being a fast follower made sense when the price of learning was so high, that projects were huge and expensive and ‘big bets’ were required to map out the future and work out how to win in the new economy. That’s no longer the case. It’s now about running hundreds of small experiments. Think about Google and Amazon. They are constantly running thousands of small experiments. They are getting huge amounts of data about what works somewhat well, and what works better.

Throw away the old excuse of ‘fail-fast’

After all, no boss likes to hear ‘we failed fast’ more than once…

These days it’s all about testing your trickiest assumptions. And you test them with lots of small, cheap, fast experiments. The outcomes are ‘validated learnings’ that get you ever-closer to a better solution. Think of it as ‘accelerating the speed of organisational evolution and natural selection’. It becomes quite literally ‘survival of the fittest’ as hundreds of possible ideas are tested for fitness against customer needs, expectations, and ‘jobs to be done.’

Corporate universities need to be teaching design thinking and lean startup methodology. Every executive (and HR and learning professional) really needs to understand ‘build, measure, learn’ and ‘jobs to be done’ as a concept, and the value of validated learnings. If you don’t, your corporate university is under-preforming.

4. A greater move to experiential and discovery-based learning and simulations

As the pace of change accelerates, helping employees adapt faster gets ever more challenging. While traditional training still works for on-boarding and functional skills, I am increasingly convinced that where we need to change mindset and behaviours, we have to take people on a journey. And that’s a journey of self-realisation.

Through various forms of discovery-based learning, learning journeys, simulations, or other forms of experiential learning, we have to provide the opportunity for people to learn for themselves and come to their own conclusions. It may well be guided learning, but it cannot be forced.

I particularly advocate various forms of hackathons, designations, and makathons: any opportunity for people to make things, design prototypes, and run real experiments with real customers.

At DBS Bank we ran a session where we took over 200 managing directors through a three-hour experience to design and actually prototype an app to solve a particular problem. It was transformational in that it got these executives to actually realise that making an App was not that hard, and they got a real buzz from it. It also scared them when they realised how easy it was to potentially create something that could disrupt part of our business. You can’t get that in a classroom.

5. More real-time and just-in-time learning through mobile micro-learning.

The other trend that I see growing in importance has long been sought, but only recently has technology enabled. That’s real-time and just-in-time learning to help people get things done, right now, at the moment of need, or the moment of curiosity.

After the #DBSHackathon series, we rolled out SmartUp.io to cascade the digital mindset across the organisation, and had a startling series of discoveries. (Disclosure: I was so impressed, I have since become an adviser to SmartUp).

What employees came to tell us was that unexpected decisions were getting made in key meetings as a result of things people were learning just before the meetings, or the night before. People were thinking about their day ahead, flipping through the mobile learning, and doing one or two five-minute modules to learn just enough to have an opinion and be more confident in meetings.

Increasingly people don’t have time for formal training, but are desperately hungry for real time answers. Google is great, and there’s always excellent articles in the McKinsey Quarterly and Harvard Business Review, but people simply don’t have time to read them. Whether they are counter staff at a retailer, bank staff at a branch, a travelling sales person, or simply a busy manager, they need answers now. And just enough of them to get them through the next meeting, or to deliver on today’s project.

A final thought.

For goodness sake, make it more fun. Human beings are naturally curious creatures. That’s why we have hobbies and read. But corporate universities have made learning hard work.

Make learning fun again! Get people playing, and they will learn.

Too many corporate universities have sucked the life essence out of learning; they’ve taken the joy away. Like scientific management, they’ve focused on mechanical processes and measures. Try letting go a bit. Give people the opportunity to experiment, to mess up a bit, and to learn again.

Make it fun - and they will learn.

Laurence Smith pic.jpg

Laurence Smith
Laurence Smith


Laurence Smith is the host of HRM Asia's Digital Mindset forum, and regularly contributes articles on how technology is changing the way workforces, and HR, operate.

Click here for more Learning and Development News
Investing in the digital capabilities of employees
Kelvin Ong - 20 Jun 2018
Talent development was a hot topic at this year's Consumer Goods Forum.
Double incentives in HRM Asia's Digital Learning research
HRM Asia - 19 Jun 2018
Participate in the highly-anticipated Thriving in a World of Digital Learning study with one click from this story!
HRM Asia’s digital learning research now underway
HRM Asia - 12 Jun 2018
The Thriving in a World of Digital Learning survey kickstarted on Friday last week, with significant interest across the HR community in Singapore.
HRM Five: Enabling successful reverse mentoring
- 01 Jul 2018
Pairing senior executives with younger employees can be beneficial - here's how HR can help talent get the most out of such mentorships.
Digital learning survey with academic backing
- 04 Jun 2018
Get ready to participate in a ground-breaking benchmarking study of digital learning in Singapore
HR moves at Signify, British American Tobacco, and more
HRM Asia - 25 May 2018
Here are the latest HR promotions and job moves from across the region.