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The Advent of the Corporate University and How it Impacts Your Company

By CSRWire Blogs

Submitted by Pamela Hawley

Business schools are gaining some competition. But it’s not from one another, it’s actually from corporations.

Corporations have set up "corporate universities" in order to serve upper level management, and sometimes the entire company. What they’re doing is educating their team on the essential principles, functions, and operations of how the company works. Even further, they’re giving business lessons, communications, and technical expertise that can be taught on this “corporate campus,” often negating the need for "B-School.”

One of the first companies to lead the charge was Unilever, a consumer goods company that has been around nearly 60 years. The program’s main focus is actually working on an important part of corporate social responsibility - sustainable business. A lot of classes are geared toward CSR and toward cultivating a sense of "purpose driven leaders." Part of the management’s internal reasoning is that the world is increasingly challenging to navigate; many economies, both developed and emerging, are unpredictable.

To address this, Unilever started gathering the best from the talent pool. Not just employee talent, but professor talent. They recruited some of the top leaders from INSEAD – one of the world’s largest business schools - to be their professors.

Wow. Let's think about this. Companies becoming a self-sufficient body of knowledge about not only themselves, but the world in which they operate. How will this change our world? In one way, it has the potential to impact recruitment and the strength of your workforce. If your company doesn't have a company university, it might be a red flag for someone wanting to join a world savvy, resource-rich company that not only provides for employees, but invests in them.

Company universities are becoming the norm. Apple has taken teachers from Yale; Boeing from the University of Washington; and Unilever from the Harvard Business School.

Some companies provide classes to just the senior leadership, but others are beginning to invest in campuses for the entire workforce. Unilever focuses on the top tier. ArcelorMittal, a steel manufacturer, has campuses not only in their main production centers but also in more isolated places such as the Ukraine and South Africa. They may even open up campuses in Kazakhstan and Brazil, even though the latter’s economy hasn’t been doing well. Their stance is that they need to educate the workforce to understand the principles of the company, to provide technical training, and to ensure that English is understood. They will even provide training in local dialects when necessary. It's a comprehensive education.

What these companies are doing is addressing the real world and where new business lies. Developing markets account for more than half of global revenue for many of these companies. They are strengthening how the company operates on the ground and growing management from within. And this means that in Corporate Social Responsibility, our leaders need to understand and embrace these developing economies through sustainable business practices and philanthropy. If you are going to help in an impactful way, you must know the economy and culture on the ground.

If you think these “schools” don't really compete with business schools, let's review. McDonald’s corporate university was started more than 50 years ago, so it's not a new trend. They offer courses in nearly 30 languages, and people actually "graduate" from campus. Some have suggested that McDonald’s campus in China is harder to get into than Harvard. 99% of people who apply are turned down.

Whether it’s Unilever’s school in Singapore or McDonald’s flagship campus in Illinois, the trend is clear: Corporate universities are giving traditional business schools a run for their money. All leaders, including those in CSR, want to grow as professionals. And companies want to attract great talent at all levels while remaining relevant in a complex, and ever-changing global economy. Having a strong training program in place at your company, and a full-fledged academic program, may help you attract and retain the right CSR leaders.