Ensuring Your Corporate University or Strategic Development Center Succeeds

Seven tips on how to create a 21st century center for innovation

By Bob Kraska

“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” – Albert Einstein

If you are reading this, you are probably in the business of learning and organizational development with an interest in creating a corporate university, strategy or innovation center. For the past ten years, I have been designing, developing, implementing and utilizing strategic development centers and corporate universities. I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that developing curriculum, writing courses and facilitating meetings is the easy part. What’s the hard part?

If employees view your corporate university project as just another training or HR initiative, it is bound to fail. Addressing some of the following issues will dramatically increase the probability of success for your corporate university or strategy center.

1. Involve leaders from operations and shared services in the creative process.

Identify the influential leaders within operations, finance, etc. and invite/harass/suggest these general managers and vice presidents to participate in your initial visioning and strategy sessions. Solicit their ideas on everything from initial courses to university partnerships. Make sure that the sessions focus on how the university is going to help THEIR work. Have the internal communications department come to the session, take tons of pictures and publish them in all the company media. Let everyone know that operational leaders created this concept.

During one university project I worked on, the senior executive team (including the CEO) was the initial sponsor. For another client, we held two, two-day vision/strategy/tactical planning sessions with 40 participants at each. We instantly had a group of 80 highly influential people as our stakeholders.

2. Create a physical environment to signal that this education and development effort matters.

End-users tend to be skeptical about the corporation “investing in people.” They have heard it all before – just another spin on training. The best way to let employees know that the university is serious is to dedicate new space, build or buy a building, or drastically renovate an existing one.

Then brand it as the new center for strategy, learning and development (with a catchier name). Universities have buildings as do pre-schools. Employees send their children off to educational spaces everyday. In our society, we still associate learning with a school building – so build your employees one. It is amazing to watch “if you build it they will come” actually happen. The physical university should be an expression of the future corporate culture.

In my experience, building or renovating space creates excitement for the project team and end-users. The project really comes to life when the team designs the ideal space with group areas and break out space. Choosing carpets, whiteboards and technology creates excitement as well. Through timed marketing, open houses and initial courses the end-users will feel ownership in their new center.

3. Build a broad program to ensure business units see how it will help them.

A corporate university is no longer just a training initiative. It must be a place for strategic planning, change management, continuous improvement, technical training, leadership development and more. If done collaboratively, the effort will integrate these initiatives in a way that drives growth and creates change like never before. Creating curriculums and classes is simple. Designing programs with the depth and breadth of knowledge and information to help achieve complex corporate goals is the challenge.

At DTE Energy, we used a phased approach. In the first year, we focused on strategic planning and career development. In year two, we incorporated leadership development, continuous improvement and formally partnered with the technical training area. In year three, we added diversity training and other professional development efforts. Over the three-year period, we grew from one small physical environment at headquarters to four dedicated facilities around the region – including an 11,000 square foot hub at headquarters and a facility within the walls of a nuclear power plant.

4. Expand your horizons and partner with others.

Inside large organizations, patterns of behavior and ways of working are difficult to change. When you are in it, it is also hard to know what is happening externally. There are many educational institutions, consulting firms and corporations that have found ways to make education and strategy development efficient, innovative and fun. Seek new ideas and invite innovative partners to participate in your visioning, strategic planning process and project teams. Do a thorough scan, and then choose a partner you feel will take the time to understand your business model and bring a fresh perspective to the project.

I have found many organizations who tout their ability to help with corporate universities, but very few who can truly add a dimension that companies do not already have in-house. While not easy, finding, interviewing and then hiring the right partner can pay off.

If selecting a major university as a partner, be sure that the one you choose has credibility with the top corporate leaders. Involve the top leaders in collaborating with a partner in academia, as many are active alumni.

5. Link the effort to corporate business strategy and existing people efforts.

There is no better way for a corporate university to fail than to start a rogue project that is not tied to either the overall business or HR strategy. Ideally, there is a strong link to both. It is also imperative that the project tells a story of how this effort enables the most important corporate strategic near/long-term goals.

Prior to conducting the initial vision sessions, spend some time with the vice presidents of human resources, strategy and finance, and with leaders of operational units to understand how the project will help the business. Developing this message and then repeating it endlessly is essential from day one. Be sure the message is driven from those with authority.

I remember a conference in Detroit on organizational development where a former client, the DTE Energy CEO, gave the keynote speech. Several of his slides focused on the Learning Zone – the internal name of their corporate university I helped develop. He still believed in it, and from day one was excited that it could help achieve corporate goals.

6. Leap to the next generation of technology.

Creating a corporate university is the perfect time to move to e-learning, remote presence, electronic evaluations, Blackboard technology, an LMS and other technology enhancements. Start with an assessment of your current technologies and benchmarking what is possible. Then, put a change plan in place to illustrate how facilitators and end-users will adopt the new technologies while letting go of the old. Remember, the project team members must first decide to use new technologies before they can encourage the organization to follow suit.

During my MBA program, we used cool remote collaboration, knowledge management and evaluation tools more advanced than most training firms, consultants or clients have on site. Consider starting your benchmarking on college campuses as they are centers of innovation.

7. Build the right team.

The team you create to develop a corporate university is key to its success, so ensure it represents every aspect of the program, from marketing to maintenance. Ensure the team has the “just do it” attitude to get the job done. Expand the team by creating a sponsor group of “non-HR” leaders who will serve as advisors, networkers, marketers and difficult decision-makers. Be very clear on their responsibility and authority, but ensure this role matters – it cannot be just another committee. These leaders must believe the university is a serious driver in delivering on corporate commitments.

Your project team should touch most corporate areas. Start building it early, spending the appropriate time to determine the necessary competencies and getting the right individuals. Find innovative thinkers who are well networked in the areas of facilities, strategy, technology, continuous improvement, operations, change management and, of course, learning. Mobilize the team through participation in benchmarking trips, brainstorming sessions, research and planning. This should be a project the best and brightest clamor to join. It should also be fun.

I have seen projects whose teams were not recruited or self-identified. Eventually, those “assigned” team members hurt more than helped. It is better to leave a gap early on, than to fill a project position with a less than perfect team member. A strong consulting firm can help – both in building the team and filling the gaps as the project gets off the ground. The bottom line is that done right, a corporate university or strategic development center can reap rewards for the company and those who develop them. Ensuring this high tech innovation center succeeds requires a careful strategy. After all, neither Rome nor Stanford was built in a day.

Bob Kraska earned his MBA from the University of Michigan and has ten years of experience in change management consulting.