What is a Corporate University?

Corporate universities emerged in the twentieth century as a continuation of a workforce education trend that began as early at 1914. Instead of coping with the perceived slowness and inapplicability of theoretical learning found in traditional colleges and universities, business and industry turned inward and created training and development departments. These business units were designed to provide employees, both rookie and veteran, with the skills necessary to perform their duties with precision and efficiency. Training departments relied on their ability to teach employees routines, patterns, and tasks that would enable them to perform in a skill-based economy.

As the economy shifted to information- and knowledge-based, learning became not a one-time, instructional endeavor but a continuous process that required employees to learn quickly and regularly in order to keep pace with technological advancements, global competition, and rapid change. In light of these changes, training departments looked to management models to revamp and revolutionize the way that they designed and delivered learning in organizational settings. The training industry found that it had been neglecting critical elements of good business practice: strategy and value. Training had to develop clear connections to organizational missions and goals and had to prove that it contributed to the organization meeting those missions and goals. Corporate universities started to take shape in the 1950's to help make those connections.

Although the corporate university industry does not enjoy a universally accepted definition, varying degrees of strategy and value appear to be generally attributed to long-lasting corporate university designs. Whether their primary purpose is to build competence, drive organizational change, maintain corporate competitiveness, recruit and retain talent, or serve customers, most corporate universities are founded on strategic business practices and a self-conscious awareness of their responsibility to contribute to organizational growth and/or effectiveness. Corporate universities are strategic in that they are planned and modeled to fulfill the organization's mission. They are results-oriented because they exist only as long as they can demonstrate their value back to the organization.

One of the complicating characteristics of the corporate university movement is that the term is applied to organizations in various stages of development. You may find a company with a corporate university that is only in its infancy where the alignment and demonstration of value are, perhaps, superficial. You may find another organization using the same corporate university language with much more robust strategies and metrics. Don't be confused by the differences; just accept them as various stages of development.

CUE won't further complicate the industry by adding another definition to the fray. Instead, CUE offers a few points of comparison of a traditional and strategic approach to learning:


These principles and characteristics show that the strategic approach to learning and development-often achieved through a corporate university-is an expansion of the more traditional approach. The best corporate universities address these ideas as evolutionary practices that do not abandon but build on the traditions of the past.

Call it a corporate university, an academy, a center for excellence; focusing on these variables will put you on your way to integrating learning as a more competitive component of your business.