Book review: Corporate universities. Drivers of the learning organization


Corporate universities are surrounded and affected by change in a fast changing corporate landscape. The economic crisis and fundamental changes in eLearning are threatening them and forcing them to change in order to stay relevant. Martyn Rademakers has a refreshing view on the position of corporate universities, focusing on their role in strategic change.

According to Martyn the main challenge of organizations is to stay aligned with the rapidly changing outside world; it is the survival of the fittest. In order to do this and to stay current, corporate universities have to make dramatic changes. In this book Martyn and his co-writers give a great example of the Metropolitan Opera. In order to survive they had to change their complete value proposition, which led to change in every part of their organization. The book focuses on the role a corporate university can (must) play in this kind of processes.  CU book cover
Corporate universities Image adapted and republished with permission of the authors: Meyer & Rademakers, 2014. Click it to enlarge it He works this out in an interesting way. The changing market system forces the business system to change which has impact on the organizational system and in the end the personal system of the employees. This way he connects people development (or learning) to the corporate strategy. This means that strategy implementation leads to a continuous learning process of exceptional learning: “acquiring new insights, skills, routines and behaviors that help to re-establish the fit between market, the business and the organizational system”. It is in this transformational process that Martyn positions the corporate university. A corporate university is in his mind driven by the strategy of an organization. He makes a distinction between three types of corporate universities: School, College and Academy.
Strategy goal Business system Learning Type
Optimization Optimization Reactive  School
Implementation Transformation Hybrid College
Renewal Rejuvenation Pro-active Academy

A corporate university needs to choose one of these approaches in order to maintain focus. The choice between them will be decided by the nature of the corporate strategy. Martyn researched 21 corporate universities around the world and found that the most common form is the school type but with an ambition to grow towards college or academy types. He also found that a lot of the corporate academies do have a mix of all three types. His advice is choose one type and focus on that (thus supporting one strategic goal). In practice some corporate universities do have a mixed approach, while others decided to split up in several parts, each with their own strategic goal and focus. Martyn goes into more detail in Chapter 4 of his book; working out possible strategies with different learning goals and audiences. He offers some clear concepts for value creation by corporate universities and on learning formats. Chapter 5 to 10 describe in-depth cases of corporate universities. It is a description of his research were he based his findings on. It does make an interesting read and it provides a better understanding for his concepts. I do like this book but there is a but. In positioning the corporate university as a tool for strategic change, it gives them mostly a top down approach (except maybe the Academy type). This contradicts with a lot of trends in the world of learning where the learner is taking more control, where workplace support and integration of learning into the workplace play a dominant role. These are all bottom up processes corporate universities also play a role in. I do advise anyone who plays a part in strategic change or corporate universities to read this book, it does provide new angles and approaches. The other take-away is that it becomes clear that the Academy type of a corporate university is most needed given the trends in e-Learning, yet it is the type that is found the least.

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