Corporate Universities: Intent to Impact

Words like uncertainty, disruption, risk, change - definitely define the operating environment for organizations today, but aren’t they also becoming an organization’s excuse for a failed strategy, a transformation gone haywire or the inability to establish 'one culture' due to lack of consistent direction?

Need of the hour is for organizations to operate with a mindset of “I can’t predict it, but I can change it.”

As a part of the Aon Best Employers study, CEOs of participating organizations were asked to dwell on the organizational risks facing them in future. Key themes that will enable them to make an early shift were (1) design organizations for innovation, speed & agility, (2) create work culture to deliver 10X impact, and (3) manage the young, the old and the connected.

The study identified rising talent costs, critical skills shortage, inability to retain employees, inadequate leadership pipeline and low employee productivity as the key talent risks being faced by organizations today. On an average, only 33% of the organizations feel they are prepared to tackle these risks.

Establishing a corporate university is emerging as a key lever to meet these emerging organizational imperatives as organizations and employees face a dilemma alike, that of a shrinking organization and learning lifecycle. Organizations are also looking at corporate universities as a powerful vehicle to surmount future challenges around technology fueled disruption, GenY & Z expectations, learning on demand and growing employability gaps.

GE led the way in establishing first generation corporate universities in mid-1950s with the creation of Crotonville. These corporate universities used to primarily focus on training design and delivery for internal custodians/employees. Since then, corporate universities have turned a corner in terms of their sophisticated learning ecosystem and expanding role to support overall organization strategy and culture.

Basis a recent Aon Corporate Learning study, we spoke to Learning Heads and Teams of various organizations to understand the purpose with which their functions/ universities were established and the design and implementation framework that takes them closer to meeting that purpose.There are essentially four key questions that every organization needs to answer as they establish their corporate universities.

What is your North Star - Today’s performance or tomorrow’s opportunity?

The purpose of a corporate university’s existence can be broadly charted out across three stages. Numerous corporate universities are built as a Trigger with a clear vision to enhance current performance and cater to internal employees. IndiGo: iFly Academy is a great example of a corporate university with world class infrastructure and a clear purpose to enhance performance and establish an IndiGo way of doing things

Organizations are also viewing corporate universities as a vehicle to Transform themselves with a proactive focus on future growth and opportunities. They focus on developing internal custodians not just to enable current performance but also future readiness. These corporate universities in certain cases have also expanded their focus to include their customers. They view developing their customer’s capability as a key lever to build competitive advantage and future business potential.

For few organizations, the North Star is to Transcend beyond self and customers and focus on larger community development. BTPN, an Indonesian Bank, realizes this commitment through DAYA – A program designed to build sustainable and continual capacity of BTPN customers and the larger community.

The first step for an organization to establish a corporate university is to have complete clarity of purpose as that will be the starting point of all achievements.

Is 70:20:10 relevant for you anymore?

In today’s dynamic environment, corporate universities continuously adapt their models to meet the demands of new strategies and carve out multiple roles for themselves. They rarely get restricted to playing a single role and are ever evolving by either expanding the target group they cater to or supporting organizational change and transformation.

A corporate university’s development architecture should match its objective, scope and target audience which should be in line with business objectives and needs. Emerging markets demand agile development architecture geared to balance the demands of different target groups. In this evolving environment, is the 70:20:10 model of learning, which holds that individuals obtain 70% of their knowledge from job-related experiences, 20% from interactions with others, and 10% from formal educational events, relevant anymore?

There are two key facets to a corporate university’s development architecture, content and the medium to deliver that content; they almost share a soul to body association.

Content is largely driven by purpose of the corporate university. We have observed that most organizations that establish a corporate university to trigger high performance focus largely on functional curriculum and basic behavioral curriculum which is mostly developed and delivered by internal experts. However, as corporate universities expand their horizon to include the future, behavioral curriculum becomes stronger and the functional curriculum is no longer restricted to an organization’s current expertise. And hence, emerges another trend of partnerships to bring the “best of outside inside.”

The larger question that every corporate university needs to answer is – What is their 70:20:10 or if there even is a 70:20:10 anymore? 70:20:10 model of learning holds that individuals obtain 70% of their knowledge from job-related experiences, 20% from interactions with others, and 10% from formal educational events, but today SMAC has completely redefined the way people learn by helping create an ecosystem that allows people to learn with minimum overhead and maximum reach. Organizations can no longer afford for this to be an afterthought, especially with GenY and GenZ in the workplace, an audience that won’t stay still and with their kind of media consumption habits.

Lines between on-the-job and off-the-job learning are fast blurring with employees moving towards anytimeanywhere learning for instant solutions to learning gaps. Also the concept of learning from experts is fast evolving to include everyone in an individual’s domain including peers, subordinates, cross-functional team members etc. The emerging learning landscape ensures multiple learning options are available for everyone and personal learning preferences define an individual’s learning journey, bringing the 70, 20 and 10 together to form a whole (70+20+10).

This paradigm shift necessitates that organizations build a learning ecosystem that enables learning on-thego through mobile learning, social learning, communities of practice, etc. depending on their context and requirement.



What are you building - Lecture halls or echo chambers?

The next big element that any organization grapples with is the structure and processes that brings the university alive. From a structure perspective, globalization and virtual workplaces are driving organizations towards decentralized virtual structures, but in India a lot of organizations prefer to have a physical university. A hub and spoke model for some organizations plays the dual role of being aligned to a central corporate university along with having regional focus.

Corporate universities adopt different structures, processes, governance mechanisms and financial operating models depending on their specific business needs, outreach and the environment/context they operate in. For example, from a governance perspective, if corporate university is a key strategic initiative for the organization then it is well-integrated into the corporate structure, sometimes even reporting into the Chief Executive Officer, to demonstrate its strategic impact.

It is hence, important for an organization to define the design principles they would want to base the corporate university on. Indicative questions that an organization needs to answer to arrive at the design principles are:

  • How does the organization want to position the corporate university as it will have a clear implication on brand and governance of the corporate university?
  • What are the key drivers that will ensure that the corporate university operates as a key strategic driver and at the same pace as the organization?
  • What are the broad processes that will help operationalize the corporate university in accordance with the key drivers identified?

These design principles are essentially a skeleton and really change the face of a corporate university

When does the penny drop for you?

“I open at the close”– A dialogue from the very famous Harry Potter Series aptly captures the relevance of outcome of a program to a learning program. That is when the penny actually drops for an organization delivering a learning program. But, the question is what does the organization define the outcome as?

For a corporate university, outcomes can be defined across three levels:

1. Program effectiveness

At a basic level, a university would track input measures that provide a deeper understanding of finer aspects of university functioning and measure efficiency. At this level, the focus is on ensuring efficiency through appropriate content, effective learning champions, enabling learning environment and strong governance measures.

2. Participant progress

Organizations increasingly are taking a big picture view of a participant’s effectiveness by not restricting it to learnings from a program. To create an impactful experience for an associate and to ensure effectiveness, organizations ensure that their universities touch each key milestone along the employee lifecycle right from onboarding, skill development, performance management to strategic capability building. By strongly partnering with the talent management ecosystem, universities become a true strategic enabler of an employee’s capability.

3. Business impact

Business Impact is essentially outcome measures, these measures are transformational in nature as they drive decision-making and measure impact effectiveness. Business impact measures are closely linked to the objective of the university and hence, help establish the strength and efficacy of the same.

Universities should define these measures at the very outset as they aid them in strategic alignment and also these measures come together to reinstate the business case for university at periodic intervals. Earlier universities were only viewed as capability building institutes and hence, the focus on program effectiveness and participant progress was of paramount importance. Today, they are viewed as strategic business drivers with its value chain starting with building employee capability but not restricted to that. In their current 'avatar', corporate universities are an organization’s answer to people challenges they face, summarized through the 3Cs – Cost, Capability and Channelization of talent.

Corporate universities help organizations directly manage the capability challenge, enabling a strong build strategy and hence, helping minimize cost and also ensure availability of right talent at the right time to ensure timely deployment. And hence, the focus is now more and more on tracking business impact as corporate universities help organizations:

  • Being disrupted: Making organizations extremely nimble and agile in their response to changing expectations
  • Being disruptive: Fueling organization’s continuous effort to incubate new ideas/products and increase speed to market

The obvious question in your mind right now is what is the right answer to each of these four questions or in other words, what is the recipe for a great corporate university? Well, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions and each organization will have a different recipe basis their context and requirements.

The webs above depict corporate university focus areas for two different organizations whose sole focus is on enhancing current performance through learning. Organization I has a hub and spoke structure with very strong focus on functional programs and leveraging

Organization II on the other hand, has world-class physical infrastructure with very high focus on functional programs, delivery and operations and branding. They rely more on facilitator-led learning with minimal technology usage.

Given their own context as well as that of the industry they operate in, their corporate universities are extremely impactful, impact in their case being defined by program and participant effectiveness measures.

Hence, for every organization the sucess of a coporate university depends on how strongly aligned is its intent to the impact and everything that enables that impact in the form of its development architecture, learning ecosystem, structure & processes, etc.


Tarandeep Singh
Partner, Talent & Performance Consulting,
Aon Hewitt (India)
Kamakshi Gupta
Senior Consultant, Talent & Performance
Aon Hewitt Consulting India

For more information, please write to us at talentscapes@aonhewitt.com
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