Peter Holland, Amanda Pyman
Peter Holland, Department of Management, Monash University, Clayton,
Amanda Pyman, Department of Management, Monash University, Clayton,
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to consider the extent to which the concept of the corporate university is emerging as a simple re-labelling of the functional training area or a key strategic platform in developing organisational competitive advantage.
Design/methodology/approach – A case study approach was taken to provide an in-depth understanding of the development of a corporate university.
Interviews with key informants and background/archival information was used to explore the focus of the corporate university. A typology developed by Taylor and Paton in 2001, was used to analyse the role and integration of the corporate university within the case study organisation.
Findings – The research indicates that the development of the corporate university within the case study organisation has focused resources to strategically develop their human capital and is clearly linked to the strategic objectives of the organisation to enhance competitive advantage.
Research limitations/implications – The research was exploratory and whilst indicating a link between the corporate university and the organisation’s objectives, this was a single case study. The limitations of single case study analysis prohibit generalisability. More research is needed to identify trends developing across industry sectors. From this a more detailed review of the impact of corporate universities can be made.
Originality/value – This is the first research into the strategic development of corporate universities in Australia. As such, it provides insight into the development of the phenomena in an advanced market economy. The initial findings indicate strategic development of the corporate university to support and enhance the organisations focus and competitive advantage.
Article Type: Research paper
Keyword(s): Corporate universities; Human resource strategies; Human
Journal of European Industrial Training
Volume 30 Number 1 2006 pp. 19-31
Copyright © Emerald Group Publishing Limited ISSN 0309-0590
In recent years, the corporate university (CU) has become an increasingly significant aspect of contemporary corporate training and development in
Europe (Walton, 1999). In the USA, the development of CUs has been widespread, with their current rate of growth leading researchers to estimate that they will outnumber traditional universities within the next decade (Price and Beaver, 2001). Once thought to be a re-labelling of the traditional training department, the CU has diversified in the last two decades to be identified as a key element in the strategic creation and management of organisational human capital. This development has lead to a growing tension in the literature as to whether CUs represent a paradigm shift in strategically developing human capital, or, a repackaging of the training function (Eccles, 2004). This paper explores the debate surrounding the emerging role of the CU, through a single case study analysis of a CU within Australia’s largest private sector employer, Coles
Myer Limited (CML). To facilitate this investigation, a typology developed by Taylor and Paton (2002) is used to analyse the development and operation of the CU within Coles Myer.
What is a CU?
Despite increasing attention being given to the role and development of CUs, the debate as to what constitutes a CU remains. A review of the literature reveals the two broad themes. The first is the functional approach, where the CU focuses on day-to-day training issues.
As Meister (1998, p. 29) notes:
Corporate universities are essentially the “in-house” training facilities that have sprung up because of the frustration of business with the quality and content of post-secondary education on the one hand, and the need for life-long learning on the other. They have evolved at many organisations into strategic umbrellas for educating not only employees,
but also secondary customers and suppliers.
The key elements drawn from this approach are the focus on basic skills and the need to develop consistent and uniform knowledge, skills and ability across an organisation, and its network of customers and
suppliers, to ensure consistent quality of product and/or service. The second theme is the strategic approach linked to the long-term development
of the organisation’s human capital. Walton’s (1999, p. 412) definition emphasises the strategic focus of knowledge creation and management across the whole organisation when defining CUs.
The notion of a corporate university is becoming increasingly fashionable as an overarching designation for formal learning and knowledge creation activities and processes in an organisation.
There are a number of common elements to both definitions, including: a focus on formal in-house training and development; and, an on-going investment to improve an organisation’s human capital. This is consistent with human capital theory, which links investment in the organisation’s key asset, employees, to increased productivity and sustained competitive advantage (Schultz, 1959; Becker, 1964; Smith, 1998). However, the strategic approach emphasises the enhancement of the firm’s resource base by linking employees skill development with retention through incentives such as career progression, increased security and higher remuneration.
This is also consistent with the resource based view of the firm where an organisation retains and develops these resources in such a way that they become rare, valuable and difficult to imitate, further enhancing the organisations competitive advantage (Barney, 1991). From this resource-based view, the practical implication turns to how the quality of human capital can be developed and the role of human resources in assisting in building this competitive advantage (Boxall and Purcell, 2003; Boxall and Steenveld, 1999; Wright et al., 1994).
This strategic focus on the management and development of human resources can be linked to the deliberate promotion of CUs as a catalyst for strategic human resource development. This has led to increased debate about the focus of CUs and analysis of their characteristics which add to building a competitive advantage. A critical element in determining this is the differentiation between the functional or strategic nature of CUs
in terms of the type and depth of learning that takes place (Thomas,1999). The functional approach reflects a uniform organisational training philosophy embedded in a scientific management culture of the standardisation of basic knowledge and skills, and a cost reductive approach to the management of human resources (Schuler and Jackson, 1999).
The strategic approach sees organisations dependent on diverse knowledge creation and dissemination, underpinned by staff development and retention for competitive advantage. Organisations taking the strategic course will seek a long-term and diverse approach to managing and investing in their human resources, to ensure that appropriate training and development is available to all employees. A common approach underpinning strategic CUs is the use of management development centres for the building of higher order skills and the exchange of information (Taylor and Paton, 2002). To facilitate the development of this required level of learning in the CU, linkages with traditional universities may also be forged (Blass, 2000).
At the other end of the spectrum is the hands-on skill building and e-learning facilities approach which enables employees to undertake specific training as and when required or outside the normal work environment.
The management of learning and knowledge within organisations in a more complex and competitive environment reflects a key strategic role for CUs in the creation of competitive advantage; a theme which is increasingly reflected in the literature (Andresen et al., 2003; Thomas, 1999; Walton, 1999). As such, the concept of the CU is identified as an emerging aspect of the field of strategic human resource development (Homan and Macpherson, 2005; Prince and Stewart, 2002; Walton, 1999; Stewart and McGoldrich, 1996). In a dynamic environment, this means that the CU must strategically develop a diverse and adaptive approach, to ensure that each area within the organisation has access to appropriate levels of training and development to meet diverse organisational objectives.
Developing a framework for analysing corporate universities
Attempts have been made to categorise CUs in order to understand their role and focus. Walton (1999) for example has categorised CUs by placing them in an evolutionary or generational context, linking the development of CUs to the changing work environment. Whilst this (1999) typology is useful in linking the development of CUs to the changing environment, for analysis purposes, the evolutionary framework is one dimensional and static because it assumes uniformity of type and development. Similarly, Prince and Stewart’s (2002), “corporate university wheel” is also an important model because it places the CU at the centre of knowledge creation and organisational learning. However, in a dynamic environment in which many organisations operate there is likely to be a need for a variety of responses to training, development and knowledge management across different organisational levels. Shifting responses and strategies are required by a CU to remain effective and relevant, as a wide range of learning experiences for both employees and management are developed. This is essential if the CU is to be a central part of human resource development strategies. In this context, Taylor and Paton (2002) have developed a typology which provides a more dynamic approach to understanding CUs.
Taylor and Paton (2002) frame the development of CUs along two dimensions: spatial organisation and learning continuum. The spatial organisation axis defines the location of the CU as a physical entity, for example a traditional university campus versus a ”virtual campus” that delivers training and learning online. The second axis of learning ranges from a narrow training focus (e.g. firm specific and vocational training) to broader developmental programmes (e.g. professional development and research). Organisations seeking a longer-term developmental approach to managing and investing in their human resources will use a variety of strategies to develop and integrate their learning strategies, using for example, management development centres and traditional universities as the focus of development and exchange in conjunction with in-house training. The two dimensions offered by Taylor and Paton (2002) provide a clear insight into the role and function of the CU, and thus allow for a comprehensive interpretation of their focus.
Taylor and Paton (2002) combine their two dimensions in a model, as shown in Figure 1, to develop a (quadrant) typology of CUs. Both Type and 1 and 2 CUs could be described as taking a functional approach. The emphasis is on cost effective training delivery, and the ability to incorporate training into work schedules at appropriate times with minimal disruption.
In other words, it is subordinated to the organisation of work. Taylor and Paton describe the Type 3 style CU as “The Chateau Experience”.
This is in effect, the traditional management college, where face-to-face courses are run. Often conducted in partnership with accredited universities, this approach provides opportunities for more in-depth development of staff, detached from the everyday work environment for time periods of days or even weeks at a time. Typically associated with management courses, the Type 3 CUs are linked to long-term developmental skills. The final type – Type 4 – is described as the “Polymorphous University”. The name reflects the dynamic environment within which many organisations operate, and thus, the shifting responses and strategies required by this type of CU to remain effective and relevant. This approach attempts to include a wide range of learning experiences for both employees and management, and is the most strategic of all the approaches, because it actively seeks to engage all levels of the organisation. To achieve this, in-house training is blended with the building of alliances with centres of higher education to provide professional and independent input.
Taylor and Paton’s (2002) approach provides a dynamic framework in which organisations can move, change and develop their position in the matrix to reflect a transformation in the focus of their CU.
More significantly, it permits an analysis of CUs to determine their focus as either functional or strategic. This is important in the context of this research as the development of corporate universities in Australia has been neglected in the academic and practitioner press (Holland and Pyman, 2004), despite significant developments in CUs in Australia in recent times. In particular, major corporations across Australia in sectors as diverse as mining, steel, retail and service, have been restructuring their internal training and development centres to reflect a changing focus in the management and development of their human resources. The following case study examines the development of a CU in Australia’s largest private sector employer, to identify whether the organisation has undertaken a strategic focus in training and development. The Taylor and Paton (2002) typology is used as a heuristic to undertake a thorough and critical analysis of the development and operation of the CU.
Case study methodology was undertaken for this research. The rationale for this approach was that its facilitates the exploration of training and development strategies within a complex and dynamic organisation. In addition, the case study approach allows for the collection of diverse information to allow interpretation through the use of the theoretical construct developed by Taylor and Paton (Yin, 1994; Larson, 1993). Case study methodology is also appropriate in new areas of research, allowing for the generalising of theory (Eisenhardt, 1989, 1991). The use of case-study design also acknowledges the “open-ended” nature of social science research, allowing for more effective research and an understanding of the situation(s) (Morgan and Smircich, 1980).
Through this approach to data collection and analysis the contextual elements of the research can be understood and incorporated into the study. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with three senior human resource managers including the manager of the CU, who was also the manager of the fore-runner to the organisational-wide CU at Coles Supermarkets. These managers were selected because of their involvement in the development of the CU and their linkage to senior management. The open-ended nature of the questions allowed the managers to discuss issues relating to human resource management (HRM) and development within the context of the organisational setting and the development and operation of the CU. Secondary data including annual reports, internal documents and the organisation’s website were utilised to reinforce and validate the primary data. Thematic analysis was used to explore the issues that emerged from the interviews and secondary documentation. The Coles Myer Institute
Coles Myer Limited (CML) is the largest private sector employer in Australia and is the result of successive mergers and amalgamation. Its diverse businesses include: retail (Myers-Grace Bros, Target, K Mart); supermarkets (Coles, Bi-Lo, Liquorland, Vintage Cellars); and commercial products (Officeworks). With more than 1,900 stores throughout Australia and New Zealand, CML employs approximately 165,000 people. Because of its evolution, many of the business lines have retained their own culture and identity.
The original CU concept was developed in the late 1990s by the Coles supermarket chain and the Coles Institute was launched in April 1999. The Institute focused on the training, development and education of employees, from shelf-stackers to management, within supermarkets. Underpinning this development was a focus on career orientation and development. The National headquarters, based in Melbourne, managed the programmes, but training and development was decentralised to state level. The Coles Institute was developed in partnership with Deakin University, offering a range of education from customer service and short courses, to competency-based training linked to the eight levels of the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) (see Table I), and graduate diplomas and Masters of Business Administration qualifications, also accredited by Deakin University. The alliance with Deakin University was perceived to be important for the credibility of the training and development programmes, for both employees and the broader retail industry. It also provided Coles supermarkets with the opportunity to develop in-house training and development with a professional provider. Since 1999, Deakin University has worked collaboratively with Coles Myer to further develop the Institute. This has centred on four major strategies.
First, the organisation developed a competency charter, linking all Deakin University and Coles Myer programmes and qualifications to competencies required in the business, with the objective of providing mployees with an educational pathway. Second, in conjunction with the Business and Law Faculty at Deakin University, new delivery options for senior managers were developed in the form of a new suite of postgraduate programmes based at a residential school. Third, research projects were commissioned to evaluate the success of the Coles Institute and to dentify the organisation’s readiness for e-learning. Fourth, an innovative coaching programme was implemented for all managers to ensure they could effectively support their employees undertaking education and training programmes (Thomason et al., 2003).
The Coles Myer Institute
Stage One – Establishment
As part of an ongoing business transformation and the centralisation of human resources, Coles Myer senior management identified the Coles Institute as one of its core areas in the development of a competitive advantage. As the senior HRD manager noted; the incoming CEO, questioned why the Institute was not organisational wide. This was the catalyst for the expansion of the Coles Institute to feature as a centre of excellence for the development of staff across the whole organisation. To reflect this broader perspective, the Institute was re-named the Coles Myer Institute (CMI) and (re)launched in November 2003. As with the original Coles Institute, the CMI is located at head office in Melbourne, with training and development decentralised to the state level. As part of its ongoing development, the CMI has subsequently established regional training “hubs” in Perth, Adelaide and Darwin. The rationale for this was twofold: cost savings for the brands, and, to allow a greater number of people to undertake training and development without travelling long distances and having long absences from work and home.
Stage Two – Development
Despite the fact that the CMI was built on the original Coles Institute, the development phase was time consuming and lengthy, and not without issues. Reflecting diverse cultures across the businesses, all interviewees noted that the major concern among the individual brands was whether training would be specific or generic, and whether supermarket based training and development would dominate, given that supermarkets account for 60 per cent of business. The senior management team driving the implementation of the CU identified this as a crucial issue and managed it by organising brainstorming and information sharing sessions.
These sessions ran for two days and included people from the original Coles Institute and representatives from each of the individual brands.
The core message from senior management was that the CMI was a new initiative, and reflective of a company-wide approach to organisational strategy. As a result, the team spent time debating what the concept of a CU is and how it might operate. The senior management team also organised a guest speaker from Caterpillar University to address the group, to stimulate and assist in the development of the CMI. At the same time, the senior management group held workshops with Deakin University to map out the terrain of the CU, including its role and the requirements of stakeholders. A core part of the development phase of the CMI was to provide both generic training and development across all levels in the organisation as well as a platform for specific requirements for individual operations; as the HRD manager described it “identifying a vision and setting up processes for each of the individual brands”.
The intense start up phase included fortnightly meetings with the individual brands to facilitate dialogue and monitor progress, and to determine what each of the brands needed. As the Senior HRD manager noted, the early emphasis of the CMI was one of “runs on the board” that is, getting quick wins for the brand and the customer.
Stage Three – Maintenance, delivery and support
With a focus on ensuring the integration of all parts of the organisation, the operating model that underpins the CMI is brand driven value. In this light, the CMI has two primary aims. They are to assist the organisation by directly connecting training and development with the organisation’s goals of continuous development of staff across all levels. In order to ensure that training and development meets, and continues to meet, the various needs of the diverse business objectives of CML, DeakinPrime, the corporate arm of Deakin University, has three full-time employees based at the CML headquarters. Apart from the day-to-day contact with head office human resources, meetings are held monthly with Coles Myer brand managers to discuss and evaluate how the CU is providing continuous learning and development for all employees via flexible modes of delivery. The development of an e-learning platform is the most recent initiative in this area, and follows from internal research by Coles Myer management, assessing the capability and readiness of employees to embrace this mode of learning. As part of the development of an e-learning training platform, the CMI has, in partnership with Deakin, developed an online induction programme.
As noted, vocational education and training provided by CML in partnership with Deakin University incorporates the Australian Quality Framework (AQF); a legacy from the Coles Institute. This alignment with the AQF means that Coles Myer is a registered training organisation (RTO), accredited to deliver retail training packages (Certificates II, III, IV) and business service packages (Certificates II, IV). Registration as an RTO also has other benefits for Coles Myer, allowing the organisation to liaise with and learn from other external training providers. National accredited qualifications through vocational education and training are available to employees in six areas: retail, transport and distribution, hospitality, information technology, customer contact, and business services. A variety of programmes ranging from day courses focusing on specific skills, through to short courses on computing, professional writing and public speaking, are also available to staff. Professional development is a core component of the learning experience, with a range of courses offered to employees, and degree and post-graduate degrees for management. One of the core professional and leadership development programmes provided by Deakin for CML employees is a three day residential programme on business acumen.
Employees work on real in-house case studies
which are cross-brand to facilitate relationship building, networking and internal movement within the company. One of the core elements of the CMI learning framework is the recognition that the various brands are all different and therefore, there is need to be flexible to “customers” needs. For instance, the Diploma of Business comprises eight units of which three are mandatory. Employees are then able to select units based on what is appropriate to the area in which they work. As the senior HRD manager pointed out: You do have differences but then you have things which are exactly the same – so we’re talking about the Diploma of Business but people still have flexibility. The latest training innovation is the development of a training package for buyers seeking accreditation. The objective is to incorporate this buyer training into the Diploma of Business.
The three training delivery methods utilised by the CMI are face to face workshops and courses at a management college, self paced distance programmes and most recently, e-learning. In 2006, the e-learning platform will be utilised to deliver training in legal compliance, including safety, the responsible service of alcohol, emergency procedures and fair trading legislation. Because of the dynamic nature of compliance regulations and procedures, the online platform has been identified as an efficient and cost effective way to deliver such information and training quickly. In 2007, the senior management of the CMI plan to investigate what job skills training can be transferred to the online platform to disseminate information more quickly and reduce costs. A key learning resource provided by the CMI is their research library.
This contains texts, professional journals and research reports and magazines. Employees also have the ability to access specialist libraries in the areas of: information technology; learning and development; policies and procedures; management; and, human resources. In addition to the libraries, the Coles Myer intranet is available to employees 24 hours a day from home or work, and provides access to national and international resources to support the learning process.
The tailoring of knowledge and skills to the retail industry is at the heart of the CMI. Reflecting the strategic focus of the Institute, the completion of courses constitutes a core element of professional accreditation, career development and progression which translate to retention of staff. Coles Myer’s initiative to develop the CU in collaboration with a traditional university (Deakin University) focused on the acceptance of the limitations of in-house training for middle and higher level employees and an initial expression of interest from Deakin University to develop such a relationship. This partnering was seen by all the human resource managers interviewed as significant in the development of higher order critical skills required by management, and illustrates the increasingly strategic nature of the CU within CML, in terms of the development of human resources. Dual recognition is also a key to the relationship; both CML and Deakin University are recognised providers of training and development. The CMI has now been operational for three years. Its success can be measured in various ways. First, analysing unit costs pertaining to the provision of training and development across the organisation, the senior HRD manager estimated a saving in the order of 30 per cent. However, on criteria regarding return on investment (ROI) the focus on quality emerged strongly.
As the senior HRD manager noted:
A few people who tried that didn’t get very far The cost that goes into it looks interesting and at a conference in Orlando the guy from Caterpillar University said they do a huge amount of ROI. I said we don’t do any and I came back here to the Chief Finance Officer who said you know to do an ROI you need to make certain assumptions. So you make an assumption that people who attend the leadership programme will improve productivity by 1 per cent, so you do a calculation on that, you get an ROI. So What? Is it going to make any more go? Does it get money in your budget? Does it answer the question and the answer is no. So I don’t have to justify my existence. This supports and reinforces a key driver and hallmark of CML’s strategy and the development of the CU: quality, responsiveness and timeliness.
As the senior HRD manager again noted:
What drives people using the CMI is the fact that you are customer(brand) focussed, you understand your customers’ needs, you are able to get them what they want when they want it at a price at which they can afford the brand has to drive the value we don’t operate a user pays model and your operating model is very, very important.
An example of this from the manager in CMI was the implementation of online inductions. This was seen as a critical organisational-wide programme for all new employees and the process, from start to finish, took only 12 months to complete to the satisfaction of all brands.Now that the CMI has passed through its formation and development stages, programmes used to develop a uniform acceptance of its role have been implemented. For example, forums with each of the brands are still held every two months to monitor progress and pilot good business ideas. In addition, new initiatives such as the Women’s Leadership Development Programme, designed to provide training and development opportunities for women to develop their careers through to management levels have emerged.
A second initiative of the CMI is an increased focus on marketing the training and development function. As part of this objective, Coles Myer has implemented a schools-based trainee programme and offers 25 internal scholarships annually for vocational education and training. These new initiatives reflect strategic career planning and management at both ends of the career spectrum, and in line with the other initiatives, reflect what Thomas (1999) envisions as a strategic focus, whereby the key defining feature of the CU is meeting organisational goals and not just training per se. In analysing the CMI using Taylor and Paton’s (2002) model, it can first be stated that the variety and depth of training and development within the CMI demonstrates a combination of training (ie: shelf-stacking) through to education (AQF accreditation) and research (MBA forums and management college case study work) learning experiences. In addition, the diverse nature of the organisational “brands” and the skills required across a wide range of jobs combined with the focus on linking these skills to externally accredited qualifications and career strategies, indicates that the CMI has taken a multi-layered approach to the development of the CML workforce. As such, this approach requires dynamic strategies and responses to remain relevant and effective across all levels of the organisation and to ensure that all brands see the relevance and benefit from the CU.
As noted, this is most effective when both internal and external providers are utilised simultaneously and in partnership.. Therefore, the CU within CML is strategic and reflective of Taylor and Paton’s (2002) Polymorphous University (Quadrant 4). This approach provides the best strategic fit with the diverse make up of CML workforce and the different markets and strategies adopted by each of the brands. The use of a range of learning experiences for both management and staff enables the CU to remain effective and relevant in developing and managing knowledge across the whole organisation.
The success and importance of the CU at CML is also reinforced by external acknowledgement. Firstly, the marketing success of the CMI was recently recognised internationally. CMI was awarded a marketing award from Corporate University Exchange, a New York based consultancy. In addition, the CMI also won a second award for its alliance with Deakin University.
Research and practice
The implication of these finding from Australia’s largest private sector organisation are significant both within its sector (retail) and the wider corporate community in Australia. From a retail sector perspective CML has taken a strategic lead in the development of it staff, to the extent that its main competitor the Woolworth Group is now developing its own corporate university in response. In the wider corporate community there is interest in the development of the CU in this a high profile organisation as it is linked to the revitalisation of the CML group. The international awards also indicate that CML has developed a corporate university standard which has been acknowledged outside Australia as a successful model, and potentially a benchmark for other corporations.
The emergence of CUs in recent years highlights their importance in the area of strategic human resource development. However, because of the diversity of these forms of in-house training and education facilities, it is often difficult to analyse their evolution. Taylor and Paton’s (2002) typology provides a useful template to analyse the development and role of CUs. While the research on CUs in Australia is not well developed, it is clear from a case study of the largest private sector organisation, that the development of the CU has been linked to critical success factors underpinning the management and development of human capital.
Figure 1 A typology of CUs
Table I The Coles Myer Institute learning framework
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About the authors
Peter Holland (PhD Tas, MA Kent) is a Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Employee Relations at Monash University Melbourne. His current research interests are in the areas of corporate universities; new patterns and of work and workplace monitoring and surveillance. Peter Holland is the corresponding author and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org Amanda Pyman (PhD Monash) is a Lecturer in Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management in the Business School at the University of Kent. Her current research interests are: corporate universities and human resource development, strategic union responses and privacy in the workplace.