Corporate Universities: different levels of maturity, scope and expectations

Change Management, Corporate Universities, Culture D&I, HR Management, Talent Management | 2 comments

Having run the leading Corporate University in Kazakhstan and now advising one of the top Corporate Universities in Russia, both of which were under the expectation of their stakeholders that they would be developed and ‘transformed’ into something better – without these stakeholders maybe knowing exactly what that might mean – I have done a lot of research and benchmarking of different types of Corporate Universities.

And there are indeed so many different types that I can easily conclude there is no perfect design for a ‘Corporate University’ (CU).

Differences arise because of many factors: the company strategy; the CEO’s (or management team’s) strategic intent; the company history; the maturity of learning & development within the company and the reputation of the learning & development leader in the company; the external industry environment; benchmark visits to other CUs; the preferred approaches of any chosen external Consultancy; the latest management or leadership theories; and, most definitely, the internal politics of the company and the biases and beliefs, correct or not, of internal stakeholders!

Added to that many CUs appear to be just rebranded training departments without any deeper thought attached. More of that later.

Furthermore there are different CU financial models (for profit, commercial, not-for-profit, non-commercial, grants, budgeted, income per course, income per individual) with different KPIs associated with these different models; different choices of location, physical structure and geography; different numbers and scope of their target audience; different levels of technology used and different reporting relationships and governance structures.

However I have found one of the more useful models to define different Corporate Universities to be their level of maturity and expectations.

I used a very simplified four-level version of this in Kazakhstan to explain to stakeholders (and my staff) what we were trying to do, at least in the short-term. I said we were moving from ‘Support of the current activities of the national companies optimizing their current business strategies through the development of individual competences and training (existing knowledge, new for individual employees)’ to the level of ‘Implementation of new strategy through individualized programmes (new knowledge for the organization, new for individual employees)’ in order to help deliver the national ‘Transformation’.

(In all honesty the level I inherited wasn’t much higher than that of a training centre (‘linked to individual competences and training but not explicitly to the optimization of business strategy’), but my team and predecessors were justifiably proud of what they had already achieved and I wanted to acknowledge and respect that).

In Russia, the Director of the CU there with whom I have worked closely, used a more comprehensive 8 level model to discuss the transformation of her organization.


So here is a brief resume of my research into different levels of maturity, scope and expectations of Corporate Universities.


  1. The Ultimate Leadership & Business Development L&D CU

Delivers extensive leadership education and development, but may also offer change management, strategy, process support (and even business-critical functional & professional training). Always across all businesses and parts of the organisation and often all levels of the organization (although again may only concentrate on top leaders, senior managers and high potentials). Will have a high percentage of own staff (trainers, consultants etc) and often extensive accommodation and meeting facilities for people to physically come together and stay. These CUs require significant funding and organizational commitment and may report to the very top of the company. GE (Crotonville), IBM and Mars are probably the classic examples; Boeing is a more recent addition.

  1. CU as Development Centre for Senior Executives & Top Managers

At the top end of Business and Leadership Development CUs, the University will be integral to all Leadership Development and Change Management activities across all groups of the company and will also be an integral part of the talent management and the talent development process of young and future managers. It will be clear that one cannot develop within the company as a whole without successfully developing oneself through a number of CU offerings. And although distance learning plays a role in these companies, the idea is actually to get leaders physically together so that alignment and common understanding of the expectations of leadership and the change agenda is clear. In addition to being at the heart of talent management these CUs will often have strategic links with recognised business schools and other consultancies, which may deliver many of the programmes. The CU facilitates internal stakeholders and clients and the external partners, thereby aligning the company strategy (business and talent) and culture with the delivery of leadership programmes. Novartis and Unilever are probably leading examples of this CU. GDF SUEZ with its strategy development role and Bertelsmann can also be included.

  1. CU Driving Transformational Change

At the level of change management and initiative driven CUs, general training may have been removed from the syllabus unless it is specific to the business strategy and change management taking place. For example customer-awareness could be a key development syllabus in companies trying to change their approach to customers. Often Transformation Teams will actually be part of the CU rather than as separate entities and any transformational Roadmap will be managed from the University, thereby placing the University central in any change and transformation (which makes business sense in terms of organization, communication and the levers of business process and behavioural change in managers). Seminars, workshops, discussion fora and training all play a role in communication, facilitating change and developing the new processes, skills and behaviours deemed necessary for success. Examples are Sberbank in Russia, Canon that has continually driven innovation and transformation and obviously GE in various change initiatives through the years.

  1. CU Driving Cultural Integration

Helps develop an environment for cross-functional dialogue between ‘silos’ in a company and the development of values, company culture and corporate identity, through using cross-functional sessions, workshops and training, and onboarding/adaptation programmes. Samsung, which makes very strong use of its values in all of its HR and business processes, uses its CU to embed the values in all staff. Sometimes such CUs are created (or used) to help with major mergers and takeovers, one of the well-known examples being Daimler (for its integration with Chrysler). Apple is another example using the CU to retain its special culture.

  1. Intermediate CU: the move from L&D to new strategy support

There comes a point in the development of CUs that the first moves are made towards supporting changes in company strategy and ‘transformation’. If you have a CU then it makes sense to place it in the middle of such changes. Or indeed to task the learning & development function with helping with the change management required and the new skills required of its leaders. The move is then made from support of business strategy through individual competence development (existing knowledge, new for individuals) to the implementation of new strategy through programmes (new knowledge to the organisation, new for individuals). ING Bank was a good example when moving into talent development required for new leadership skills and supporting new strategies. Petronas is perhaps another with its leadership acceleration.

  1. CU Driving standardization of core processes and business practices

Some CUs are indeed designed to roll out and ensure standard and consistent work practices, quality, knowledge and culture, especially for global workforces and franchises. The Big Four consultancies Accenture and Deloitte both have campuses with accommodation where they train their new university graduate intakes. IKEA is a classic example working with its franchises. Similarly in the food and entertainment industry, the best known are probably McDonalds University, teaching its standard quality Big Macs and customer service practices, and Disney with its standard approach to each employee. 

  1. Knowledge Management CU

With a different emphasis than the Professional Training Centre, a Knowledge Management Centre creates an environment and provides systems and processes to make the most of the knowledge the company already has. In this way, company expertise is both preserved and transferred and shared between employees and also with the outside world. Such a CU usually includes the technology to support communities of practice to share learning and best (worst) practices. A well-known example is Caterpillar, which is reported as supporting 4000 communities of practice. Heineken has communities of practice ranging from 50 to 50000 managers and staff. Other examples are Arcelor Mittal and ENI, which has more of a knowledge management focus.

  1. Professional training and development CU

Targeted at functional training, developing technical and/or professional expertise. Although this might seem at first sight to be little more developed than a standard training centre, strategically such a CU is vital for a large number of companies, especially if there is a shortage of potential employees in the market or coming through universities (specialist engineers for example) and was the origin of some of the original CUs. Such CUs often have Functional Academies and build specific expertise relevant for their industry. Or as I said in Kazakhstan, these CUs support the current (and future) activities, optimizing their company’s current business strategies through the development of individual competences and training (existing knowledge, new for individual employees). Well-known examples are Bosch, Siemens and Veolia. Shell originally developed its Project Management Academy along these lines.

  1. Rebranded Training Centre

Rebadging your training centre as a CU still appears to be commonplace, without actually developing the centre further, especially in smaller companies. Here training is linked to the development of individual (often ‘soft’) competences but not explicitly to the optimization of business strategy. I think it is probably advisable not to give any examples of this type of CU!


Although I have presented these as distinct evolutionary steps, it is not that all CUs will evolve from one step to the next. In fact some well-known company CUs have both grown and then moved down the functions I’ve described based on the changing environment. Mars CU, for example, has changed its function as the business needs of the company changed. And in practice of course, many Corporate Universities might also be a mix of at least two of the functions I’ve described, as the real business world will expect their CUs to also be real. Nevertheless almost every CU will play a role in renewal, implementation or optimization of the strategy of its organization.


Finally, outside of the idea of a continuum of level of maturity, and for the sake of completeness, there are also some special cases of CUs.

a. Replacement University

Small in number, offering some certified degrees, usually compensating for gaps in the national educational system. Infosys in India is probably the best-known (15.000 students of which less than 150 may end up employed by Infosys); Sberbank is another example, part of its remit being to raise the level of financial acumen in Russia.

b. Platform for dialogue between management and stakeholders

These CUs work cross-functionally in a company, mainly through conferences and workshops, working not only with their own management but together with customers, suppliers, external parties and even higher educational institutions, think tanks and thought leaders, to address important business issues. They are not really directly related to L&D but are no less strategically important for many companies. SwissRE and EDF are examples of this approach, with the spin-off of improved stakeholder relations and company branding.

c. Platform to improve the value chain

As a sub-set of the Dialogue Platform CU, some companies use such cross-functional interactions between management and stakeholders, especially their suppliers or customers, to work on their supply chain, optimize processes, restructure costs and stimulate value chain initiatives. The best-known CU of this type is probably Toyota where the CU is an integral part of the global sales organization and works with its dealers worldwide, but there are a number of others especially in the technological area, including Agfa and Philips.


In conclusion, as with all forms of benchmarking, there will be no right or wrong answer or right or wrong model to copy. As I mentioned earlier it depends on many other factors. Ultimately though, the ‘best’ CU will be the one that fits and is perfectly aligned with the company business strategy (and agile enough to adapt itself to changing circumstances). And delivers what it is tasked to deliver.


  1. Alizia

    Thanks!These suggestions are all helpful.

  2. Abby Lockwood

    Thanks for the insightful read. I’m working on a project for a world-class Leadership CU at the moment. It would be great to connect on this further? I see great potential to collaborate. All the best, Abby Lockwood


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