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Corporate universities the need to be relevant for a new game

By Prof Arnold Smit, Director of the Centre for Business in Society at USB Executive Development Ltd and professor extraodinaire at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. He facilitates in the study fields of Leadership, Ethics and Sustainability. 

I had the privilege of chairing the Evolving Corporate Universities Forum last week.  At this occasion a panel of notable presenters and delegates from a diverse group of organisations entered into a conversation about the trends and drivers that determine the corporate training and development landscape in South Africa.  Whereas one may have expected some debate about the legitimacy of a concept such as a ‘corporate university’ and what the status thereof might be among other institutions for learning,  the discussion was actually dominated by an underlying need among the participants, namely training that is relevant to the business and appropriate for the person.  

Where is this need coming from?  One answer is that it arises from the imperative to maintain business competitiveness in a fast-changing environment with high levels of unpredictability.  A second answer is that businesses experience a shortage of appropriately skilled employees with whom to maintain such competitiveness.  This gap is almost self-evident in the corporate mind of today and with it comes the need for learning platforms that will enable businesses to provide learning and develop skills in ways that are flexible, versatile, efficient and cost-effective.  The idea of a corporate university seems not so much to point to a brick-and-mortar structure where a company can do its own employee development.  While it may include the latter, it is actually more about a readily available pool of relevant and appropriate development resources that a company has access to and that a company can influence in order to ensure timely responses to competitive challenges.

There is, however, also another side to ‘relevant’ and ‘appropriate.’  What is relevant and appropriate today might be outdated tomorrow.  Or even worse, what might be perceived to be relevant and appropriate could be totally misconstrued if not approached with the necessary contextual awareness in mind.  I can use a well-known metaphor from the world of sport to explain the argument:  A coach can work very hard on ‘making her players fit for an old game’.  When this happens, the result is almost predictable: players may enter the game with the necessary stamina and strength, but without the right knowledge, skills and awareness.  It is this metaphor that I want to unpack somewhat more with a few observations that I took from discussions at the ECU Forum.  

My first observation is about the importance of context and systemic awareness when it comes to personal and organisational learning interventions.  It was quite clear that, this time around, the ECU Forum conversation was happening in South Africa, a country plagued by labour unrest and an unstable educational system.  A company in this environment can therefore not just focus on addressing its skills needs without being mindful of and also investing in the societal fabric and educational system expected to deliver at least baseline intellectual and practical competencies to make people employable.  Corporate social investment, in education in particular, may therefore need to become a strategic matter and not an optional afterthought for companies doing business in a development economy such as South Africa.

I made a second observation at the forum, namely that the discussion progressed from a farewell to traditional training to sophisticated blended learning approaches with an emphasis on individual choice and learner support through technology support.  This development seems to resonate well with where our educational frameworks seem to be going, namely that we’ll have to find ways to scale skills development for large numbers of people, by making use of technology platforms instead of our traditional bricks-and-mortar campuses. Technology has indeed become a disrupter and an enhancer in the educational space.  It has taken education out of its parochial captivity and made it globally accessible.   However, we need some caution here, because technologically smart systems with a strong individualistic inclination do not necessarily produce mature persons.  We’ll therefore have to create learning environments that are relevant and appropriate for whole-person and whole-organisation learning as well.  Learning is relevant and appropriate when it enhances the human and relational faculties of a person as much as it improves the operational capacities.  In this respect we may still have a long way to go before we find an appropriate balance.

My last observation is about the strong emphasis among delegates to produce learning interventions that must contribute to a company’s financial success.  I do not want to argue against this, but I want to argue beyond it, especially from a relevance and appropriateness point of view.  A company might be financially successful, while at the same time being a disaster for economic sustainability. Inasmuch as our prevailing economic paradigm with its shareholder supremacy and bottom-line-driven orientation has proved its performance capacity for wealth creation, it has also created environmental stress and social instability beyond what the planet and the human community can afford to bear.  Learning and development units in companies can therefore not just be there to serve the needs for competitiveness in the here and now, but they will also have to create dissonance and start developing the individual and organisational competencies that align with future sustainability imperatives.  It is in this regard that training and development units in companies run the biggest risk – that of ‘making people fit for an old game’.  ​

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