Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Newsweek on "Corporate Learning"

Image from GCCU

Mac Margolis has written an article on "Corporate Learning" for Newsweek (September 13, 2010) and thereby clued me in to a trend of which I'd been totally unaware despite my many years in academia:
Today, corporate colleges are considered the fastest-growing sector in higher education. Their numbers have more than doubled in the last decade and now top 4,000, according to Annick Renaud-Coulon, who chairs the Global Council of Corporate Universities. More than 4 million individuals are studying at a company university, where by some estimates enrollments may soon outnumber those of traditional universities. Once a luxury for the Fortune 500 brands, the corporate academy is now standard practice, with every self-respecting business boasting a campus or sharing one with other companies. Unlike traditional universities, corporate campuses generally do not grant degrees (though many partner with traditional colleges that do), concentrating instead on short-term immersion courses tailored to enhancing particular careers and business disciplines. Renaud-Coulon calls them "spaces of applied education to put business strategies into motion."
Hmmm . . . if these corporate universities don't offer degrees, in what sense are they "universities"? But I see why I'm caught unawares by this phenomenon -- the growth has come recently and occurred quickly. I'll try to pay more attention from now on since continued growth of this new model for education is certain to have an impact on my future in academia, for better or for worse. But why is this happening?
Today, with new technologies and management methods constantly tested and toppled in the crucible of the workplace, businesses have developed learning needs of their own. And some skills simply cannot be bought or outsourced. Every year campuses disgorge engineers, economists, and managers, but few are schooled in the fine points of producing biofuels, assembling aircraft, or moving millions of tons of ore across oceans . . . . The challenge is even more daunting in developing nations, where failing traditional education forces companies to teach the basics . . . . In Brazil, the skills void is even more dramatic. Often blue-collar laborers at even the biggest corporations lack rudimentary education . . . . In response, some companies are taking their education down the learning chain . . . . [The Infosys Global Education Center in Delhi, India] picks bright but often poorly trained recruits and turns them into world-class techies on its own campus.
From this thumbnail summary, I gather that this new model for learning comes as much from the failure of traditional education as anything else. Students aren't learning the old skills well enough, nor the new skills fast enough. I can't blame businesses for wanting well-skilled recruits, but I do wonder why these corporations feel the necessity to borrow on the prestige of the term "university," and I'm not alone:
Not everyone is happy about this arrangement. Many traditional academics won't hear of putting "university" and "corporate" in the same sentence and claim that business is enslaving universities to the profit motive. Academics in Australia complained so bitterly that corporate universities there had to rebrand with names like "leadership centers," says Renaud-Coulon. There is certainly a case to be made for disinterested scholarship. But in an economy increasingly driven by knowledge, where talent is scarce and corporate universities are outpacing traditional ones, the protests sound increasingly academic.
As my online friend and fellow 'academic' Carter Kaplan remarked in a recent email to me, "I suppose the author thinks he's being clever in the last line." I agree, though I've also occasionally stooped to that academic pun. But humor aside, I think that I'd agree with my distant Australian colleagues. Corporate 'universities' ought to drop the term "university" and turn to something along the lines of "leadership center" until such time as they offer accredited degrees and guarantee academic freedom.

Incidentally, there's something that puzzles me. Margolis cites Annick Renaud-Coulon as an expert in corporate education, but who is she, actually, and what are her credentials? Her biography at the Global Council of Corporate Universities says nothing particularly specific of her own educational background or academic standing. I'm suspicious, I admit, but consider the wording of this excerpt from that biography:
[Renaud-Coulon] organised the first truly global event on Corporate Universities in France in April 2008. Participants from 24 countries and five continents met for three days at Campus Veolia Environnement, in Jouy-le-Moutier near Paris and Sorbonne University in Paris.
If I read this right -- and I am reading it closely -- Campus Veolia Environnement is not even in Paris proper, let alone at Sorbonne University. In fact, it's in Jouy-le-Moutier, nearly 30 kilometers northwest of the city center and has no official connection to the Sorbonne. Or is the English merely obscure? A French version has this:
Annick Renaud-Coulon a organisé en 2008 au campus Véolia Environnement et à la Sorbonne, le premier forum mondial des Universités d'entreprise.
This implies that the conference took place in two places, one of which was the Sorbonne, but even if this was the case, Campus Veolia Environnement has no official connection to the Sorbonne that I can see. Moreover, since Renaud-Coulon mentions no educational background of her own in her bio, yet proudly extols the honor of her National Order of Merit, I have to wonder if she even has a degree. In The Corporate University Handbook (2002), edited by Mark Allen, the bios to an article authored by her and a certain Mike Morrison note that he has a doctorate, but say only this about Renaud-Coulon:
In addition to studying law, Annick Renaud-Coulon has been a teacher, head of human resources in an industrial organization, a consultant, and head of an enterprise. She currently works as an independent consultant and conference speaker with a network of partners in France and abroad. (page 278)
In The Next Generation of Corporate Universities (2007), also edited by Mark Allen, her bio says much the same thing. Neither bio is specific about her study of law and her work as a teacher. Both merely associate her with law and with teaching. On this point, note some advice offered by Renaud-Coulon in her article on "Branding Your Corporate University":
Be ambitious for your corporate university. Make a myth and a legend of it. (Next Generation, page 106)
She seems to be following her own advice in branding herself, but also -- and of more significance -- in branding corporate education as corporate university education and in associating Campus Veolia Environnement with Sorbonne University.

So again, what are her academic credentials? Anyone know? And why does Margolis rely so heavily on her as an expert. Is she truly that knowledgeable?

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At 8:03 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

Corporation PR runs on buzzword, the market people put out university and the press ran with it.

Sometimes the buzzwords create another industry, for example, I had a course in statistical process control and got a certification for use in building in quality in a production process. Some years later Around the same time that type of knowledge was renamed Six Sigma, then on top of that it borrowed language of karate and in the certification it gives, Green, Black Belts, etc. My certification became useless, because some entrepreneur saw a way to make money teaching a "new" form of statistics.

I think Ms. Margolis credentials are composed of manipulating buzzwords, much like a motivational speaker.

At 8:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that you're right, Hathor, these are a lot of buzz words, and the woman -- though actually named Ms. Annick Renaud-Coulon, not Ms. Margolis -- is probably engaged more in promoting her career than in advancing education.

Some of the education itself might nonetheless be valuable, especially if associated with accredited universities. I should ask my older brother about this, for his bank often sends him off for one- or two-week courses.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

Two of which i am aware are Ronald McDonald University (!) and the Ice Cream University. The latter is at least run by Penn State and has some connection with its ag school.

At 11:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ice Cream University?! Now that's a worthy institution. Not airy-fairy, but dairy! Run by Penn State, too. I assume that it's rigorous.

By the way, Sperwer, are you back from Spain?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:26 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

1) From the "Public Agenda" organization:

Changing the Conversation About Productivity

2) Delta Project Report on Higher Education Spending:

a) News Release

Here's one of the major findings of the report (quoted from the News Release):

"The share of spending going to pay for instruction has consistently declined when revenues decline, relative to growth in spending in academic and student support and administration. This erosion persists even when revenues rebound, meaning that over time there has been a gradual shift of resources away from instruction and towards general administrative and academic infrastructure. "

b) Full Report

At 3:04 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

"Corporate 'universities' ought to drop the term "university" and turn to something along the lines of "leadership center" until such time as they offer accredited degrees and guarantee academic freedom."

Excellent point.

As an aside, it occurs to me we might take Churchill's comment regarding democracy and use it as a pattern for reflecting on academic freedom. That is, tenure is the worst possible system . . . except for all the others.

At 4:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, thanks for the links. I had -- somewhere --- seen that quote on funding for instruction. Interesting.

I'll take a look at the links later.

As for tenure, it certainly does protect academic freedom, so I suppose that we have to put up with its protection of academic laziness as well.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:03 AM, Anonymous Philippe said...

There might be less confusion and less acrimony in discussions on this topic if a distinction were made between "education" and "training".

I suggest that the traditional university "educates", while the corporate one (call it what you will) "trains".

At 5:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That sounds about right.

Jeffery Hodges

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