July/August 2001 // Commentary
e-Learning in the Corporate University:
An Interview with Jeanne Meister
by James L. Morrison and Jeanne C. Meister
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: James L. Morrison and Jeanne C. Meister "e-Learning in the Corporate University:
An Interview with Jeanne Meister" The Technology Source, July/August 2001. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Corporate universities are educational organizations established and operated by corporations. Their purpose is to enhance the competencies of employees and suppliers and to help customers use the company's products more effectively. A number also offer courses to the general public in addition to their direct constituencies. Sixteen percent of corporate universities have partnerships with traditional colleges and universities for joint degree programs. Some corporate universities have campuses, while others are completely virtual. Today there are more than 2,000 corporate universities, up from 400 in 1998.

The Corporate University Xchange (CUX), founded by Jeanne Meister in 1997, is at the nexus of corporate university development and management. The mission statement of The Technology Source is to investigate the use of information technology to enhance learning and management in all sectors of education (K-Gray, public, private, and corporate). With this statement in mind, I attended the Corporate University Xchange conference on virtual universities this past February. There, in San Francisco's historic Fairmont Hotel, I interviewed Jeanne Meister about e-learning strategies that corporate universities are using.

James L. Morrison (JLM): Jeanne, Trace Urdan (2000), in an extensive report on corporate e-learning, stated that while the corporate e-learning market is currently relatively small, it is expected nearly to double in size every year through 2003, reaching approximately $11.5 billion by that date. What is e-learning from the corporate perspective? Does it differ from e-learning in other sectors?

Jeanne Meister (JM): e-Learning in any sector means using technology for learning, whether synchronously or asynchronously. It might be a complete course or a five-minute module. One of the most contentious themes we explored at this conference—and the one that distinguishes corporate e-learning from other sectors—is the issue of course completion. We questioned whether completion matters—a line of thought at odds with prevailing thinking in higher education. In our opinion, if your objective is to get certification or accreditation, then course completion matters. But if you only need to find five or ten minutes of information to perform your job better, completion may be irrelevant.

JLM: There is a good deal of resistance among faculty members in elementary, secondary, and higher educational institutions to incorporating information technology tools into their instruction, at least beyond using PowerPoint or posting their syllabi on the Web. Is this the case among corporate university educators as well?

JM: There is resistance to e-learning in the corporate world as well. First, there is resistance from the learners themselves. They are accustomed to flying somewhere warm to complete a week-long seminar, claiming that this time away from the office allows them to focus on learning. Many do not respond well to the option we suggest, which is to train in small increments at work, at home, or while traveling.

Second, there is resistance from trainers in the corporate education department, who may question their new role. If they are accustomed to facilitating face-to-face classes, they are unsure how they will handle virtual classes, and many are unsure whether they are trained to work in this new environment. The emerging skill set required of corporate training staff includes online facilitation, vendor selection and management of potential e-learning partners, marketing and communication of the benefits of e-learning, and—most importantly—management of the organization's intellectual capital. This involves being a consultant, a relationship manager, and a visionary for learning.

Third, some corporate managers question whether e-learning is less expensive than traditional education. In many cases, because of the expensive initial investment and the cost of technical and customer support, e-learning does not save money up front. There are also hidden costs for ongoing maintenance that need to be considered at the outset. The savings come later, when one considers the time and cost of participant and instructor travel.

JLM: To what extent are corporate universities using e-learning tools in their courses?

JM: e-Learning strategies and tools are increasingly being adopted by corporate universities. For example, Dell Learning moved from having only 25% of their courses online in 1996 to offering 95% of their courses online in 2000. Their courses cover such topics as management, sales, job skills, products, and orientation to Dell (for new employees). The latter course moved from the classroom to being completely online and is used not only by the several hundred new hires per week, but also by potential hires who can get a very good idea about what it would be like to work for Dell before they apply. NCR University has created personal "curriculum roadmaps" for its employees worldwide. These maps are a useful way to establish competencies based on business unit, job level, and job function. Using online tools and determining what skills they need, e-learners chart their own learning path, mapping the courseware necessary to reach their knowledge goals.

Recently, we conducted a survey among 29 leading corporate universities that had innovative e-learning infrastructures (Corporate University Xchange, 2001a). We found that the vast majority used online course catalogues, registration/tracking systems, personalized curriculum roadmaps, Web-based collaboration/meeting tools, instructor support tools (templates and study guides for designing courses), and skill-gap analysis software. Almost half have integrated some type of knowledge management system into their corporate university (e.g., BAE System's Virtual University uses a knowledge center database to archive projects and best practices throughout their organization).

JLM: In addition to the survey of corporate universities, your organization just conducted a national survey of 4,100 e-learners. What were the major findings?

JM: We found the biggest challenge faced by e-learners was finding the time to study (Corporate University Xchange, 2001b). Forty-five percent of e-learners in our study said they conduct their e-learning from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Even those with the option to learn at a high-tech training center preferred to learn at home because of flexibility, convenience, and accessibility.

We also found that a blend of synchronous and asynchronous components helps with motivation and discipline. At SUN University, for example, the IT department converted some classroom courses to an asynchronous online format and made the e-learning self-paced. But few employees took the courses. Management then combined asynchronous and synchronous aspects into one course so that the e-learner had to attend a Web broadcast on a scheduled day. Enrollments shot up. We concluded that synchronous learning provided discipline and structure for the e-learner.

e-Learners' needs vary depending on their motives for taking an e-class. Some may need certification in a specific skill area, while others may simply want to develop general skill sets. Those interested in career building seek interaction and networking, which makes it vital to provide an online venue for interaction. Those taking e-courses as a hobby may do so to keep up with the times.

JLM: Another aspect of the conference focused on the best practices of leading corporate universities. Could you summarize these practices?

JM: The NCR presenters described how a global corporation is creating a learning community within the corporation. Their university began with a shared vision and commonly held agreements on its mission and goals. NCR worked with vendors to have its online materials automatically translated into the primary languages of employees outside of the United States. The university also employs a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning and has done a fabulous job of marketing its programs within the corporation: it has a logo, Web advertisements, even its own newsletter called Learning Edge.

Symbol University, a winner of the Corporate University Xchange excellence award in 2000, developed a partnership with Suffolk Community College whereby Symbol University students receive course credit at the community college. In addition, Symbol University is recognized in reciprocal agreements with the State University of New York system.

Motorola University has just announced a new division called Motorola University Learning and Certification Services for its for-profit branch. Services include the design of leadership development programs and the reselling of Motorola courseware.

Another best practice we discovered at the conference was that of giving learners control of their learning. By using curriculum maps, for example, learners decide what types of courses they need to further their professional development. Interestingly, with the emphasis on learner control, corporate trainers are unsure of their role. In the past, a large part of their function was facilitating learning. Now these corporate trainers must assume a more strategic role, helping business units understand how training can achieve strategic goals.

JLM: Do e-learners understand and apply what they have learned?

JM: With company-initiated e-learning, the emphasis is on business needs. In the past, some companies wasted money by not linking training to job performance, giving training a bad reputation. Now there is a much greater emphasis on applying learned skills to the job. Certification may be used to this end, and with it learners are more motivated. They understand that they are adding to their portfolio of skills, a win-win situation that benefits the individual and the company.

JLM: What will corporate universities look like in the future?

JM: I predict three trends: One, corporate universities will not go completely virtual. In many cases, a blended solution is the best way to align a company's business and learning needs. Deloitte Consulting, for example, recently converted a nine-day instructor-led, classroom-based, e-business certification course into 40 hours of blended learning where 32 hours are delivered online and 8 hours remain instructor-led in the classroom.

Two, expect strategic alliances between corporate universities and traditional colleges and universities. They have mutually beneficial common ground. More corporations will offer programs in conjunction with a single university that totally customizes learning to fit the needs of the corporation and the industry. For example, Babson College and Intel Corporation have an exemplary 27-month customized MBA program for full-time Intel employees. More will follow.

Three, corporate universities will increasingly leverage their knowledge to their customers and offer free online learning to deepen the relationship between the consumer and the organization. An example of this growing trend can be found in Charles Schwab's alliance with DigitalThink, where Schwab customers are being trained in financial planning.

Corporate University Xchange is launching a major research initiative on customer education later this year. The Customer Education Consortium is a group of Fortune 2000 companies that we are organizing to benchmark companies that have already had success implementing customer education models. There are several motivations for companies to implement customer education sites: namely, to be a revenue center, to build customer loyalty, to develop a database of customer needs and expectations, and to create a centralized cost-effective vehicle for training customers and consumers.

JLM: You have discussed partnerships between corporate universities and traditional colleges and universities. How can corporate universities assist public education?

JM: Private industry has extensive experience in curriculum development, plus an awareness of the skills and competencies needed for the 21st century. Some in the private sector would like a greater role in reinventing the K-12 school system, perhaps influencing curricula or helping train teachers. There is particular interest within the business community in those K-12 systems where corporations have a large presence. Motorola took the lead years ago, conducting a pilot program in areas around the world where Motorola had large factory populations. Cisco is taking an active approach in the development of Cisco Networking Academies, which provide for the design, maintenance, and troubleshooting of schools' computer networks, specifically targeting systems lacking the necessary resources to do so on their own. According to John Morgridge, chairman of Cisco Systems, Cisco Networking Academies have trained 153,000 students in 94 countries.

JLM: Many thanks, Jeanne, for helping us learn more about the increasingly important role that corporate universities are playing in education.


Corporate University Xchange. (2000). Chief learning officers: Operating education as a business. New York: Westbury Press.

Corporate University Xchange. (2001a, January). e-Learning and beyond: The state of the industry. New York: Author.

Corporate University Xchange. (2001b, January). Learning in the dot-com world: E-learners speak out. New York: Author.

Urdan, T. A. (2000, March). Corporate e-learning: Exploring a new frontier. Retrieved May 26, 2001, from http://www.openipo.com/research/coverage/elearning/ir/ir_explore.html.

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