Starbucks Corp. offered free tuition to employees attending ASU. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
In June, Starbucks Corp. announced an education agreement with Arizona State University. This widely reported event gives corporate learning leaders permission to tap into the resources and assets of universities in a very powerful way. I have been advocating exactly that in the CLO community for over a decade.
The Starbucks agreement makes it safe for both corporate executives and university leaders to work together and share resources. But safety is not the only consideration. There are ways to enhance the partnership value beyond the considerable tuition discounts.
ASU supplies online curriculum primarily from Pearson Learning. Pearson, a global book publisher, has an aggressive strategy to develop and deliver academic content and services. Those efforts are of considerable substance, but they are not the courses and programs associated with the tenured faculty of ASU.
Herein lies the opportunity for corporate learning leaders. Strategic relationships bring the experience and expertise of innovative academic faculty at universities to adult learners. All of those university assets weigh directly on a corporate relationship that is now permissible for chief learning officers to entertain.
But this is not the only potential for innovation. In jointly formed university-corporate strategic relationships, there is a high-value creation potential. That potential comes from co-designed curriculum.
The co-designed model builds on academic curriculum development know-how with corporate specific contextualized content to increase the effect of the final program. Bellevue University deployed this kind of model at Sun Trust Banks Inc., The Home Depot, Verizon Communications, First Data Corp., Convergys Corp. and others, all delivered and tested over the past seven years — long before the Starbucks announcement. But the model takes commitments beyond mere price discounting to create corporate value creation.
Unfortunately, there is an assumption in academia that can be detrimental to the university: Corporate partnerships are impractical and just don’t work. Many in the university perpetuate the norm that the university partner is the only qualified content provider in the relationship. I do not agree.
Based on my personal experience as a P&L manager for General Electric and in guiding Bellevue University corporate partnerships, there is another way to view corporate executives: as experienced — especially if they’re in operations — smart, knowledge content experts.
In a co-designed curriculum strategy, this means the executives share the content responsibility with the academic partner. Few universities are willing or able to do this for some very specific, very traditional reasons. Corporate learning primarily focuses on training that affects specific corporate priorities in the immediate future. Universities usually focus on education with an effect on personal outcomes over a long future. It will take a fundamental shift in beliefs and behaviors from both to fulfill the full potential of such relationships.
On the corporate side, busy leaders must be willing to share their time and the time of some of their best managers to collaborate in curriculum development. Until the Starbucks announcement, the commitment of valuable executive time and energy has been hard to come by because allocating resources to promote innovation in education has been a low priority.
The bottom line is learning leaders have new potential for value creation in their organizations. The Starbucks-ASU agreement gives permission to corporate learning leaders to create similar strategic relationships. It makes it safe and provides a starting point for a senior management conversation about collaborating with universities willing to integrate academic expertise with real corporate learning needs. The precedent of the agreement also equips CLOs with ammunition to request executive time for an even more powerful university-corporate strategic relationship — one that includes co-designed curriculum, not merely price discounts.
Co-designed curriculum gives corporate employees education that is customized. That customization delivers high level learning in the context of the culture, language and leadership priorities of the corporation. The result is a greater strategic and financial effect.