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CTDO Magazine

Redefine the Way Employees Learn

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Corporate universities and in-person training are taking the backseat to digital learning options.

Corporate universities emerged as a learning strategy in the 1950s and gained momentum in the 1980s as a way to keep up with technological advancement and competition. The model initially was used to train employees en masse to acquire skills for routine jobs—think manufacturing and hands-on maintenance.


Over time, the corporate universities evolved to include a full suite of curriculum to build professional, leadership, sales, and technical skills. According to Corporate University Xchange, the value proposition of the corporate university rests both in what it helps a company avoid (prevent a gap) and in what it addresses due to subpar performance (fill a gap), as well as in building on that which currently is in place (building on strength).

However, if your two- to three-year learning strategy and investments for employee development are heavily reliant on maintaining or establishing a physical corporate university, it’s time to shift those resources and investments toward digital learning and start using technology to continuously develop your workforce.

Challenges with corporate universities

For many organizations, having a physical corporate university is a symbol of prestige, representing the company’s investment in employee development. Organizations often use the university to attract top talent.

Although a physical space to train and educate employees may be a wise investment for elevating employee engagement and company pride, the corporate university model has created long-term challenges for L&D within the evolving digital transformation.

Low return on investment. The resources needed to build, administer, maintain, deliver, and send employees to attend in-person programs are significant. They include real estate, furnishing, and the infrastructure needed to provide a physical space. While physical training facilities can often accommodate delivery at scale, the ROI in comparison to the overall costs of maintaining a physical location likely won’t be recouped.

Lack of measurable business impact. Historically, the efficacy of in-person learning at corporate institutions are measured using volume metrics such as number of courses delivered and completions. While those measures are easy to quantify, they provide no real insight on whether the programs yield positive business or individual impact, reducing training to a check-the-box activity. Although most L&D functions are maturing their measurement strategies, according to Hermann Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, if an in-person training program isn’t reinforced with ways for employees to apply what they have learned, individuals will likely forget three-quarters of what they learned after only six days.

Formal training bias. In many ways, the university framework is a natural extension within the professional environment, because most employees entering the workforce are familiar with attending brick-and-mortar facilities and instructor-led courses. Business leaders also feel comfortable with the approach, so sending employees to training courses has become the primary solution to a knowledge or skills gap. That creates a bias for formal learning that has been hard to change despite the exponential advancements in technology and learner preferences.

Why do so many corporations still believe that learning only happens in the classroom? According to Michael Cannon from Training Industry, “It’s what we know how to design, develop, and deliver. It’s what our business stakeholders and learners understand and expect and what we think we know how to measure.” In other words, change is hard.

A catalyst for a new wave of learning

Although many chief learning officers are starting to rethink the future of corporate universities, many seem reluctant to move away from their multimillion dollar investments in formal education. According to the Association for Talent Development’s 2019 State of the Industry report in 2018, the average organization spent 54 percent of its formal learning hours delivering traditional, live, face-to-face classes and only 22 percent online.

For many large companies, modernizing their learning strategy to integrate digital and other informal methods of learning delivery—such as on-the-job, social, or augmented and virtual reality—were far-off aspirations.

In 2007, industry analyst and thought leader Josh Bersin predicted: “The University model breaks down. Employees can no longer wait for the University to offer the right courses. Employees want to be able to get information online when they need it. New hire, management training, and other soft-skills programs are now ‘blended’ with online activities, events, and reference materials.”

Although many of L&D practitioners saw the digital change coming and worked tirelessly to re-engineer mindsets away from old models of learning, the real catalyst for change came in the form of a global pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic’s arrival disrupted formal educational facilities and programs and gave rise to an urgent shift toward digital transformation.

With traditional in-person instructor-led delivery off the table, the adaptation to online learning seemed to happen almost overnight. Suddenly, moving online and making the shift to digital became priorities for many L&D functions and business leaders.

Investing in learning’s next wave

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a term used to describe technologies such as the Internet of Things, AR, VR, and artificial intelligence. Within our consumer and personal lives, those technologies are designed to enhance our experience and provide convenience.

Intelligently connected appliances inform us when we need to order more produce, and we can program the devices to automatically send the order to fulfillment. In the context of our professional lives, those technologies can help us learn in the moment through digital layers that provide information about a product using augmented reality.

For technicians in the field, wearing connected devices helps them receive timely guidance and feedback from an expert. Many AR solutions also include digital work instructions, where an expert can capture a work process and steps and share that within the product, bypassing the need to send someone to a training course or burdening the individual with a technical manual.

VR is becoming more pervasive in the new normal of remote work. Companies are starting to look at how immersive learning experiences can assist with sensitive and hard-to-teach topics such as diversity and inclusion.


Participants can experience walking in someone else’s shoes and identify potential blind spots for unconscious bias. While these emerging technologies were viewed as cost prohibitive and radical compared to traditional in-person learning, their scalability, just-in-time access, and consumer-grade experience make them an attractive option.

AI agents are also on the rise to connect employees with information, answer questions, or even act as a coach for skill development. Whether it’s supporting a sales rep through a complex deal or helping an early talent develop presentation skills, digital assistants will serve as a patient facilitator until mastery is achieved.

Enzo Silva, a senior learning architect at SAP, believes that “The future lies on technology that can predict an employee’s needs and address them with knowledge, connections, tools to help them even before they themselves realize there is a need.”

Making a difference

L&D professionals can shape the new paradigm of learning by leveraging next-generation technology into the professional landscape. Here are ways to get started:

  • Reprogram your learning culture. Shift employees’ and stakeholders’ mindsets that learning only happens in a classroom.
  • Align your learning strategy to performance needs. Adopt AI to find and retrieve the most relevant content asset or expert for just-in-time needs. For longer-range needs, bring in online formal education or certification programs, coaching and mentoring, and rotational or experiential learning.
  • Shift your investments to technology-enabled performance support. Research AR and VR solutions as well as in-application support.
  • Derive intelligence from applications to create a personalized experience and predict what people want or need to learn based on their employee profile, history, preferences, and past experience.

While the world will eventually rebound from the pandemic, the way we work will never be the same. Technology will continue to evolve, and preferences in learning will keep shifting toward more in-the-moment guidance and content.

Traditional learning and in-person instruction will always remain a cornerstone in our learning strategies. There is simply no comparison in the community, collaboration, and feedback employees receive when attending an in-person class.

Yet, because it may take time for us to get back to the classroom, redirecting some investments from physical spaces to more digital approaches can ensure your workforce has access to the knowledge, experience, and skills it needs to thrive.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Kelly Rider is chief learning officer at PTC, a leading digital transformation solutions company. She is responsible for establishing the central learning organization and driving PTC’s learning digital transformation. Prior to PTC, Rider held leadership positions in corporate L&D at SAP, SuccessFactors, Hewlett-Packard, and ACS/Intellinex.

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Fantastic article, Kelly! I especially appreciate your forward-thinking perspective on the next wave of digital innovation that can be harnessed for learning: IoT, AR, VR, and AI. Thanks for sharing these great examples, and I can't wait to see what innovation you'll drive at PTC, a leader in all of these technologies!
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Kelly, this is brilliant and spot on! A key aspect of moving to digital is to use it as an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of existing "training" programs. Simply transferring a poorly designed ineffective experience to a digital platform is a garbage in/garbage out exercise. What you have laid out is a critical strategy for CLOs and should be paired with fresh perspectives on the design of learning experiences as well as helping employees to be better learners.
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