Training Today’s Professionals:

The Battle Between Traditional Degree Programs and Corporate Education

By Jake Aull 3/2008

There is no doubt that education is valued in the business world. Many corporations today require up to 30 hours of training a year per employee. These expectations are not without precedent - medical doctors and CPAs, for example, have always been required to keep updated on their industries through accumulated annual hours of education. To help fill these expectations, many corporations import or hire company trainers, create intranet and physical corporate universities, or send employees to certain outside seminars.


In spite of the computer revolution, there is still more learning time spent and content delivered in traditional models than electronic. That is, instructor-led sessions for corporate education are still beating corporate-university content on an IT network. In the future however, that model could certainly be reversed. A strong driver for this reversal in American business is "time starvation." Thanks to modern "accelerated lifestyles" and the continual increase in working hours per week, time is the biggest determinant in many corporate purchasing scenarios. Although numerous studies reveal greater learning success from live, teacher-to-pupil education versus online or other electronic content, current data shows that:

U.S. companies spend over $16 billion annually on corporate training... Between $3.5 and $5 billion of this training comes today in the form of e-Learning. Online learning has exploded in higher education, with over two and a half million people taking online courses in 2005. Made notable by big players such as the University of Phoenix, who alone had nearly 300,000 enrollments in 2005... Online enrollments in higher education are growing in excess of 25% per year (more than five times faster than in-class enrollments).1 


But these time pressures can reduce the learning benefits of corporate universities as well. That is, when one attends a classroom outside of the company for MBA or other business learning, the experience of teacher-to-pupil education is far more complete, without the pressures and distractions of the daily grind.


Additional competitors to MBA (and comparable higher-business) education are the current trends in leader-to-leader business training, e.g., executive coaching and mentorship. The phenomenon of modern business’s rapid employee churn also applies to executives.2 Many companies invest money and time in an employee's MBA education, only to see employees leave for another job once the degree is complete.1 This is a double-edged sword, as replacement employees and executives require more intimate, company-specific training which is too exclusive for MBA programs. And while MBA-provided business theory is important, many companies today prefer learning trends in hands-on, working, trade-tactical knowledge and application. Popularity has grown greatly for education in business acumen - corporate learning programs created for salespeople and CEOs alike. These programs advance professionals in the terminology and inner workings of their specific industries and clientel.2 At the same time, the loss of company- and industry-expert knowledge increases with the Baby Boomers retiring, leaving holes in their previous functions. All of these factors coalesce for today's growth in corporate universities and internal mentorship programs, particularly at the executive level.



The growing demands for industry- and company-specific learning (as mentioned above) are a concern as more companies emphasize return on learning investment (ROLI) for their corporate-education dollars spent.2 Metrics are growing in importance across all industries today and corporate education is no exception - the need to establish customer value will always drive education’s selling ability. As a partial response to company demands, MBA-accredited programs are adapting by delivering more leadership development, supplying the increased demand for flex- and blended- (a mix of online and face-to-face learning) MBA programs, and even projecting additional language requirements for the growing importance of the global market.3


America itself is currently experiencing "degree acceleration," as more individuals pursue advanced degrees than ever before. This has likewise increased the demand for MBA programs, as professionals wish to remain competitive and aware of the business world beyond their specialized roles. University systems in general throughout the U.S. are benefiting from degree acceleration, with their ability to hire professors with higher levels of education. At the same time, the corporate education trend grows in its emphases of industry-specific, hands-on knowledge and leader-to-leader training roles. Between these forces (just as between business theory and application), MBA programs must chose their approaches and positioning carefully.


However, as the importance and popularity of corporate-education programs grow, MBA programs could creatively re-supply them. For example, some corporations allow their staff-education, hourly requirements to be fulfilled through some MBA courses. Likewise, some schools offer special business-certificate programs in addition to regular programs and degrees. To stay competitive and current, traditional business schools can continue to re-invent and emphasize their ability to supply these, negotiating special contracts with large corporations and promoting them to the market.


Another trend in corporate education which could be absorbed by traditional business schools is action learning.2 The study of multiple learning intelligences has grown significantly in the last 20 years, pushing teachers to reconsider traditional methods of student learning expectations. Action learning itself fulfills the role of kinesthetic learning, which is much more physical and hands-on than traditional audio- and visual-learning approaches. Action learning also addresses Americans' shortened attention spans (attributable to time starvation as well as increased media exposure). With the constantly growing barrage of external stimuli, as well as the increased work-time pressures, it is much harder for valuable information to break through the world of noise. Consequently, corporate trainers today will often set up physical demonstrations requiring students to role play, or physically move objects as metaphors for their business approaches. Integration of this live, hands-on approach separates it from most electronic learning deliverables. This is an extension of the "experiential value" of classroom environment, supplemented with physical learning methods.4 A major part of the value here is that kinesthetic methods achieve high recall (memorability) among students (thereby increasing ROLI). This kind of direct contact can certainly be employed in modern business classroom teaching.

By Jake Aull 3/2008


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  1. “Online corporate education and online training: what’s the difference?” Brian Kelley.

  2. "Global Trends in Executive Corporate Education." (powerpoint)

  3. "Facing up to the challenge of corporate education." Jeanette Purcell.

  4. "Welcome to The Experience Economy." B. Josehp Pine II and James Gilmore. Harvard Business Review. Jul 1998.

  5. “Curriculum design and management in the Digital Media U: Applying the corporate university concept to a business sub-sector.” Les Selby and David Russell.

  6. “Greater expectations: How corporate education can boost performance.” Harry H. Brakeley and Jeanne C. Meister.



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