In December, Zheng Rong attended the Global Summit for Corporate University Development in Shanghai to gather ideas about building his company’s own internal training institute. Zheng works for Shanda Interactive Entertainment, an online gaming company that tends to attract a younger staff who don’t have lengthy experience in the field. "We need to teach our younger staff and push the company forward," he said.
Zheng joined hundreds of fellow Chinese business leaders to glean what they could from success stories in the corporate university field, including those of host Motorola University. While he and other participants said they were impressed with Motorola’s vast partnerships with worldwide academic institutions, many said they were more interested in looking internally.
For many Chinese companies, the corporate university is viewed as a way to give employees additional in-house training, expertise that may not be applicable elsewhere.
In China, as in other countries, the term corporate university is often used loosely.
As one of the largest and most developed corporate universities in the world, Motorola University partners with consulting firms and prestigious universities around the world, including Chinese schools like Fudan University, Peking University and Shanghai Jiao Tong. The company’s corporate university includes five institutes that offer specialties such as leadership, management and engineering.
To many Chinese companies, however, the term "corporate university" simply means in-house training, specific to that company and its precise goals. Most organizations have a long way to go before reaching a truly academic level, and many say that’s not even part of their plans.
IBM China’s corporate learning program, for example, is not comparable to a real university, according to its manager, Richard Yuan. The program comprises two internal organizations that offer coursework and training programs, ranging from leadership and time management courses to more specific skill sets such as language courses.
An important reason for the distinction between IBM China’s program and a traditional academic institution is customization, Yuan said. With an in-house program, training can be tailored to the firm’s business environment, and is more relevant to a particular employee’s work. Cost is another concern. In general, in-house programs are less expensive and thus more attractive than paying for outside, accredited coursework.
Companies are also concerned about employee retention. If an internal class is not academically accredited, it carries more value within the firm, encouraging participants to stick around for their career pursuit, rather than take their academic credits and go elsewhere.
"On the other hand, this can also backfire," Yuan explained. "One disadvantage is the perceived value of the training program might be less, in eyes of the program participants, than an external program."
At Holley Management Institute, the corporate university for a 10,000-person Chinese company, the focus is clearly on the internal, said Ann Wang, the associate dean.
Senior management created the management institute five years ago, and are now reaping the benefits as they look to alter the company’s business focus. As Holley begins to broaden its corporate profile to include exploring the growing market for electric cars as well as the provision of power metering, the internal university is being used to help employees adjust to their new roles within this changing strategy.
"It’s different to a regular university because it only belongs to our corporation," Wang said. "Our chairman is our dean and the focus is on our corporate culture."
The institute offers mainly training courses and its mission is to instill in employees a sense of the company’s goals and style. The classes focus solely on the strategy of Holley Group, and are not designed to be used outside of the corporation, Wang said.
"If our boss has some new theory, he will have the corporate university transmit that message to the people," she said. "It’s about communication so that our people know why our leader thinks a certain way."
Similarly, telecom giant UTStarcom, which has a large customer base in China, has adjusted its corporate university’s offerings in response to its changing business needs.
When the company’s business increased sharply, the university tailored its program to focus on business issues related to rapid expansion. During the more stable period that followed, the focus shifted to leadership skills, explained Milano Wang, the university’s dean.
Even though many of the corporate university’s teachings are specific to UTStarcom and could not be replicated outside that institution, some lessons – such as strong communication skills – are universal, Wang added.
A less academic, internal focus may be the most common approach in China now, but some predict changes ahead as corporate universities grow in popularity among Chinese companies, and evolve to meet the needs of an increasingly competitive marketplace.
As the internal programs develop, they could follow Motorola’s lead and become more academic in their offerings, said Professor Baback Yazdani, the dean of Nottingham Business School, who works with Motorola’s corporate university and who spoke at the global summit in December.
Partnering with established schools will give the employees the skills that are truly valuable in the marketplace, he said. Nottingham, for example, collaborates with Motorola in helping senior executives with their doctoral training and research.
"There will be an increasing demand for collaboration with international universities," Yazdani predicted. "For businesses that are growing fast, there’s a need to develop strong management."