While more and more workday activities, including employee learning, are headed for the wide-open spaces of the Internet, professional services firm Deloitte LLP is building a $300 million corporate university on the solid ground of Westlake, Texas.
Scheduled to open in the Fall of 2011, its 750,000 square feet will house state-of-the art learning technology, 800 sleeping rooms, and even a ballroom. This commitment, which bucks a general trend toward more e-learning, has caught the attention of a learning community that remembers the demise of corporate universities at Xerox, Andersen, Ford, Pfizer, Aetna, and Merrill Lynch, to name just a few former palaces of learning.
When face-to-face makes sense
While such a move defies the logic of the cost savings and efficiencies that come from virtual learning, it may signal a recognition that virtual connections can only go so far. Learning consultant Marc Rosenberg says, "There's only so much you can do with social networking on the Internet, especially in services firms where you rely so much on your colleagues for help. In a major professional services firm such as Deloitte, employees are extremely distributed and rarely meet outside of client engagements. There's no glue. So coming together in a physical location makes social sense."
To keep a corporate learning center from turning into an expensive liability, Rosenberg cautions, "It should support the company's highest-level strategic decisions. Ideally it should have multiple purposes and be a place where work can get done along with learning."
Charlene Li, an author and advocate for social technology, cites another reason for investing in a physical space for learning. "There's no doubt that virtual learning has improved the training options for time-stressed employees, especially when it is skill- or knowledge-based, specific information," says Li. "But there's a different type of training that requires face-to-face time, and it can be a real differentiator when trying to develop unique skills that can only be transferred in that environment. Management and leadership skills in particular benefit greatest from these face-to-face opportunities."
Li also notes the glue factor. "The other irreplaceable value of these learning centers is that they are becoming a bonding place for cohorts. There's more and more research that shows the network and relationship that develops among people during these sessions becomes the glue that binds them together for decades. GE's Crotonville has shown this as well."
She adds, "The key is to marry the two - face-to-face and new training technologies - together. All too many in-person training sessions are still one person at the front of the room lecturing the class - something that could be done from a desktop. My hope is that Deloitte's investment includes built-in technologies so that trainers can utilize these tools and experiment with mixed learning environments that reinforce the learning that's taking place."
Although dozens of corporate learning centers have been closed and sold in the last decade, others live on as vital centerpieces for talent development. McDonald's Corporation continues to invest in its state-of-the-art Hamburger University, located in Oak Brook, Illinois, and in six other global universities and 22 regional training centers throughout the United States.
"At McDonald's, developing talent and investing in our people remain core values," says Diana Thomas, vice president of U.S. training, learning, and development. "We continue to derive tremendous benefit from the face-to-face training we incorporate into our blended approach to learning. As an early pioneer of corporate universities, we are exceptionally proud to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Hamburger University in 2011."
Beginning in 2007, Deloitte began researching and debating the pros and cons of a physical campus. While investing in bricks and mortar seemed counterintuitive given the trend at other large global companies to go more virtual with their learning, Deloitte found that partners across the board were enthusiastic about the idea. Particularly surprising was the reaction from Gen Y employees, 80 percent of whom wanted a physical location where they could meet and learn face-to-face.
"Our CEO, Barry Salzberg, believes that learning is an investment that can produce transformational results," says Maritza Gomez Montiel, managing partner, Deloitte University. "When the research showed that Deloitte University was a viable idea, he became an enthusiastic supporter and remained so throughout the recession." Salzberg will be one of many Deloitte executives who will teach at the university.
"We believe the university will be an advantage for us in recruiting," says Montiel, "and a huge competitive advantage for the business. This is an industry in which the rate of change is very fast. The university will be a focal point for continually developing our employees' professional skills for serving clients." Deloitte is known for promoting a culture of development for its people, fostering both personal and professional growth.
In the United States alone, Deloitte currently provides 3 million hours of training per year. Deloitte University will handle about 1 million of those hours - those devoted to the most value-added training, according to Bill Pelster, managing principal, talent development, at Deloitte. Initially it will serve mainly U.S. employees from new hires to partners, but eventually it will also welcome clients. The curriculum, which has been extensively revised, will cover technical, professional, industry, and leadership skills.
"We have revised not only content, but also its delivery," says Pelster. "There will be no more death by PowerPoint. Instead we will use action-based learning, immersive simulations, case-based examples, and other methods that foster interaction. That will require a ratio of one instructor for every five students." Instructors, who are all Deloitte employees, are being brought up to speed in the new approaches to teaching.
In 2007, Deloitte rolled out /D Street/, a social networking system for connecting the company's far-flung workforce. Employees use it to connect with each other and learn more about the people they work with who may be cities or continents away.
"D Street will be integrated into our curriculum," says Pelster. "People will use it to connect before and after coming together at Deloitte University."
The new university will also feature state-of-the art teleclassrooms to which people may link from distant locations via the Internet. "Physical location will not be a barrier to participating in what we do here," says Pelster.
Deloitte University is set to open in the Fall of 2011. "The construction of Deloitte University affirms and advances our commitment to our people and underscores our belief that our people are our greatest asset," said CEO Salzberg in a press release. "Deloitte University will deliver leading-edge learning at critical moments in each person's career, from new hires to partners, principals, and directors. It will be a powerful catalyst for career-long learning at a setting designed to promote both the personal and professional growth of our people."