Providers of learning and development: how to cooperate for success



Co-elaboration of deliveries, how to work with Business Schools, and other partners, internally or externally


More and more experts are external to the corporation. They are not just suppliers. Some of them will become partners. Business Schools are one specific kind. Understanding how to work with them can really bring big benefits.

When working with an external supplier there is a lot to learn. Not only on what they deliver, but also on how and why they deliver. They can also provide for sources and more resources if the client is ready to invest and qualify himself. In a partnership transaction, the more you know about your partner, the more you learn and benefit. Trust develops because shared knowledge allows for a better exchange and definition of common goals. Short cutting this investment is frustrating and misses the final point of outstanding achievements.


Companies must manage organisations interface and that is becoming more and more complex even in their core business.  The evolutions of the relationship with clients in a competitive environment, force corporations to deal with topics that are not usually in their traditional know how.


Creating inside the company a department or an entity that would take care of the personal, professional, organizational development of the managers why being aligned with the strategy, is also quite complex.  Often this entity, usually under the name of a Corporate University, has to deal with some project management, learning communities, sharing of knowledge, and management of best practices, and a few other topics that have to deal with priorities and cross-fertilisation.  It seems difficult to achieve such results with just plain internal resources, certainly not only with the people who were just in charge of training.


Another risk is that in the long-term, corporate objectives and circumstances are changing fast that the relevancy of this entity may be in question.  Many large corporations have had these last years to reorganise, or change completely the organisation of the corporate University: Ericsson, from 50 full-time staff to five, Isvor-Fiat  moved 100 full-time trainers into internal consulting position, Shell had changed the organisation of the corporate University to a consulting entity for cross functional projects.


Changing CEO, merger and acquisition, profits plummeting, and   the Finance VP will scratch the corporate learning entity.  Results and impact on the short term are obvious; impact on the long-term will come later, and are more difficult to see.  These entities, be they Training Centres, Corporate Universities, Corporate Learning Centres, Academies, Schools or Institutes, operate different functions, some are strategic some are more political and some just logistic.  Some others are more on learning design and learning deliveries.


When changing the model it is important to keep what belongs to the vision and the sense of the strategy and to outsource what can be done in better conditions outside.

It is of no use to keep a full time faculty in a corporate University as this is done in the business school model.  Research, publications and other typical assignments are not part of the missions in a Corporate University.  It would be very difficult to allow a normal academic workload, if these “corporate” full-time faculties are lecturing or leading seminars 600 hours per year. This does not allow them to develop and get the qualification needed for an academic profession and in the same time to do a good job for the company.  This does not mean that from time to time corporate universities could not benefit from having for a short period, some experts, a doctoral student or a faculty in sabbatical for instance, to contribute to some specific projects. 


The corporate Learning and Development (L and D) entity should try to get support and assistance from qualified institutions.  It is qualifying for the staff of the corporate learning centre to get in contact with full-time faculty within institutions, to work on research project with them, to  go deeper in a discipline in some of their activities, to read their books and share with other colleagues.  The reality is that such behaviours are not so frequent.


The international academic tradition, the famous academic freedom, is in contradiction with the corporate will of managing a body of internal experts.  A good analogy is with the management of a research centre within a company.  Researchers are supposed to deliver results, but many practitioners know that one has to allow some free time for them to be more creative.  Management and creativity are different activities, the first one is convergent and the second more divergent. Blending is necessary.  And so it is important to manage these external qualitative resources as well.

What is really strategic has to be kept internally. The role of L and D is to know how to architecture knowledge, key expertises, blend conceptual and cognitive approaches, mix different types of programmes, different sort of people, different projects.


  1. Defining roles for the Corporate University, or L and D: sponsor, project manager, project supervisor, committees.


    As in all organisations governance must be defined as well as responsibilities.  In case of change they have to be revisited if necessary.  Who does what and who decides?


    A sponsor, at the level of the executive committee is the best.  Without him or her, there are  little chances that the project of the corporate learning centre may be stabilised .  This sponsor takes responsibility in front of the executive committee or the board.  It’s both a political and a technical mission.  If it is mostly political a project manager is needed to avoid confusion between political and technical issues.  Otherwise a project supervisor which is mainly the Head of the Corporate University is only necessary.

    At the political level the objective is to define values, vision, and identity.  At the technical level the objective is to define the project in terms of specifications: type of programmes, type of pedagogy, participants, content, and outcomes.


    In many cases sponsor, project manager, project supervisor come together in a steering committee where there is also internal clients and sometimes external experts.  Two types of committees can be needed: the strategic and political committee and a programme committee.  Not the same people go to all two committees.


  2. Qualification/profile


    Observations show that frequently people in charge of training functions have not always the required qualifications for corporate learning centres.  Very often people in charge of training are on a side track, aside from mainstream activities.  The reasons why they have been “promoted” there are not always very positive.


    In many cases, in a way to get these people to develop a high level relationship with external providers, an academic qualification is needed.  Not only it is important for them to know internal company networks, but also the knowledge of higher education institutions is needed to be credible and legitimate to external experts.  Fluency in English is a must to have access to main publications in the domain.

    Frequently in consulting with large firms for the setting up of a Corporate University, the first part of the consultancy work, which may last for a few months, is mostly about qualifying internal actors, and transferring what is essential for them to know before starting the job.


    Often, corporate universities start because someone at the executive committee level, and for instance the CEO himself, decides to launch such a project and ask the HR VP to do something.  This is an embarrassing question as usually nobody knows what to do and how to do it.  Competitors are benchmarked and if they have a corporate University, this idea comes back to the company.  The approach is much more a copycat decision, and the exact replication of what goes on in the competition.  It is certainly not the best way to deal with such an important issue.


    When consulting with such a company the first question to assk: what do you want to achieve, what are your main objectives and specificities. There are many ways of designing a corporate university: there are best practices, but each case is different and there is no panacea.  Then it is important to identify all of the strategic objectives, the key competences, the scarce resources and who manages what.


  3. Client/provider relationship: reciprocal demands


    Many corporations are considering providers of intellectual services as traditional suppliers.  As the relationship is more one of a B to B, it is closer to a partnership relation.  This means that corporations have to call for a different posture.  Good providers are not traditional suppliers.  They are partners.  This means that the investment is reciprocal.  Negotiate only on a price issue for an important tender is not only risky but is nonsense.  It is important to go deeply in the construction of the proposal, meaning understanding in detail what is to be done.  This calls for a certain level of reciprocal trust, as strategic information will be shared, and confidentiality is needed since the beginning, good ideas can be very quickly taken into account by the client even if there is no contract signed. This is why some institutions only answer tenders that come from true contractual and formal partners.


  4. Specifications and tenders


    These processes come from large corporations, often public services that must show some formalism for tenders, when they are over a certain amount of budget.


    Education tenders within private corporations are a little more flexible, but the trend is here and tends to generalise.  The reasons are multiple.

  • Purchasing departments, in the industrial word have shown interests and results.  Pressing hard on suppliers is the quickest way to cut costs and make profits and savings.

As an example, in the 90s, Renault wanted to reduce manufacturing costs by 30% within three years.  This was one of the first programmes of Mr Ghosn.  Half of the savings where on  the suppliers’ side.  The rest was for internal productivity.  The objective with the suppliers was to reduce the number of suppliers and enlarge orders with those which would have been selected and would have answered positively to the discount on prices.  Reducing the number of suppliers (with some risk of supply chain breakdown) allows lowering the cost of managing suppliers.  Concerning the other side of cost reduction, the internal side, it was decided that during the period, costs and budgets should be reduced every year by 10% for the same missions and jobs should be reduced also each year by 5% during three years.  Objectives were met.  The same exercise, but a little more complex was done later on at Nissan. When one deals with reengineering the corporation, it is no use to look for a 10% cost reduction, the job will have to be done again the year after. As it is a difficult exercise, it is better to be more ambitious.


  • With outsourcing, delocalisation, delayering, corporations have lost part of their experts, and have had to call for external advice.  There has been a strong inquiry is on the expertise market recently.  In terms of purchasing this kind of services, the evolution has followed the same curve.  This explains why after the pressure on traditional suppliers of goods or raw materials, the pressure came on suppliers of services.  Departments of management control have had the same mission to make these the expenses come in an acceptable limit.  A good example of how these expenses are difficult to manage is with the implementation of ERP softwares.  Implementation and maintenance had at a huge cost, and the purchasing departments had to negotiate firmly with suppliers to keep the price tag down.  This is still sensitive on the per diem charge by consulting firm.


It is common that the Corporation as a whole must get involved in that type of process.  Return on investment in Management Development budgets is also part of the game including for corporate universities programmes.  This may be quite difficult to figure out in training programmes.


And it is not the only negotiation with a provider, as the list of specifications will force everybody to explicit the needs and bring transparency and consensus on:


  • Presentation of the company and its objectives
  • Definition of needs
  • Definitions of programmes and expected outcomes (duration, vocation..)
  • Specific expertises and competencies to be developed by each programme
  • The target population
  • Expected impact on this population
  • Learning modes expected
  • Criteria for selecting providers
  • Modes of working with a provider
  • Assessments and evaluation of programmes and follow up
  • Complementary services
  • Documents and prerequisites
  • appendices: detail of the project, agenda and planning, résumé of main lecturers
  • etc


In reality, the specifications list is a real working tool that will change with time and contacts with providers.

With private companies, usually there is a short list of providers preselectionned, to avoid to call for too many providers, some of them being unqualified.  One can start with a short list of four or five in the first phase.  It is better to allow for a couple of meetings, and also modifications of the tender, after the first run.  If the selection of providers has been done consistently, from the first visit, new inputs will bring innovation in the specifications.  The client gets a better idea of what is possible and what is not possible. 


Meeting with providers, if possible on their location, and discussing directly with experts that they plan to mobilise on the project, is a very good way to learn about what they can bring to the programme. A detailed analysis of all bios is important in this first phase, as it is a way to assess the quality of facilitators.  Most of the success of the programme will come from this specific expertise and know-how.


  1. Externalise


    Make or buy. Do or subcontract.  It is often tempting to do things internally sometimes for budget reasons, many corporations think that they know better what they need, and they can do it with lower costs, with the full benefit.  In some case this is true and clever, as it is for action learning for example.  Nevertheless for more conceptual content, excellent and qualified experts are better sourced in schools, with more academic rigor, more experience, and a better knowledge of good learning material.


    For implementation aspects, the company is certainly in a better position.


    But if a client wants to outsource and partner, a good knowledge of the topic is a plus.  Delegation is at its best level when there is a mastery of what is delegated.  Blending the conceptual inputs with practical intakes from experienced people from the company will bring perspective to a theoretical inputs, the first reinforcing the other.


    In this sharing of good practices, the two partners will improve.  This is what makes a big difference between consulting firms and business schools, as most consultants would be selling processes, and recipes that have worked in other places, while business schools would bring something else.  It is true that good recipes make quick wins, but sometimes they are not hundred percent relevant.  Institutions will try to good keeper in the thinking and research before proposing something closer to the need of the Corporation, taking into account its specificities.


  2. Service integration


    What happens frequently when a client is satisfied with his partner-provider, he asks for more services.

    Nothing is more natural than to have complementary provision to the first action.  In traditional management development programmes, many other provisions can be delivered that will simplify participants’ life as well as the life of the head of the corporate learning centre.  One can add not only 360° feedback, appraisals, coaching and consulting, learning expeditions, action learning is but also some other logistical aspects: bookings, trips reservation, documentation, website, as well as conciergerie services that happens today in many consulting firms.


    Many individual requests will appear, and needed by some specific evolutions.  One question may arise from somebody moving to a totally different job and needing to be trained in a different discipline and techniques.  It is then needed to have a much customised program for one individual.  This takes a lot of time.  One also has to identify a list of qualified seminars, and high level of seminars for top executives, for their own individual development.  This includes open seminars at Insead, or LBS or IMD, up to Executive MBAs for some.  Each case needs counselling by someone qualified. All other administrative aspects, including career development and succession planning will have to be addressed.


    The more selective the institutions, the more they want to make sure that the quality and homogeneity of participants have been scrutinised.  Frequently the main inputs of such seminars come from the participants, the more qualified and experienced are the participants, and the better is the seminar. Often schools will ask for filling out questionnaires with the commitment of the sponsor of the company on the reasons to register somebody for this program. The sponsors has to clearly explicit what is expected from each participants when they come back to work, and what might be his/her next position within the company.



  3. Global engineering with HR are and Information Systems


    It is usually the weak part of this supply chain.  In many companies those in charge of career development and succession planning do not talk much to people in charge of management development. In some case succession planning for top executives is not within HR.  It is directly under the CEO responsibility.


    In such situations, it is difficult for those in charge of management development to have access to the relevant information on mobility, promotions, and job posting of top executives.  It does not allow the anticipation in the qualification of those who are supposed to move.

    In this large insurance company, after some consulting and advice, it was decided that both career development and management development would be under the same hat, to avoid such internal fights, and to improve the quality of service. It is not always the case.


    It happens frequently that managers are going into mobility without any preparation.  Not only they know very little about the new job, but they have not been prepared for expatriation.  They have little foreign language skills, no sensitiveness to foreign culture, and their family is poorly prepared.  Sometimes there is a quick return because of instant failure. If they adapt, when they come back after three to five years for reimpatriation, nobody is expecting them and in many cases, about 50% of the time, corporations cannot offer them an adequate job.  This could have been easily designed in advance.  The result is that many of them leave the company while the investment on their own development has been huge.  It is a loss for the company.

    With the scarcity on talent coming, HR should be concerned and see on these occasions sources of improvements and savings.


    Heads of corporate learning centres should also be able to discuss extensively with people in charge of Information Systems.  This cooperation should bring not only a better knowledge of target populations but also can afford new developments in terms of complementary facilities: websites, automatic invitation and booking HRIS, platform and learning management systems, provision of good  e-learning modules, and a better follow-up of population attending similar.   New web  software will also improve links between virtual working groups, and allow development of learning communities, sharing of knowledge, e-tutoring, and conference on the Web.

    Such preoccupations have an impact with negotiations with suppliers of Information Systems who should provide a good integration of service in all HR functions.


  4. International developments, cultural adaptations and learning styles: external partners can contribute also.


    Large corporations will quickly find out that after the first phase of serving local and national targets, the same kind of efforts must be brought to a different population in different languages.


    When such programs have contextual specificities linked with the cultural or competitive environment, it is in no way as simple translation.  It is a complete transposition and adaptation.  This Japanese company wanted to implement in Europe the traditional training for Japanese engineers; it quickly appeared that it was not possible, nor interesting for the company.  The objective was simply to get European engineers behave like Japanese.


    Starting from the basis of a Common engineering it’s a complete new design that must be done in the local culture, so that the coherence will be optimised between the global objective of the programme and the local context. Providers can also bring in their local partners.

    In a way to achieve this, local partners must be identified, and the same kind of investment must be done to handle these partners for them to understand and know the company locally, to bring relevant teaching material as well has good local examples.  Learning styles must also be adapted.  Asian people do not learn the same way Westerners do.  They are very good at observation and memorising, but not as good at conceptual thinking and causal reasoning the way we do it in the western hemisphere.


    The same thing can happen also with what could be considered as basic management concepts.  Leadership has not the same meaning, even in Europe, between Nordic countries and Latin countries.  The Nordic countries go for a servant leader, Latin countries prefer served leaders.


  5. Team qualification and coaching


    When dealing with a provider, hopefully bringing innovations and new approaches, it is interesting for the team in charge of corporate learning to develop its qualification.  Partnership is there to make the two parties improve.  This concerns engineering, design, content, learning styles, where few corporate people have the opportunity to get the proper training.


    Individual as well as collective coaching, will help corporate learning entity staff to select readings, sources, qualifying networks, good seminars, experts on different topics in a way to avoid  to lose too much time in discovering made himself a very complex provision on a very fragmented market.  In many occasions on these markets, some make a good show, but this is not enough to ensure the quality of the provision of a full programme for top executives.  They might be some delusion.



  6. Provider of organizational development, impact on higher education institutions


    Many providers or institutions can meet some hard times when developing a demanding partnership relationship.  Implementing such relations at a high level, calls for a symmetrical effect inside each of the partners’ organisation.


    Let us take the case of a business school.  The key account manager in such an institution is facing a series of difficult questions sometimes, to solve internally.  .

    He/she must find sponsorship and support as well as resources, to come out with the relevant answers to the tender.  Then he/she must come and present to the clients.  One of the good accredited business schools in France has a complete process of qualifying the demand from the client, discussing it internally with the Dean of the faculty, to make sure that the best resources are allocated to the project.

    One would expect that the negotiation could be direct and much simpler, as the account manager would call and select himself the experts in the school.  But this is dangerous if the institution wants to qualify its entire faculty. The process may seem easy, and the client can think that he is not concerned, but in fact, he must do also the same thing for internal executive lecturers, selecting facilitators and experts, if he wants programmes to be successful and validated in the long run.  The symmetry of processes and organisation is a sort of guarantee of quality of the partnership.


    The benefits for institutions are not only financial.  Facilitators and lecturers will gain a better knowledge of the company and of its specific know-how.  They would also enrich their case studies and examples, and bring relativity to their theoretical knowledge.  There will also be the development of facilitation expertise that will allow the institution to improve its credibility in front of other corporate partners.


    This comes also out of the rankings that appear in business journals, like the Financial Times, as executive education will represent now, half of the criteria taken into account.  This appraisal is done mostly by corporations themselves.  After all, corporations are the final client, whatever the product or services delivered by the institution: graduates, as well as programmes.  In the institution this kind of partnership will improve its added value by the quality of its contents, effective learning methods, new technology, delivering what is expected by the clients, and so gives better services to students, participants, corporations, including the faculty.


    The massive evolution of new technologies of communication and information will also have its impact on programmes, including bachelor programmes or master’s programmes as well as executive education.  In many occasions the promotion of e-learning modules in management within business course has been done with the help of corporate partners that are recommending the use of such models for some executive education programmes.


    This technology impact will change the way institutions deal with basic management contents that appear now in many textbooks.  What is the use of reinventing the wheel on basic courses when good e-learning modules on the topic exist?  It’s a question of time and energy saved for the faculty and students, allowing them to go deeper into each discipline, to create new electives, to spend time on research or publication, or executive education, instead of teaching basic contents.


    In doing so, one can expect institution to move towards more qualified services for their clients.




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