Published on 2012/09/07

Colleges and Universities Cannot Afford Resource Demands of Corporate Training

While delivering corporate training may be a lucrative business venture for higher education institutions, the attention and focus required to deliver a program to the specifications of an employer can be distracting to the college or university’s main functions.

Over the years, I have learned a number of lessons at UC Berkeley Extension in developing and running programs for private organizations. “Corporate Training” as it is called is lucrative and can successfully leverage existing content and curriculum but it requires dedicated effort and the same attention to learning outcomes that any education or training program requires. It is unfortunately not easy and is not as straightforward as bringing existing courses to a new client base.

It was early in the day. The phone rang and I picked it up. “Hi, this is Jeff Pallin from UC Berkeley Extension.” “Yes, we are a company wanting our employees in marketing to understand international business. Do you have a course you can run here at our facilities?” “I’m sure we do. What is it you want them to learn?”

Distractions and Challenges

Thus began the process of uncovering learning objectives. In this initial conversation with an HR professional, she revealed she had been asked by a senior director to help staff do their jobs better in international marketing. It became obvious early in the conversation that the company had a preconceived notion that all their employees needed was a two day overview of marketing “in the global space.” They wanted a quick solution to a tactical problem even though success required alignment of the company’s strategic goals with the abilities of their employees.

This is part of the challenge facing public institutions like UC Berkeley Extension exploring revenue opportunities in the world of “corporate training.”  Yes, it is lucrative, prestigious and seemingly easy to enter. Answering questions like the following three requires a significant investment in time:

  • What do they want?
  • How will they know that what you promise is what they want?
  • How will they know that they got something that worked?

(I purposively avoid discussing the difference between education and training here and focus instead on fit, assuming the institution can bridge the gap between skills based training and concept based education.)

Developing courses and curricula for private organizations seems easy; at UC Berkeley Extension, we already have considerable content, so it is tempting to think we can just re-package it for a new audience. After all leveraging what already exists is the Holy Grail of new business development. And there is something appealing about working with well-known brand name manufacturers and service providers. Alas, the devil is in the details. Launching a corporate education/training initiative involves clearing two major hurdles for us along with many smaller ones. The two biggest ones are:

  1. Finding companies that want need and value the education/training we are able to deliver
  2. Delivering success

However, the first is not just a matter of calling on companies and selling them education. The second is not merely delivering what already works in the public classroom.

Finding opportunities for corporate education/training should be simple, right? Just cold call some companies and/or answer some inquiries. Before you pick up the phone, ask yourself; who will take the project through to completion? Do you want to devote academic staff time and resources that is otherwise committed to public programs?  (At UC Berkeley Extension our core mission is in public enrollment.)  Maybe you should hire staff dedicated to calling on corporate clients. Won’t this result in ongoing distractions for the academic staff? Someone has to qualify the leads—the programs and courses proposed must be designed and approved to meet the objectives of the client. And the whole endeavor can shift marketing, financial services, and even enrollment teams away from supporting public portfolios.

This real challenge of figuring out what they need and giving them what they want—delivering success— is at the heart of the matter. They know they want something, they know their employees lack something. But how will a course and/or program take them from where they are now to where they want to be? Customizing content and curriculum takes time and effort, and success assumes the company need has been identified correctly and can be met with a course in the topic area.

Take the example at the beginning: Is this a company doing business for the first time in Europe or Asia? Is it a company that recently acquired a foreign subsidiary? Are there governmental regulatory hurdles that must be cleared or are we talking about culture? And finally, what can the staff be taught in 15-30 hours of classroom time? Will they be a coherent cohort? We are in the business of education and so we approach problems that potential corporate clients present to us with the assumption that education will solve them. You know the old saying – “When you’re a hammer, all problems look like a nail.”

Example of Failure

Sometimes, the subject matter is well established and easily understood but the employees are not eager. For example, one well known research institute wanted their research scientists to be more fluent in forecasting and budgeting. Yet the scientists themselves saw the job of developing a business plan as someone else’s; that’s not what they got their PhDs for! As a result, the 30 hour custom program, titled “Planning and Budgeting for the Non- Financial Manager” was content rich but scorned by the very students attending the program.

Example of Success

Another well-known research company wanted managers in a critical division (quality assurance and field testing) to get an overview of Project Management. The successful course was straight out of our public enrollment Project Management Portfolio – a one day introduction to Project Management. We have run this same class successfully at many corporate clients.

What is the difference? We were able to match learning objectives with company needs and employee motivation. That we already had existing content was coincidental (but a great coincidence).


We “vet” prospects for private education and training carefully to assure ourselves that UC Berkeley Extension can succeed:

  1. Are the learning objectives clear and measurable?
  2. Is the time frame manageable?
  3. Are the students a fairly homogenous group in terms of education, experience, professional background, functions and goals?
  4. Are the students willing to attend class?
  5. Does the course exist or must we develop custom content?
  6. Will we see a positive return?
  7. And finally, is this project really in our wheelhouse?

Having said all this, the main conclusion is that private training and education as a business venture can be lucrative but often is distracting. Be careful what you wish for – you just may get it.

While delivering corporate training may be a lucrative business venture for higher education institutions, the attention and focus required to deliver a program to the specifications of an employer can be distracting to the college or university’s main functions.

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Readers Comments

Ian Richardson 2012/09/07 at 9:10 am

I agree with you through this entire piece, Jeff. I think if your institution is already set up to deal with delivering customized corporate training (ie: has staff specifically positioned to deliver it, has programs that already meet general needs of many industries and can be tweaked to meet specific needs or at least personnel committed to delivering this programming, etc) then you should be in that business.

If not, though, it can be so time-and-resource consuming to deliver these programs that the income made from the session is simply not worth it. And frankly, the only way to make this type of programming worthwhile is the development of long-term relationships. However, if your institution is not well-positioned to be delivering custom training, the sessions probably won’t be memorable and odds are you won’t get return business.

Is it worth it? Only for some.

Tom McGuire 2012/09/07 at 11:15 am

Excellent summation of the dilemma we face to serve all constituents. As Jimmy Durante famously said (not about corporate training, of course), “Everyone wants ta get into da act,” because, precisely, it is lucrative, but with difficult barriers to successful entry.

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/09/07 at 11:37 am

“Almost no single company specific education program.” Counter Point

The devil is in the details.

As my thoughts are exactly the same for both “Point” and “Counter Point” I’ll be posting the same reply on both sides.

It appears that the goals of both sides of the debate are to educate the individuals who need to be educated in order than 1) The learning process occurs for the student to gain a skill set, and 2) The student gains a skill set to better feed an industry.

While Berkley goes about this by bringing the training to the corporations on a ‘case by case’ basis, it seems that CSU achieves these goals by assessing what the corporations need/want and then developing the programs/partnerships to feed that need.

Both are right and both are wrong.

In a world where a ‘college degree’ once meant that a student had be taught to learn – regardless of major – there seems to have been a flip. Now we see the corporations driving the learning by demanding higher skill sets (those historically taught in the employee workplace) of their college graduates.

What this means is we have students who are capable of doing, “X,Y, and Z” but – and this is especially visible in the tech world – when those skill sets become obsolete, what is left? A worker who has a difficult time finding a position in a ‘new era’ because” they were trained in such a closed loop that they missed out on the training, and learning, of a holistic education.

Corporate training is worthy. Formal higher education is worthy, too. I caution against putting one ahead of the needs of the other.

Dr. Heidi L. Maston

Soma Chakrabarti 2012/09/07 at 11:38 am

Jeff, Your article is right on the spot and very thoughtful. It is process that consumes both resources and time, but the success will depend on many variables. I agree with Ian that the long-term relationship matters. Thank you, both!

Philip Lucas 2012/09/10 at 5:41 pm

Institutions of higher educations are often described as glass houses or detached from reality in the type of education they offer their students. This can be said to be true for the student that wants to get a degree (paper) and go out for a job in the practical world. Though for the student that wants to understand or qustion things we still have little knowledge of a conceptual education can create eureka moments and encourage the next Einstein for example.

THe needs of the corporation is that they need people who have specific skills in several disciplines like statistics, marketing, accounting, production and personnel management. These require several degrees in a University, but the bits of each that any one person in business needs is very small. It is the sum of the parts that make for the great employee. Universities need to look at people in the real world and determine what skills and education they are ‘using’ not what they have on paper, that makes them valuable. This is the basis of the curriculum the schools must package to address the needs of business.

Each area of business has people with a diferent set or mix of several skills that enable them to do their jobs. The best people in each field have the best asemblage of skills and knowledge.

Of course some jobs are mearly technical in nature, for these the training offered to employees should be more along the lines of developing an interest in change and learning for some day the job they currently do so well will be obsolete.

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