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Defining Success in Corporate Training

While a renewed contract is certainly a good indication of the success of a corporate program, there are a number of other factors institutions and corporations should be cognizant of when assessing and evaluating programming.

When I asked several colleagues how they defined success in regards to their work with corporate training, they both responded:  “Did the company renew the contract?”

Simple enough. However, in an increasingly competitive and demanding higher education market, a success matrix should never be one-dimensional. One dominant characteristic of university-corporate training arrangements is that the request originates from the corporation. As such, the success matrix for the university is often vague, undefined and hard to quantify.  Some programs are very lucrative and some, quite frankly, are not. If an academic unit is to consider corporate training as a strategic endeavor, the definition of success and its assessment must be aligned with that strategy.

Turning a profit is perhaps the easiest qualifier to consider.  As corporate training is rarely central to a university’s core mission, the activity should generate revenue well in excess of the costs.  Those costs must include overhead and opportunity costs.  There is a trade-off when staff and faculty tend to corporate training removing them from other activities.  These variables need to be incorporated in any bottom-line measure.

As with all academic programs, an examination of success must be measured against the program’s stated learning outcomes. Did the students walk away with the skills or knowledge that the program set out to teach?

As simple as this question is, most corporate training evaluations appear to be more fixated on the quality of the logistics (food-service, meeting rooms, etc.) than they are with the actual evaluation of the curriculum and the teaching.  Exams and papers are our traditional evaluation tool with university students. Yet many in the corporate training world understandably resist treating their employees as if they were undergraduates. Therefore our traditional tools are almost never applied.

Rather than finding alternative ways of assessing learning, we use simple satisfaction surveys for the participants. Even more rarely do we follow-up with evaluation several months after program completion to assess the real substance of actual learning.  However—from both the university’s and corporation’s perspective—effective assessment, focused on the learning outcomes of the program, has an added benefit. Understanding if goals and objectives were met provides concrete measures that prove to the company that they have received value and verifies to the university that teaching and learning in the program were of high academic quality.

If the money and academics are sound, the university may well be on its way to claiming success.  It would be naïve, however, to limit the evaluation matrix to just these two measures. There are other factors to consider.

The ability to grow a revenue stream is always attractive, but does the requested program detract from the unit’s core mission? Unless there is a clear focus on the goals and expectations of a given program, for the university, the focus on revenue stream alone can lead to mission creep. Hard questions should be asked internally, such as:

  • How well will faculty make transition from teaching undergraduates or graduates to teaching corporate employees?
  • How is the curriculum built?
  • Is it a joint development?
  • If customized significantly, does it align with current degree-granting curricula? And is the responsible academic unit fully comfortable with the plan?

Our institutions are increasingly brand conscious and a good corporate client can augment brand in a number of ways.  A business’ vote of confidence in your institution can be a terrific public relations talking point, not to mention the access to their staff and executives. The employee-participant can be made to feel like alumni of the institution and can be converted to matriculated students themselves. The access and connections between faculty and the corporation can enrich academic content through guest lecturers or exposure to innovation. A deep relationship can be leveraged as an entrée to philanthropy or even sponsored research.  However, not all companies are created equally.  A university’s brand could very well be diminished if the company becomes embroiled in activities publically perceived as inconsistent with the university’s mission.

Other possible success measure may include a range of items;

  • Does the training yield more students in our traditional programs?
  • Can the training be seen as a professional development activity for our faculty?
  • Can access to the corporation’s inner workings lead to other program innovations or business lines that had not been considered?

Success of corporate training programs should be determined based on a range of measures. It is not enough to gauge these programs along one or two narrow dimensions.  Multiple factors should be considered and weighted according to their relative importance to mission and goals.  That the contract was renewed is, of course, an important determination of success, but we, both corporation and university, must always ask: at what cost?

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