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Finding the Ideal Learning Partner

Higher education institutions should seek out learning partners characterized as learning organizations to get on-track for a successful and long-term training and development collaboration.

The following interview is with Merodie Hancock, the Vice President of Central Michigan University’s Global Campus. Hancock has a great deal of experience on the corporate learning side of higher education and she shared her expertise with us in this discussion. In this interview, Hancock discusses some of the elements that colleges and universities look for when entering into an educational partnership with a corporation, and suggests some strategies higher education institutions should adopt to ensure their partnerships are long and mutually beneficial.

1. Before entering into an educational partnership with a corporation, what are a few characteristics you look for in your prospective partner?

One of the biggest things is to look for a learning organization. That sounds self-evident, but it’s not always. Not all organizations are looking to grow, they’re not looking to challenge themselves, or they don’t have that culture, per se.

If a university is going to go partner with a corporation—in building their skills, building their strategic capabilities—they want an organization that’s interested in self-reflection, identifying weaknesses, looking to grow.

Normally organizations who are going through change, who embrace change, who are in a changing environment or who are changing products are some of your better targets for that.

2. Conversely, what characteristics define an undesirable learning partner?

The opposite would be a stagnant corporation who doesn’t have the desire to grow and change. When maybe there hasn’t been product change, there isn’t necessarily changing regulation if you’re in a service industry; those organizations and corporations don’t often have the same desire to change, desire to improve their human resources. …

They’re not looking to keep challenging themselves and their employees so much and they may not reward that same type of growth and self-development.

3. Is it more likely that you will conduct an assessment to define an organization’s training needs, or do organizations tend to spell out what they are looking for from their ongoing learning?

Both. Normally an organization has given some thought to what they’re looking for, they just don’t go out to a university or a college and say “Help us”. They have an idea that “We have a weakness here,” or “We have the opportunity to become even stronger here, and we want to push it.”

So they tend to have some idea of it and you want a corporation that has given thought to that type of growth and development; what their human capital strategy is.

Once you get that, you want it to be more of a partnership in assessing those needs. The university certainly has a lot of experience and has learned quite a few lessons… dealing with corporate education and corporate universities. You want to go in together.

Once they get an area of focus, sometimes it’s more soft skills, sometimes it’s more regulation-based, sometimes it’s very much around an accounting program or something like that. You want to work with the corporation on assessing what their needs are.

The best model for that, if you can get the corporation to do it, is not just working with the training officers, or not just working with the senior executives. Go for the 360 approach, trying to work with the employees and trying to find out from them, in a safe environment, what they wish they knew, where they feel they could be stronger in meeting their job requirements. Then, working with some of the managers on what they wish they knew as managers—both in doing their own jobs and in the people who work for them. And then dealing with senior management, and dealing with the HR and training component.

That gives you the broad, full circle of the needs of that organization and then the university is in a really good place to come out and say, “Here’s what I would do.”

4. What is the nature of an ideal corporate-higher education partnership? Would it involve ongoing and long-term collaboration and program development? Or does the institution simply help the corporation get a program off the ground?

You always want a little bit of both. You don’t want to make it so the organization is tied to you forever because they’re not looking to fund that expense forever. Although you do want them coming back to you as things change and as new development needs are there.

I would say the strongest corporation-university collaborations are those that set an ongoing communication and expectations model. Normally you don’t get it exactly right first-off; either the corporation comes in saying, “we realize we want something different that what we originally articulated,”… so you want to keep meeting and saying, “are we delivering what this group of employees needs? Are we challenging them? Are we doing it in a way that will benefit the organization’s goals?”

That’s all ongoing communications. Very rarely is that met right out, as with any consultant. You need to look at it as an ongoing relationship and continue to have honest—I’ll say corrective actions, but I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way—you want the maximum experience for the corporation and for the students/employees.

You absolutely want a long collaboration, you want to grow. It gets exciting when you start to see the programming grow. Maybe you start out with something in more general-level education—soft skills and human relations areas—so maybe you start developing the same employees into strategic management or into more of a financial perspective. They may get certificates, they may get degrees and go on to graduate degrees, but you really get to see that group grow, and you start to get to see—at least within the organization—you see the value of that education coming back to play in the development of the organization.

From an educator’s point of view, that’s where it becomes fun.

5. That’s really interesting, that concept of watching student growth and development in a professional context.

I think that’s what we’re all hoping for. Organizations, while they may be magnanimous, they want to grow themselves. They want their employees to be stronger.

But they’re looking to have their return on investment plug back in to how they’re doing; whether it’s through better managerial skills, more strategic vision entering into commercial environment, whether it’s more on the detail contracting level or accounting level or engineering level. They want to start to see that [investment] come back and play.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about what a university college looks for when trying to establish an educational partnership with a corporation?

What I’ve learned is that no two are alike; don’t be afraid to ask questions. And the corporation should never be afraid to ask questions either; don’t be afraid to ask for references for who the university has dealt with.

Each organization has different expectations, maybe each unit within a corporation. I’ve had some were one side is looking for one thing and in the same organization but a different division they’re looking for something else.

So you want to make sure, especially as a university, you ask a lot of questions. Really feel out their needs. Try and get that 360 perspective of what people want and then design your program and keep going back to them for feedback. …

Keep pushing back.