One of the dubious distinctions of functioning in two worlds at the same time is the loss of credibility when straddling. Each side views with suspicion anything less than total commitment. Much of that uneasiness may stem from stereotypes: Academics inhabit ivory towers, while business learning managers are obsessed by ROI. East is East, and West is West, and never the two shall meet. So, once more, conventional wisdom or myopia closes the door on possible interaction.
Or does it? Crossover training rightly is enjoying high priority for the learning management system (LMS). A number of universities are experimenting with multidisciplinary instructional design. Apparently, neither universities nor the world of corporate learning is aware of the similar developments of the other and thus cannot tap its insights.
Many corporate training programs have become diagnostically driven by the findings of extensive employee testing. Some online universities offer bifurcated courses to minister simultaneously to those with limited and those with extensive knowledge of the subject matter. Finally, multinational corporate universities seek to develop and inculcate a common work culture that cuts across national borders. Universities serving foreign students mostly online have accepted the challenge of engaging both their learning diversity and the differentiation of adaptation to their cultural and national environments.
Other examples of missed opportunities of cross-fertilization could be added, but they would only reinforce two major obstacles or prejudices. The first is the familiar one of institutional and intellectual comfort zones. Enterprises can identify and brace themselves for dealing with disruptive change as long as it does not affect or invade their internal operating base or disturb their vantage point of analysis and control. As long as the enemy remains outside the gates, identity structures remain intact and exclusive. They can be inward-facing and thus limit their awareness of commonality only to like industries but not distant opposites. But when the emperors on each side have no clothes, or when common problems exceed the standard tool kit, desperation may drive parallel lines closer. If both camps concede that they are facing the same hard realities of competition and cost and have to wrestle with the transition of becoming a norm, bridges of best practices may be made more possible. In short, as some recognition of mutuality begins to appear, the prospect of talking and even learning from each other becomes a new option.
But the second and larger issue may be more dislocating, although more beneficial in the longer run when engaged. A current mega-trend may be convergence. New inclusive metaphors and models of integration are surfacing and are beginning to drive inquiry and research. Globality, ecology and holistic cognition are breaking down the conventional borders of knowledge domains and are generating new 360-degree visions and missions. In the process, old oppositions are being revisited and recast in the classic paradox of harmonious discord.
The familiar clash between the humanities and science already is being reformulated just as that between nature and nurture is being adjusted to identify unexpected commonalities. But the point here is not so much to develop and document the argument for convergence, which has already been anticipated by Edward Wilson and others. Rather, the focus here is on identifying the avenues of access so that the short-term institutional learning options and benefits of convergence may be available to both sides. It is important to emphasize the potential crossover between corporate enterprises/universities and academic institutions.
In a meaningful linkage, apples match apples. Thus, the focus will be on e-learning, blended or total, synchronous and asynchronous. Furthermore, the possible relationships need to be displayed not as a single shot, but as a multiple progression. The obvious first step is awareness and recognition of possible mutuality. That can be followed by closing the gap, acknowledging and even tapping innovative solutions to common problems or challenges on both sides. As in the contemplation of any new arrangement, further options might include entertaining some formal relationship. It could take the form of a limited alliance or a more involved partnership. Finally, a wild card might be the convergence of a corporate university with an academic institution and the possible application of professional training toward an advanced degree.
This range of options preserves the prerogative of the individual enterprises on both sides as they work to diminish the divide. They don’t have to become bedfellows, and neither one has to blur into the other. The problem is to find a focused and neutral arena in which to explore such relationships, possibly their respective professional associations.
The value of that avenue is that it offers multiple, non-coercive options for access. It is a sampling, not a judgmental process. Each side can look the other over, evaluate respective best practices and safely decide whether there is a fit or not and, if so, whether it merits developing a further relationship.
Clearly, the professional CLO and CIO organizations represent the business side of the aisle. The recommendation for the academic side may not be as well-known to corporate learning leaders and managers. It is the Distance Education Training Council (DETC), named by the U.S. Secretary of Education as a “nationally recognized accrediting body” for the accreditation of distance learning institutions at the post-secondary level.
Why the DETC? It exclusively serves distance learners and is preoccupied with the delivery of effective learning systems. Its membership is small enough—some 86 schools and universities—but sufficiently diverse and global to provide comprehensive range. It has a long history of adapting to change. It originally accredited correspondence-degree-granting schools and recently was authorized by the Secretary of Education to develop standards and procedures to accredit doctoral programs. It includes foreign and domestic universities with extensive overseas programs. Currently, the DETC is reviewing the applications of four Australian universities seeking membership. Of course, e-learning has accommodated the enrollment of many foreign students, to the point where DETC schools collectively operate globally. Finally, and perhaps most important to the business side, they are predominantly proprietary institutions. About 60 percent are for-profit, some are closely held family operations, and others are stock corporations owned by venture capitalists. Still, the majority of DETC institutions are bottom-line- and ROI-driven.
Currently, one in 12 university students attends a for-profit institution. In 2002, such organizations generated $23 billion. In effect, they are corporate universities with a difference: They offer what business universities presently cannot—degrees. They are even beginning to borrow the senior-level titles of “CIO” and “CLO.” In a few instances, they have pushed the envelope by bracketing learning and innovation, fusing the two into a new hybrid—chief information and innovation officer (CIIO).
What are some of the possible benefits of bridging business and academic enterprises? The most obvious is that DETC schools are customers. For example, at the recent regional meeting held at Notre Dame, at least one-third of the presentations involved identifying the criteria for purchasing learning management software systems, followed by an evaluation of those chosen and the general performance of vendors. Incidentally, no suppliers sponsored or even attended the event. Had they been present, they also might have benefited from how universities as customers view them.
Another benefit is alerting current learning providers to academic needs, opening another market, although some adjustment may be required. For example, the use of extensive employee testing for more targeted training undoubtedly would appeal to universities seeking to improve overall performance. But of even greater value would be adaptation of such testing and defining systems to address at least three major academic concerns: successful induction and orientation programs for new learners; tracking and monitoring potential student dropout and triggering a retention intervention strategy; and accommodating different subject-matter competency levels on the one hand and culturally-driven diverse learning (especially of foreign students) on the other hand.
The most speculative wild card of possible relationships might involve a dialogue between the two sides. At least two subjects would dominate the common agenda: cost and convergence. Tuition remission support is often a substantial portion of the HR budget or is sometimes subsumed under overall training costs. Like other benefits which have been reviewed and reduced, some companies are questioning whether such programs should be continued at current levels. Clearly, that would affect enrollments as much as would a reduction in federal financial aid. The goal of the dialogue might be to explore providing a tuition discount to favored companies as well as to address the degree to which the degree provides the same positive business applications and ROI that current evaluations of business LMSs offer.
The more ambitious prospect of convergence requires restating the difference between the two sides. In truth, there is not one but two major providers of education and training: the academic programs of universities and the professional development programs of companies and corporate universities. That macro version of the gulf between the two needs to be rendered in micro terms.
For example, examine the situation from the point of view of a mid-career manager enrolled in an MBA program underwritten by his company’s tuition remission program. In effect, he has accumulated two transcripts. One records all the professional development courses and workshops (sometimes taught by Ph.D.s) that his company has provided at significant cost. None of that is acceptable or applicable toward the academic transcript, which only records in-house or transfer course credit hours. The obvious irony is that the manager often draws upon the knowledge from his professional development workshops in his academic courses. More seriously, the obligation of academic programs to demonstrate applications to the real world of each student’s company pales beside the richer and more customized applications in professional development offerings.
Such questionable gulfs between the two providers generally have not been identified, let alone structured for convergent dialogue. Without predicting or prescribing the variety of outcomes, the issue is how to bring both transcripts together or at least create a learning interface. Both are legitimate in their own right and sustain their own rationales, but are they irreconcilable?
Can the integrity of their separate differences be accommodated with their newly explored future commonality? In short, can convergence affect, shape and realign their fundamental structures? Can one imagine a series of alliances in which universities offered degrees of professional development? Or more ambitiously, a system of evaluation that recognized and converged both transcripts and awarded an MBA or even a Ph.D.? Would lifelong learning and professional development thus be joined, certified and officially wired in place?
For any of that to be explored or to occur, the heads and boards of the respective professional associations first have to develop a new vision of professional convergence. Then, in pilot fashion, they have to invite a representative group from each side, minimally to attend annual meetings and optimally, offer a few presentations. The worst that can happen is that each side will deepen or harden their respective and separated identities. But then, that is not that different from what currently exists and, given the possible gains, is certainly worth the risk.
Irving H. Buchen is vice president of academic affairs at Aspen University. He can be reached at email@example.com.