The need for businesses to develop human capital never has been stronger — driven by globalization and increasing competition from emerging countries, companies are responding by investing in their employees’ skills and talents. They will need to increasingly rely on higher-education institutions to help develop workforce skills and competencies.
Recently, Corporate University Xchange completed a study that investigated the use of corporate-collegiate partnerships, and it included qualitative interviews with senior corporate learning leaders and higher-education professionals responsible for corporate partnerships.
According to the study, universities play a vital role in developing future leaders, thinkers and scholars, and corporate learning executives indicate they increasingly rely on universities to help educate their workforce. The participants said they think colleges play a critical role in thought leadership and that their influence continues to grow because of their focus on specific topic areas and adult education.
Key Economic Development Considerations
Universities are in a strong position to provide the educational component of a business strategy. Business leaders suggest their initiatives require multiple and varied interventions to be successful. They think universities bring a different perspective because they focus on scholarly research and networking with other universities and government agencies.
One of the main benefits of business and higher-education collaboration is to help promote economic development. According to a 2004 study, the U.S. government recommends that businesses and higher education should work together to increase national productivity and build a highly skilled workforce, but the United States has fallen behind Japan and some European countries in its role as the world’s leader in creating and applying technologies.
The study also says higher-education institutions could promote U.S. economic development by undertaking research, engaging in technology-transfer activities and offering training programs, professional development opportunities and management-assistance
programs to industry.
But it is because of their fundamental differences regarding research and discovery of knowledge that academia and businesses are unlikely partners — the study says higher-education institutions have focused on the discovery of knowledge as an end in itself, whereas business leaders think new knowledge should result in new products, which in turn should create more profits.
University research is long-range and programmatic. American industry’s research efforts are short-term and focused on product lines, the availability of materials and production costs.
But businesses are recognizing that maintaining technical superiority increasingly will depend on basic research. This factor provides the rationale for more extensive university research and, ultimately, more business and higher-education partnerships.
Boeing & The University of Washington
In early 2003, the University of Washington won funding from the Federal Aviation Administration for a research center that would help build Boeing’s new 787 and other lightweight, fuel-efficient commercial planes of the future.
Boeing engineers were charged with designing their new 787 Dreamliner out of nonmetal composite materials rather than the metals used over the prior century.
The opportunity to develop a next-generation aircraft represented a unique competitive advantage for Boeing (against its main competitor, Airbus), the University of Washington (as an innovator in the newest technologies for engineering) and Boeing employees (for the newest skills that would dominate the beginning of the 21st century).
Rather than hiring composite experts to lead and teach Boeing’s engineers, the learning organization department decided to partner with the University of Washington, which allowed both partners to focus on their core competencies.
The collaboration’s intent was to create a “theory to practice” opportunity that would teach Boeing employees composite skills and attract new engineering students through the innovative nature of the program.
The partners decided the program would be delivered within higher education, the shared goal being to assist in the development of educational materials that would be:
- Delivered to undergraduate engineering and technology students.
- Used to create a program for professional development that could be replicated on-site within Boeing businesses.
- Disseminated throughout institutions of education on a global basis.
Through the partnership, Boeing and the University of Washington created a three-course composites design and analysis certificate program, providing more than 110 hours of instruction, plus 220 hours of homework and examinations. The general consensus among students is that they have been readily able to apply the knowledge they acquired from the training to the workplace.
Additionally, based on managers’ observations of employees, there was a strong correlation between improved on-the-job performance and attending or completing the training.
The University of Washington was able to leverage the practical application experience of Boeing to make its programs more attractive, interesting and immediately applicable. The university also has raised its profile within the industry and advanced a long-standing relationship with a major employer of engineering graduates, which also has been a great recruiting vehicle for the university.
More than 300 Boeing engineers have completed one or more of the three courses, and more than 75 students have completed the certificate program, with another 60 to 90 expected to graduate in November. The performance and business effects have been measured and show a 553 percent return on investment and significant strategic value.
Partnerships between corporations and higher education represent a significant opportunity for everyone. Both parties must work hard at developing relationships at senior levels, monitoring performance systematically and tending to the administrative details so that participants have a positive experience.
It is important that partners develop a strong bond of trust. This occurs over time but is sped up if both sides are willing to admit their strengths and weaknesses. Trust also is built when both sides continue a steady stream of small successes that add up to major success in total.
High-value partnerships exist when a business has an initiative with critical goals to be met, as well as has skill gaps in quantifiable areas that, if closed, would increase the likelihood of success.
Further, when a business seeks a university partner, it must have niche expertise in the area defined as a gap by the business. It is the combination of a critical business skill gap, combined with superior expertise from university faculty members, that lays a strong foundation for an enduring, successful partnership.
Both sides of a partnership are better served if they discuss customization and ownership of derivative course materials in advance — this avoids confusion later. Most universities do not want to develop custom “work for hire,” where the company owns the finished materials, and most corporations want programs customized to their industry, culture and specific business environment. This healthy tension should be discussed early, with agreements documented in a partnership agreement.
Finally, when a partnership is truly strategic, resource sharing will occur. When a university sends faculty members to “live” inside the corporation, and the corporation sends employees to “teach” at the university, the relationship escalates to a new level.
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