In a world in which organizations are feverishly trying to reduce risk by avoiding investment in both tangible and intangible assets, a network of strategic alliances has become ever more attractive.
The learning function is not immune to these modern-day cost and investment pressures. But by leveraging networks of strategic alliances, learning organizations can create value without the need for heavy investment. My intent in this column is to organize my personal experiences with two organizations, Apple and Bellevue University, as a foundation for how learning can address these pressures. (Full disclosure: I am an Apple stockholder and an executive at Bellevue University.)
Let me begin with the business model of the traditional university. Historically, the university has been a true icon of the controlled-asset model so familiar in the past. Three asset classes were critical to the definition of a great university. They were:
• Physical structures, such as buildings, dormitories, athletic fields, laboratories, parking garages, recreation halls, faculty offices and auditoriums.
• Knowledge repositories in the form of libraries, where wisdom was archived in the pages of books and journals.
• Tenured faculty.
Investments in these assets created a place where new knowledge was developed in the form of basic and applied research.
That knowledge was deployed to learners in the form of curriculum and classes delivered in a face-to-face delivery mode, and the campus was a place where young learners could come together in a community to learn and be socialized in the setting of the adult world.
In the 20th century, when these assets and societal goals were dominant, the overwhelming majority of learners were the 18- to 22-year-old sons and daughters of two-parent families. Parents financed the education of the young through direct tuition payments or through taxes required to finance state colleges and universities. This asset-intense, place-based delivery mode not only created and delivered knowledge; it also served and continues to serve as a place where socialization of the young is an important value-creation result of learning.
The world has changed, and dramatically so. The majority of learners in the United States today are adults who are already into their third or fourth career change.
Learning events set at rigid times and locations conflict with their BlackBerry-centric lives. Parents no longer finance their children’s education, and what they need to know is changing rapidly and at an accelerating rate.
Given the shift in learning, the learning organization needs to look much more like Apple than the historical fixed facility. At Apple, the organization builds an innovative platform around hardware and software that is user-friendly and networks with others to enhance the value delivered on that platform. The network consists of agreements with owners of music and video made available in the iTunes store. It consists of agreements with AT&T to deliver phone services, and it consists of agreements with software developers to provide software applications in the Apple applications store.
At Bellevue University, a similar network of affiliations is deployed, partly out of the practical necessity that the university does not have a huge endowment to fund massive fixed-asset investments. The Board of Directors supports the investment in a core set of competencies and capabilities selected to serve the adult learner, primarily working adults in for-profit companies, the military and some nonprofit organizations. External subject matter experts are encouraged and supported. Risk capital is committed around innovation. Know-how in media development is funded, both as an internal competency and as a network resource.
This kind of nontraditional learning builds on a cyberlearning model that forms the delivery platform for integrating know-how from learning research, publishers, subject matter experts and collaborating client executives. It is in the network of affiliations that the university leverages its value-creation mission.
So what is the bottom line for learning organizations? In these extraordinary times, a network of affiliations like the one at Apple may be the way to create value despite the pressure from senior leadership to avoid investment in assets that create greater risk in the face of massive uncertainty.