Apple Inc.’s learning organization, Apple University, grabbed headlines last month when Morten T. Hansen, a noted academic and co-author of the best-selling Jim Collins book Great By Choice, joined its staff from the University of California at Berkeley.
It’s unclear what Hansen will do at Apple. Multiple news sources have tried to figure out the details of his role, but Hansen isn’t saying much beyond that his plan is to give seminars and advice. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.
While many large companies conduct internal training programs and house corporate universities, Apple University is particularly interesting because no one is really sure what goes on there.
Just more than a week ago, retail pharmacy Walgreens unveiled its brand-new, 40,000-square-foot corporate university in Deerfield, Ill. The company held a media tour of the building, which includes 8,000 square feet of meeting and common area space to go along with its mock drugstore, classrooms and learning and development team office space.
Media members also received a detailed course packet of information on all of the company’s learning programs.
Other corporate universities — such as Deloitte’s and McDonald’s Hamburger University — have opened their doors for outsiders to take a peek at how they facilitate learning and leadership development.
So why isn’t Apple opening its doors? The fact that it has continued to attract notable academics to work at Apple University — which Steve Jobs created as a sort of internal MBA program for employees — adds to the secrecy and intrigue.
Experts say it’s not uncommon for companies to shy away from disclosing information, and Apple serves as a primary example of a firm unwilling to raise the curtain. For starters, innovation can be sensitive information for some companies, which is why many technology companies like Apple shield their internal process from public view.
“Apple is one of those companies that thinks the way [it does] things is a competitive advantage,” said Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, a learning and talent management research and advisory company.
Bersin said that a former Apple employee once told him that it’s quite common to have one person in a group within the company who’s not allowed to know what’s going on in another group. Even information regarding learning and development can be kept confidential among team members, Bersin said. This typically happens whenever a proprietary process is developed.
“They do that to prevent an inadvertent leak of information to the outside world,” he said. This is especially true when it comes to programs built around leadership development, Bersin said, “because those are programs that often include business strategies and competitive strategies.”
Sometimes collaboration — and, therefore, the sharing of potentially sensitive information — can be unavoidable.
Many companies that do not have the internal resources to develop innovation and growth strategies turn to outside partnerships, providing for potential leaks, said Natalie Foley, vice president and chief operating officer at business strategy consulting firm Peer Insight. “There is a distinction between sharing [a] learning processes versus sharing the content of what [a company] is working on,” she said.
Foley said companies struggle with the ability to be selectively open and still remain collaborative. And although external input from a partnership can really help innovation, it’s a tough thing to do. Knowing how and what to share with a partner can be a difficult task.
“Some big companies really struggle with sharing, but when you look at the success of many programs, in some cases you see a lot of partnerships that are out in the open … and are thriving,” Foley said.
Bersin said information about how a company makes money and responds to competitive threats is considered extremely proprietary because it’s used to bring top decision-makers up to speed on critical strategies — another reason Apple University likely keeps things under wraps.
Until Apple comes out and says so, no outsiders will know for sure.
Jennifer Kahn is an editorial intern with Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.
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