I think of Humphrey Bogarts closing line in Casablanca whenever I read somewhere that the rise of corporate universities poses a serious threat to B-schools. We first heard this prediction when corporate universities became popular in the mid-1990s, and weve been hearing it ever since. But the prediction doesnt stand up to a careful examination of what makes corporate universities and B-schools successful, and it certainly doesnt stand up to the facts. There has been no greater opportunity for the flexible and innovative B-school than the growing tendency of organisations to place responsibility for organisational learning in the hands of a high-profile and centralised team of professionals. The B-schools that recognise and act on this opportunity will find that many of their closest partnerships and most beautiful friendships are with corporate universities.
Those who predicted the downfall of B-schools at the hands of corporate universities usually based their reasoning on two assumptions: that corporate universities would only want highly customised development experiences for their participants, and that B-schools would always be too focused on their academic agendas to provide such customised support.
The prophets of doom also misjudged the power of corporate universities to shape the B-school agenda. And they underestimated the ability of B-schools to respond to the needs of their influential and sophisticated corporate university clients. In the end, both assumptions have proved wrong: corporate universities want many different things, and more than a few B-schools have done an excellent job responding to their needs.
Corporate universities reflect a serious commitment to organisational capability-building. When an organisation develops a corporate university, it almost always does so because it believes that organisational learning is worthy of serious investment. Since it is not always clear to B-schools where organisational learning sits on a CEOs agenda, or the extent to which a successful partnership with the client will depend on convincing important internal stakeholders that learning and development can be a powerful competitive tool, the existence of a corporate university can be a reassuring sign of commitment.
Most corporate universities have a clear sense of purpose and have created a set of learning and development activities that are consistent with that purpose. When we work with a corporate university, we understand very quickly what their agenda is and how our partnership with them serves that agenda.
Corporate universities are expected to add value to the organisation in real and measurable ways. This expectation puts pressure on the corporate university to focus only on the most impactful activities, and to search for new ways to help the business perform better. Corporate universities understandably transfer this pressure to their partners, which means we must also always innovate to serve them more effectively. Corporate universities force us to innovate, and innovation is a very healthy thing for the B-school world.
We have had the great pleasure of developing close partnerships with many corporate universities, and through our experience we have learned a few things about what it takes to make a successful partnership. Keeping in mind that the partnerships weve built are as varied as the organisations with which we work, I would describe the strongest partnerships as being remarkable for reasons of compatibility, motivation, a sense of adventure and fun.
Compatibility means there is a strong fit between the needs of the corporate university and our own capabilities at IMD. Since corporate universities have many different requirements and we can be an effective partner for only some, it is not always obvious that we can help the corporate universities that come to us for support. We have learned that it is best for us to work only with the partners with whom we have a natural and obvious alignment. Weve also learned that compatibility is more than just thematic alignment: it is a question of chemistry.
Motivation refers to the sources of our energy and inspiration. When both partners are motivated by a higher purposefor example, by the real possibility of improving the performance of the business and the lives of the organisations leaderswe can be confident that we will always find the energy we need to create and execute truly transformational work. Other motivations play their part: CLOs are often eager to advance the organisations learning agenda, to build strong personal brands and fulfilling careers, and to continue to learn.
Energy also comes from a sense of adventure, a feeling that we are working together to explore new worlds, to create brighter futures for the leaders with whom we work, and to achieve significant and meaningful change. All worthwhile adventures are uncertain and many of our most compelling partnerships begin on risky terrain. This uncertainty leaves us free to write our script together, confident that well come to a happy ending despite the inevitable highs and lows, unexpected difficulties and welcome victories.
Finally, a great partnership is one in which there is genuine joy in working together. Partnerships in which we share a sense of playfulness and a willingness to explore ideas and create new things together are often those in which both partners can bring the best of themselves to the adventure, unconstrained by old ways of thinking. Focus is important, and so is a respect for the seriousness of the business goals we need to achieve together. But enjoying the challenge of our work together is just as important, and perhaps the most critical ingredient to a long-lasting partnership. There are other contributors to a successful partnership. Trust in each other, commitment to our shared goals, and recognition of the impact of our work on the careers of our learning partners all matter. But strong compatibility, being motivated by the transformational work we can do together, and approaching the partnership as an adventure that we should both deeply enjoy are what makes a partnership beautiful.
The author is executive director of IMDs Partnership Program business, and serves on the Boards of the University Consortium for Executive Development and the International Consortium for Executive Development Research