Over 4,000 companies have corporate universities. Some of the most famous are run by GE, Disney, and McDonalds. Their purpose is to instill the company’s vision and values and cultivate critical skills and competencies. The best ones are permeable membranes that transfer knowledge from the outside in: Steve Jobs recruited the Dean of Yale’s Business School to run Apple University, while Jeff Weiner recruited business coach and thought leader Fred Kofman to lead leadership development for LinkedIn. Some of the best programs are said to rival traditional business schools.
The assumption in leadership development is that corporate universities are for internal audiences. But what if corporate universities were for customers as well as employees? There are competencies inside of companies that would be of value to those on the outside. What would happen if we turned the corporate university inside out?
Companies everywhere are looking for new ways of engaging customers. Content marketing is a start, but articles and posts on social media don’t go deep enough. It’s time to flip the corporate university inside out, blending marketing with learning to create relationships beyond the transaction.
There’s some precedent for “flipping the corporate university.” The Disney Institute is a professional development organization that works with companies to showcase “the business behind the magic” and instill the competencies of leadership, employee engagement, and service that have made Disney so successful. The company uses events, courses, and consulting to share principles of what the Institute calls “#DThink” like “Setting the Stage” with a growing community of individuals and organizations. The Disney Institute is separate from and complements Disney University, which trains Disney cast members who work in their parks.
Ritz Carlton and Zappos follow a similar model. Through courses and consulting engagements, the Ritz Carlton Leadership Center enables companies to acquire the competencies of “service excellence” for which Ritz Carlton is so renowned. The Leadership Center is well respected in the industry and has been inducted into the Training Magazine’s Hall of Fame. Zappos Insights was created to “share the Zappos Culture with the world” and help companies strengthen their own culture and core values. The Insights team offers tours of Zappos Headquarters, Q&A sessions with Zappos leaders, content subscriptions, and a “full culture immersion” through live events.
Disney, Ritz Carlton, and Zappos are all service-intensive businesses. But the model can be applied in other areas too. For a number of years, IBM organized the Center for CIO Leadership as a “global community to advance the profession.” At the time of its founding in 2007 most leadership programs were focused on helping CIOs be better IT managers. In contrast, IBM’s program helped CIOs be better business leaders. The program helped CIOs gain a “seat at the table” within their companies, and strengthened relationships with IBM’s key buyers. (Note: I advised IBM on the design of this program.)
P&G Professional serves the “away from home” market for commercial cleaning. The industry suffers from high turnover and most commercial cleaners are relatively small companies without resources for extensive training. So P&G Professional recently launched its University as a “virtual campus” with training materials on cleaning techniques and best practices.
The notion of using learning to strengthen customer relationships is not a new one. In 1920-21 farmers were hard hit by deflation. Farmers were vital to Sears-Roebuck, which at the time was still purely a catalog company. Radio was still a new technology but had been rapidly adopted by farmers. Sears had advertised on radio stations, but wanted to create a deeper relationship with its customers. In 1924 Sears launched the Sears-Roebuck Agricultural Foundation and WLS Radio (for World’s Largest Store). The purpose was to help farmers “Farm Better. Sell Better. Live Better.” By helping farmers be more productive, Sears enabled them to generate more disposable income. By focusing on a shared purpose, Sears created reciprocal relationships that went beyond loyalty to gratitude.
The potential for turning corporate competencies into customer relationships is vast. Imagine learning product design from Apple. Salesmanship from Salesforce. Digital marketing from Adobe. Sustainability from Patagonia. Organizing from the Container Store. Industrial internet from GE. Logistics from FedEx. Branding from Nike. Networking from LinkedIn.
Why don’t more companies do this? The reason isn’t demand. Whenever I speak to a company’s best customers, they always say they want to know more about what the company knows. The problem is that companies don’t see the opportunity.
The first reason is mindset. No one thinks of learning as being a strategy for building deeper relationships with customers and partners. The second is perspective. Customer interactions that aren’t directly tied to sales are seen as unproductive. The third is skillset. Companies don’t think of themselves as being “in the learning business” or they don’t feel they have the competency to produce high-quality learning. The fourth is silos. Marketing and learning rarely talk to each other.
The final reason is confidence. Companies often don’t think they have anything to say. A few years ago I was working with a global company that was trying to engage Chief Financial Officers. They had developed all kinds of thought leadership and white papers about how CFOs could do their job better. But when we talked to CFOs, what they really wanted to know was how the company managed its own finances across so many geographies. When told of this request, the company’s response was “Really? That seems too easy.”
As you consider flipping the corporate university, look for where your distinctive knowledge or competencies can solve a learning or business problem for your customer. The business case has two components. First, by solving that problem you create a deeper relationship and gratitude beyond the transaction. Second, a properly designed program generates more business for the sponsor. By helping farmers be more productive, Sears generated more disposable income for Sears products. By helping commercial cleaners be more profitable, P&G generates more demand for its products. This combination of economic benefit and social reward is a powerful engagement strategy.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to create a formal “university” to put this strategy into action. Sephora has put education and learning at the heart of its marketing, sales and customer service strategy. Its “Beauty Workshop” gives customers expert advice and how-to makeovers online and in the store. Similarly, Home Depot offers free DIY (Do-It-Yourself) workshops in their stores and a robust collection of how-to videos online. For Sephora and Home Depot, the learning deepens the brand relationship while generating more demand for the products. The more creative and confident you feel about your makeup or building skills, the more likely you are to buy their products.
In this digital age, it is imperative for companies to build their brand orbits with ongoing relationships beyond individual transactions. This relationship must be built on more than a value proposition and a net promoter score. We all remember the teachers that had the greatest impact on our lives. And we are loyal fans of the schools that shaped us into who we are today. It’s time to bring marketing and learning together to create more enduring and authentic relationships.
There is a saying that if you sell someone a fish, they eat for a day, but if teach them to fish, they eat for a lifetime. The flipped university is a simple variation. If you have a bait, tackle, or charter business, teaching someone to fish can make them a customer for life.
Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.