The Wacky World of Corporate Universities

These days, it seems like you just can’t find a job that doesn’t require a university education. Even jobs traditionally reserved for the non-college-bound among us now seem to come with a set of qualifying prerequisites. In fact, in today’s economy, even burger-flippers and call center operators can’t evade society’s insistence that every employee receive the training and education to make them optimal members of the workforce.

Luckily for these people, many corporations are now offering just such instruction: umbrella training programs that teach employees in every department of every vocation everything they need to know to succeed in their branch of business. Some attendees are even lucky enough to graduate into programs that will teach them to succeed in other branches of business. But mostly, these programs — generally called “corporate universities” — exist to nurture and hone the skills of a company’s employees so that they are superlatively qualified to work for that company. And, hopefully, no other company. Ever.

Don’t let the fancy name fool you. Corporate universities are not accredited institutions. In fact, they don’t have to adhere to any particular set of standards or qualifications. It is simply a term used by the companies that institute such training programs in order to make it seem more official and beneficial. Of course, that’s not to say that attendees of the various corporate universities don’t receive excellent instruction. Many really do learn everything they need to know for a successful career, and a fair few go on to management programs where they learn to educate the employees of tomorrow. Below are a number of corporate universities that run the gamut of methods and opportunities.

1. Hamburger University

This vaunted institution is McDonald’s Corporation’s exclusive training facility, and the first global training center in the whole restaurant industry. Its students — carefully chosen candidates from among McDonald’s most dynamic employees — receive an unparalleled education on the inner workings of the McDonald’s business.

Founded in 1961 by Fred Turner (former senior chairman and franchise founder Ray Kroc’s first grillman), Hamburger University was originally run out of the basement of a McDonald’s restaurant in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. There McDonald’s employees would gather to learn such company secrets as how to market a new product, how to cook the perfect burger, and what exactly goes into that “special sauce” on the Big Mac.

Today, Hamburger University sits on an 80-acre campus in Oak Brook, Illinois, another suburb of Chicago, and is home to three kitchen labs, thirteen regular classrooms, twelve interactive team education rooms, and an auditorium that seats 300. Five thousand students attend Hamburger University each year (though not all of them attend in an actual, physical sense), all of them employees of the McDonald’s Corporation. Matriculants can expect to receive instruction through a combination of classroom instruction, e-learning programs, hands-on lab activities, and interactive learning scenarios. The focus these days has shifted almost entirely to teaching employees how to handle customers and how to run the restaurants, rather than wasting any time on understanding or improving the food.

The curriculum at Hamburger University encompasses a number of different programs, each of which is carefully designed to train the attendee in the McCareer of his or her choice. There are programs for Crew Development (support staff), Shift Management and Systems Management (restaurant managers), Executive Development (future leaders of the McDonald’s Corporation), and Mid-Management (mid-management). All McDonald’s restaurant employees receive 32 hours of on-site and e- training during their first month. However, only those who choose to enter one of the aforementioned full training programs have the opportunity to earn a McDegree, which more or less fully prepares them for a career in the McBusiness.

This video from CNN Money takes viewers inside Hamburger University, where they’re lucky enough to work with fake food:

2. Motorola University

Motorola University is telecommunications giant Motorola’s Six Sigma certification program. As the creator of the Six Sigma methodology, there is no company more qualified to teach its tenets than Motorola. The program is run entirely by the terrifyingly-named Six Sigma Master Black Belts, all of whom have themselves been trained at Motorola University.

In order to understand the curriculum at Motorola University, one must first understand what the Six Sigma methodology is all about. In order to do that, one must devote oneself to the study of a mind-bendingly complicated mass of business-ese that includes phrases like “process capability” and acronyms such as DPMO (defects per million opportunities). Suffice it to say that Motorola University offers a number of training and education programs that teach Six Sigma practices in five different areas of management called institutes: Leadership and Management, Quality, Go-To-Market, Supply Chain, and Engineering.

Motorola University (or MU) has nine training facilities in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. MU was established at Motorola headquarters in 1974 to offer additional training and refresher courses to Motorola employees. In 1986, when Six Sigma was invented, MU changed its focus to train employees in the Six Sigma methodology. Recognizing that having an entire corporation full of Master Black Belts was no use if nobody outside the company had any idea what that meant, MU opened up its doors to clients and then the general public between 2002 and 2005. Motorola University now offers customized training programs to any number of people who might one day aspire to the actual Six Sigma certification, including “soft skill training” for college students. Presumably, Motorola High School and Six Sigma Day Care Center will be on their way soon.

This video explains Motorola’s motivation to invent Six Sigma, without going into any of the complex names and formulas that make it all work:

3. Apple University

Apple University, Apple Inc.’s corporate education institution, was launched in early 2009— a relative newcomer (and definite latecomer) to the corporate education scene. Running the project is Joel Podolny, previously the head of the Yale School of Management and a former teacher at Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business. From this one might surmise that Apple University focuses on the business end of the, well, business.

Like everything else ever produced by Apple Inc., the details of the goings-on at Apple University are a well-kept secret. Neither the location nor the purpose of this (probably cutting-edge) facility have been disclosed to the general public. Speculation abounds as to whether the university exists to train and educate existing employees in order to minimize turnover; to find and foster new talent, or to groom a new generation of arrogant but preternaturally culture-savvy nerds in the hopes that a worthy successor to Steve Jobs will emerge. Why keep it a secret? Perhaps it’s just Apple Inc.’s first instinct to keep everything under wraps. Maybe we’ll find out more when Apple is good and ready to tell us — probably in the form of an extremely sleek and mesmerizing commercial that, in retrospect, tells us much less than we thought it had.

4. The Global Education Center

The world’s largest corporate university is owned and operated by Infosys, the India-based information technology behemoth. Infosys initially established its training facility in 2005 with the goal of creating a workforce ideally suited to the company’s needs. It has since expanded in every direction.

The Global Education Center (GEC) is located in Mysore, India, on a 337-acre campus that is even now undergoing further expansion. The GEC has a total of 147 classrooms, 42 conference rooms, 485 faculty rooms, a cyber café, and two libraries housing approximately 140,000 volumes. Up to 15,000 students at a time can be educated within the many walls of this vast institution

Students of the Global Education Center study for six months before applying for a position at Infosys. The competition for jobs at the company is extremely fierce: 1.3 million apply each year, only 1 percent of whom are hired. Compare those numbers against those of another famously competitive institution, Harvard University, where approximately 23,000 people apply for admission each year, and a comparatively whopping 8 percent are accepted. Lucky, then, for the fortunate few who can look forward to a six-month training period and a lifetime of outsourced IT services projects at Infosys.

This video offers an inside look at the Global Education Center’s new facilities, and all the wondrous IT education to be had there:

5. Disney University

The Walt Disney Company has built its reputation on quality, innovation, and creativity in family entertainment (and merchandising). Nowhere are these values upheld more strongly or proudly than at Disney University, Disney’s professional development and training establishment. Uncle Walt himself first founded Disney University after he opened the first Disneyland theme park in California — and realized that nobody who worked there quite met his rigorous and magical standards. Established in the early 1960s, it is the world’s oldest corporate university.

All Disney employees (or “cast members” as they are called) attend a one-and-a-half day training program at Disney University, now located on the grounds of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. This program, called “Traditions,” emphasizes the importance of the legacy of the Disney brand and includes a tutorial in the history of Disney — both the man and the company — as well as training in job-specific tasks like working the cash registers, comforting lost and/or irate children, and convincing kids of all ages that a little bit of that Disney magic can go home with them in the form of a million different plush or plastic toys.

Select members of the 42,000 strong Disney cast go on to more rigorous training courses at Disney University in such magical areas as leadership development, personal development, professional development, and instructional design. Further instruction is also available to cast members who aspire to leave the cast and join the slightly less magical (but significantly quieter and more lucrative) world of leadership. Training for frontline supervisors and mid-to-upper management is broadcast via satellite all over the world through Mobile Training Units, many of which are affiliated with some of America’s top leading business schools.

Here is a short video with a behind the scenes look at University Disney:

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