General Motors (GM) and General Electric (GE) and other large manufacturing firms were some of the forerunners in the workforce learning movement. As early at 1914, companies like GE and GM developed internal training functions to provide workers with the skills necessary to perform routine jobs. These corporation schools continued throughout the mid-point of the twentieth century with additional movements toward corporate accreditation for training. All kinds of industries focused on internal training and development.
While the emphasis on workplace training continued, the world started to change. Technology advancements, globalization, the shift from an industrial- to a knowledge-based and information-based economy, and increased competition all influenced the way that organization worked. Training had to change, too.
The first corporate universities were developed in the mid-1950's as responses to these changes and today serve as the underpinnings of the corporate university, or strategic learning, industry. The movement started slowly and gained momentum around 1980 in the United States. Increased awareness around the concept of strategic learning emerged as the forerunners were sharing their stories openly as their initial competitive advantages were achieved.
In the late 80's and the early 90's, U.S. companies began to recognize that a commitment to lifelong learning with practices in systems thinking and cross-functionality as introduced by Senge (1990) and explored by Nolan, Goodstein, and Pfeiffer (1993) and Beckhard and Pritchard (1992) among others, was a way to keep up with technological advancement and global competition. Becoming a learning organization became the desired status throughout Corporate America.
Achieving that goal meant rethinking the corporate philosophy toward employee development. Corporate managers accepted the need to educate and continuously re-educate their employees, but actually making organizational change happen seemed to be an uphill challenge complicated with union needs and demands, pressures to remain competitive during the transition periods, and desires to turn profits. Terms like re-engineering, re-inventing, and organizational change dominated Corporate America. The centralized and controlled employee development programs of the past would not meet those corporate goals. The choice to become a learning organization coupled with the need to stay competitive sparked, at least in part, the corporate university movement.
With the end of the Cold War and the relaxing of global trade barriers, globalization became a dominant factor in corporate learning. What started as an American practice became a global phenomenon. Corporate universities emerged in companies around the globe. New thinking around learning models that aligned with particular industries and particular cultures likewise followed. The corporate university was no longer a movement; it was a critical business practice.
Thus, changing industry and technology factors as well as new thinking about workplace learning catalyzed the corporate university concept and movement. This historical perspective provides a basis for understanding and conceptualizing the corporate university as it exists today. In its current state, the corporate university is a process by which organizations integrate strategic, continuous, and results-oriented learning throughout their entire workforce chains.