Opinion: Corporate universities: Knowledge is merging

Knowledge Management and further training are merging. This is happening as a result of combining a great variety of learning forms. A good way of doing this is to create a virtual corporate university.

The idea is, however, that this corporate university is not only intended to be used by a company's internal personnel but also by external partners, customers and suppliers. And according to Professor Walter Baets from the Netherlands, there is no sense in giving out certificates in the process.

For instance, Cisco Systems Inc. has set up a corporate university, in which 350,000 people all over the world are currently engaged in learning via the Internet. There are around 130,000 people studying at the corporate university at BAE Systems PLC and several thousand people are availing themselves of the Learning Services provided by IBM Corp. Another classic example is the Shell Learning Centre. The benefits of this e-learning are clearly the increasing flexibility and individuality it affords the learner, and in no way does this involve, despite frequent claims to the contrary, a reduction in time and cost. Because in the long term it is the former factors which provide the company with its competitive advantage, and not latter ones.

According to Prof. Dr. Walter Baets, a virtual university should consist of two main components: The communications tool and the search engines. The process of depositing one's knowledge in a database must of course be made as simple as possible. And here again, as in all talks on the subject of knowledge management, the question is raised as to how to motivate people to do precisely this, and contribute their knowledge to a database.

Baets, who heads the Philips chair for information and communications technology at the Nyenrode University in The Netherlands, has exactly one answer to this question: "Give your personnel the time to do it and pay them for doing it. Otherwise you can expect nothing."

Walter Baets is not only a professor, but also a director of Notion, the Nyenrode Institute for Knowledge Management and Virtual Education. This is a competence center which is sponsored by such companies as Achmea Holding NV, Microsoft Corp., Atos Origin International BV, Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV and Sarah Lee Corp. "We want to use this research and development center to avoid reinventing the wheel every day," explains the professor.

Certificates are pointless

Company management is often based on the assumption that mistakes are not allowed to happen. However, this idea is, according to Walter Baets, completely erroneous.

"We learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes," he believes. For this reason, it is important that the personnel in a company communicate with each other. "It is from such mistakes that they can generate experience."

Every company wishes to employ personnel with experience, since it is critical to certain difficult jobs that the activities are based on experience. But it is only possible to possess such experience if you have already made mistakes at some point. This means that it should be the aim of every company to learn from the experience made by qualified personnel and to make their knowledge available to all personnel.

"Knowledge is the active part of learning," explains the professor. In order to be effective in this, it makes sense to set up a corporate university. It provides companies with support when it comes to creating knowledge.

Baets says that there is little use in giving out certificates, since each learner decides for himself which knowledge he requires for his activity. Learning should be conducted along the lines of "You do not need to learn what you already know," and "You only know what you don't know once you need it." If you never need what you have learnt then it isn't worth a penny. E-learning is a wonderful aid with which to make learning more flexible and more individual. Because knowledge is not transferable, it is up to each individual to make his own personal experience on his individual path.

'Learning by doing' and 'finding by asking'What is certain is that learning must be based on the ideas of "Learning by Doing" and "Finding by Asking". This is why the search engines are just as important as the communication mechanisms which are integrated within a virtual corporate university. According to the professor, search engines are of decisive importance in such a system. They need to be constructed in such a way that every user can find what it is he is looking for. He cites the Yellow Pages as a negative example of something in which nobody finds what it is he is looking for. And books are basically just as ineffective. "You can only understand most of them if you already know the answers" is how Baets formulates his criticism. So it must be somehow possible for each individual to design his own learning process. "Children learn not to put their hand in a flame, but only by first trying it. And in just the same way, consultants can learn from the experiences made by other consultants."

Good Does Not Necessarily Mean ExpensiveIt is therefore important to create a learning tool with which people can begin learning immediately. "You will immediately notice that you have done something wrong when this tool has cost you millions of euros. You do not have to hammer out the ultimate solution. Put a nice solution into practice and concentrate on the learning principles," he says.

What is also important is that you treat the people who are to work with this tool like adults. "That means that they must themselves have the will to learn and they are themselves responsible for their own learning success."

The most important factor of the whole activity is to know what goals you are pursuing with these e-learning activities. If you do not have a goal, then you should stop investing money in the project immediately. As soon as you have defined a goal and this has met with the support of the top management level, then you can start spending money again. But be sure to engage people who are not connected with the company. And don't forget: creating the platform is the easy part. Concentrate on the physiognomy of the communications tools, the search machines and the learning materials.

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