The Capability Academy: Where Corporate Training Is Going

Corporate training and development has been through quite a journey. Twenty years ago companies built physical universities (GE’s Crotonville, Accenture St. Charles), hired faculty and college professors, and sent their employees to courses. During my time at IBM in the 1980s, I flew to education centers all over the country, sitting in front of deep experts to learn about sales, customer service, software, and computer engineering.

Then along came the internet, and we decided all that had to go. In the early 2000s we coined the phrase “e-learning” and companies started shutting these things down to create the “virtual university.” There was also a recession, so it made sense to stop “wasting money on facilities” and put it online.

While this was exciting and lowered the cost of training (and gave birth to an industry of online learning companies), it didn’t quite work as planned. E-learning was boring, tedious, and hard to complete – and it missed practice, hands-on experience, and coaching. So we coined the phrase “blended learning” (I wrote a whole book on it) and we decided to mix it up. For the next decade, we tried to figure out how to blend online training with face-to-face, and we kind of lost our way.

capability academy e-learning evolution

The Disruption Of Digital Learning

When YouTube,, and MOOCs first started ten years or so ago, they disrupted the e-learning market. No longer did people want carefully authored page-turning content, they wanted “in-your-face” video that jumped off the screen (or phone). And as digital media expanded, we lost our patience and decided the content had to be fast and immediate.

My partners in the Josh Bersin Academy, Nomadic Learning, were the founders of a company called 50 Lessons, which built world-class videos of CEOs talking about their business problems. They discovered that even with the world’s most exclusive online content, nobody would ever watch more than two minutes of a video. Even Ted Talks are too long today. So corporate consumers of e-learning content got fed up.

In 2015 we did a study of the net-promoter score of L&D and it was negative. Companies had invested in billions in learning management systems and employees were nor even using them. Courses were too hard to find, the e-learning was boring, and they were finding content on consumer websites they liked better. They started to revolt against corporate L&D. GE almost shut down Crotonville, and everyone went crazy for “digital learning.”

We then entered another decade of experimentation. First we thought video-based learning was nirvana. It sort of worked but people didn’t really want to watch an hour long videos. Then we tried MOOCS, which replicated the university experience online. They didn’t really work well either. People at work were too busy, too distracted, and too focused in their development needs.

So we moved into a new paradigm, the one I call “Learning in the Flow of Work.” We recognized that both micro-learning and macro-learning go together, and we started to think about learning at the point of need. Companies started to buy Learning Experience Platforms, products designed to be the “Netflix of Learning.” The idea was to make discovery easy: find what you want, consume it, and move on.  And these platforms were supposed to be intelligent, easy to use, and fast and interactive to learn. LinkedIn jumped in, as did a lot of other big companies, and the new world of “employee-driven” or “user centric” learning took off.

All this has been positive.  As we’ve evolved the tech stack and made content more interactive, we’ve opened the door of skills development to millions of new people. In fact, when I go to India, Russia, and Japan I see people everywhere taking courses, buying libraries, and looking at new LXPs. 

But We Have To Go Further

But something has been left out. In the middle of this big digital transformation, something else took place. Companies found out that technical skills, while clearly in demand, were not the biggest problem. They had much broader capability issues to deal with – and these could never be learned online. In fact it’s not even clear “self-directed” learning would work, when the problem is as broad as supply chain management, integrated customer service, or global enterprise sales.

Just recently IBM released some very profound research. Today, after surveying more than 4,500 senior execs in 50 countries, they told us something new. The real problems they now face are not just technical skills, but actually broad social and behavioral skills – thinks we consider far more complex, soft, and experiential.

Young workers reinforce this finding. In a recent study done in Australia, the younger the worker the less interested they are in technical skills. They want to learn broader context, problem-solving, leadership, influence, and communication. (The new buzzword is “curiosity,” meaning developing the skill of listening, learning, and always being open to change).

In other words, we’re going back to where we started, and I call this the emergence of the Corporate Capability Academy.

capability academy

What is a Capability Academy? 

An academy goes beyond a “library of content.” It is a place people go to advance their job-related capabilities.

It goes beyond technical and functional skills, and focuses on the business capabilities a company needs to thrive.

What is a capability?  Put simply, it is a combination of skills, knowledge, and experiences employees need to succeed. And these capabilities are often unique, exclusive, and proprietary to your company.

Unlike the LXP-driven content library, the Capability Academy is sponsored by business leaders, and these business people decide what capabilities are important.

Let me give you some examples.

At Comcast, there is an Academy of Customer Service. It teaches service staff the myriad of service technologies, practices, and behaviors important to the company.

Cemex has built a Supply Chain Academy and a Safety Academy. These groups teach employees from many organizations what they need to know about the company’s unique solutions for supply chain and safety management.

Visa is building a FinTech Capability Academy, focused on helping employees and business partners understand all the intricacies and innovations in finance technology, including Visa’s proprietary strategies.

Capital One has a “Cloud, digital, and cybersecurity Academy,” which brings people together to create skills, expertise, and new ideas in digital application development.

At Ford we recently discussed creating the “autonomous vehicle academy” and at Novatis the academies focus on curiosity, innovative leadership and organ sciences.

An Academy Is A Place, Not A Library Of Content

As I mentioned earlier, an Academy is not “a bunch of courses, it’s a place to go.” A place to learn. A place to share. A place for experts to contribute. And a place to advance the state of knowledge. (And it may be a virtual and physical space.)

In other words, it’s not an L&D program, it’s a corporate investment – and it needs ownership and governance by business leaders.

Unlike a university, which is focused on advancing the state of knowledge, an Academy is focused on building real business capabilities, yet doing it in a scalable, open, and ever-improving way. Just like the police academy always comes up new ways to protect and serve, so your corporate academies must focus on finding new solutions, technologies, and practices for your company.

And yes, they are also digital. Capability Academies have digital experiences too: they use online learning, VR, simulation, and all sorts of new tech.  Wal-Mart’s Academies use VR to train associates in customer service, operations, management, and safety.  Shell Oil’s Academies use deep simulations to teach petroleum engineers and operators all about geology and science.

How To Set Up A Capability Academy

Let me give you a simple comparison of the Capability Academy vs. traditional L&D or LXP-enabled learning.

  Traditional Content Libraries Capability Academy Solution
Goal Deliver many courses to let employees develop their skills. Courses and learning paths designed around technical or professional skills. Deliver business capabilities at scale to ensure that employees can perform, innovate, and grow in the business areas important to the company.
Programs Typically outsourced, contracted, or developed in-house; usually designed to be completed in short periods of time next to existing work requirements. Co-designed with internal and external experts to expose internal areas of expertise, bring in experts, and advance the state of knowledge. 
Instructors Off the shelf courses or trainers with a broad-based understanding of relevant skill sets, but not necessarily internal company experts. Company experts paired with instructional designers. Certified instructors, often current practitioners. External experts to assist. Business leaders involved directly.
Learning Activity Video, courseware, examples and case studies generated by content vendors, as well as customized projects based on understood company needs or priorities. Programs, projects, and assignments. Often take months to complete, and are tailored to the company’s processes, tools, and tech stack in real-time. Taught by internal experts, not instructors.
Credentials A completion certificate in an LMS, possibly shared internally. A validated credential that has value for promotion and salary increase.
Assignments Exercises may be included in the courses. Developmental assignments and real work projects are sponsored by the Academy.
Investment $1,200 to $1,400 per year per employee. From $2,000 to $15,000 per employee. Investments made with the knowledge that these capabilities are strategic to operations, innovation, customer service, and growth.
Sponsorship Sponsored by HR or L&D. Sponsored by line of business leaders and the CEO. Aligned and prioritized for topics the company agrees are strategic, proprietary, and high value.
Examples IT course library; Digital course library; Management course library. Leadership Academy, Supply Chain Academy, Global Marketing Academy, Customer Service Academy, Safety Academy.

Capability Academies Are Sponsored By The Business

Capital One’s Digital Capability Academy is run by the digital, engineering, and IT leaders (not L&D).  L&D is the facilitator and architect, but the sponsorship is the business.

The folks at Cemex made a point to me:  Yes, we have an LXP and we offer self-directed learning, but that’s just an accommodation to the business. Our real strategic investments go into our academies, because that’s what the CEO cares about. An Academy creates focus and sponsorship, and you can measure its impact.  And each one has a business leader in charge. (Cemex uses NovoEd for its Academy – NovoEd is a platform designed for high-fidelity, instructor-facilitated academy oriented learning.)

cemex supply chain academy safety

Novartis has a whole series of these academies, and they’re focused around the company’s Curiosity Strategy. As Simon Brown, the CLO describes it, they focus on helping everyone be “inspired, curious, and unboss.” 

Kraft Heinz calls their academy its OwnerVirsity, because it’s all about creating ownership for your development. Employees take pledges to learn a certain number of hours per month, and when they achieve their pledges they get badges.

Back to The Future

This is not a new idea, but it’s a whole new approach. Today, as companies grapple with the “future of work,” they are desperate to build new corporate capabilities.  An Academy is the way to pull this off.

When I was at IBM in the 80’s we had a sales academy like none other. I spent a year in sales training, and learned more about customers, selling practices, and products than any other time in my life.  (My son just spent a year in the SAP Sales Academy, and it set him off on an incredible career.)

Today companies tell me they want to create programs for “digital leadership,” “agile management,” “complex problem solving,” and of course deep skills in all the new digital domains of business. Why? Because we now live in a world where every part of business, from marketing to sales to supply chain to customer service, has been reinvented in a digital way. So this is not a problem of “picking up some digital skills” – it’s one of “reinventing how business is done.”

There are many things to consider here:  the Academy needs sponsorship from the business; internal experts should develop and teach programs; and you have to include developmental assignments, mentoring, and external experts. Capital One asks “digital engineering academy” students to take 3 month assignments building AI and security tools in IT.  Students in British American Tobacco’s marketing academy do marketing assignments. This is how people learn.

In today’s disruptive world,  the right type of Capability Academies will bring your company together. They give your employees inspiration and drive; they bring subject matter experts out of their offices to share and invent; and they give you a way to drive deep enduring skills you need to stay ahead, innovate, and grow.

Do you need an academy for everything?  Absolutely not. You need to focus on the key capabilities that make your company outperform. You get to decide. Then let the other topics stay tactical, and offer an off-the-shelf library to meet people’s needs.

It’s often true that what’s old is new. This time I believe it makes sense: think about the critical capabilities that make your company thrive, and develop an academy strategy of your own.