The Responsibilities of Management Series, #12: Build Your Own In-house University

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 18, Issue No. 4b
August 15, 2019

By Dan Coughlin


This is the twelfth and final article in my series on The Responsibilities of Management.

So far we have covered how to:

  • Attract, hire, place, develop, and retain the type of people you want in your organization.
  • Strengthen your bench strength.
  • Build teamwork that works to win.
  • Reinforce your desired culture.
  • Clarify your strategy, plan your actions, and execute.
  • Develop a willingness to innovate.
  • Improve productivity and efficiency.
  • Build, strengthen, and protect your brand.

Establish a Way to Codify and Teach Ideas across Your Entire Organization

It’s good for you to focus on important ideas and share them with other key people in your organization, but that’s not enough.

The key is not for a few people to be thinking hard about important topics that affect the entire organization. The key is to develop all the people across your organization to be able to think effectively about a range of important organizational topics. This is how you develop your organization for long-term success.

Think about a university. The idea of a college or post-graduate experience is not primarily about getting a degree. The idea is to become more educated. Education means to draw out the best from the teacher, the student, and the subject. A university education boils down to three things:

  • Content of ideas.
  • Teachers who can explain the ideas in various ways that spur students to think.
  • Students who work with teachers and with each other to develop their ability to think about those topics and many other topics.

I encourage you to get really serious about building a university within your organization. It doesn’t matter how many employees work there. What matters is developing the thinking skills and the understanding of all of those people on important organizational topics.

As you build your in-house university keep those three bullet points in mind: the content you want covered, how you will teach that content, and how you will spur your employees to think about that content on an individual and group basis.

Of course, there are major differences between an organization’s in-house university and a real university. I’m definitely not recommending that you create 16-week courses that meet three times a week. That’s totally unrealistic. What I am recommending is that you build systemic ways for people to learn the crucial ideas that are necessary for your organization to succeed.

How Do People Learn

Before I roll out a theoretical example of what an in-house university can look like, let’s look at ways people can learn.

Here are a variety of approaches for learning:

  • An on-site classroom approach where all the participants are in the same room for a half-day, full-day, or multiple day session.
  • A video or series of videos featuring people inside your organization that the participants can watch by themselves at whatever time is best for them.
  • A Zoom session with 5-7 people on a zoom call with an instructor who sends pre-work ahead of the session.
  • A one-to-one conversation between a more experienced professional and a newer person in the role.
  • A webinar that people can join at the same time and participate through a chat room, or watch.
  • A peer group getting together in-person or on-line to discuss specific topics for their professional growth.

There are many other methods that are important: role plays, skits, storytelling, watching videos from people outside the organization, and so on. Whatever you can do to explain the content of ideas you want covered for your employees can be part of your in-house university.

The ABC Corporate University: what it is, why it’s important, what topics are covered, and how it works

I made up an organization, The ABC Company, in order to explain how this concept of an in-house university can work for your organization. Just insert your organization’s name wherever you see ABC.

First, what is ABC University?

ABC University consists of all the different ways employees can learn and all the different topics you want the employees to learn. In doing a specific job an employee will learn certain skills, but will not have time or the opportunity to learn many other important skills or topics without an intentional, on-going commitment from the organization to teach content that goes beyond the person’s current job.

Second, why is ABC University important?

Only by intentionally teaching the content you want employees to be educated on will you ever develop employees across your organization to be ready to discuss and handle topics outside of their current jobs. If you only send your employees to outside seminars, you might not cover the material that you want them to know well. Those outside learning experiences can be helpful, but they likely will not be comprehensive of what your employees need to know about your organization.

Third, what topics could ABC University cover?

Here are topics I suggest be taught to all of your employees. Of course, you can add or subtract any topics you want to this list.

  • The ABC Company CultureEvery employee should be taught early and often what The ABC Culture is all about. Explain the beliefs you want driving behaviors in your organization. You can do this with people sitting in a classroom, through videos that employees can watch, and through peer group discussions about the culture. This is an enormously important topic. This topic needs to be taught over and over and over again.
  • The ABC Company StrategyExplain to the participants what a strategy means in general. And then explain what The ABC Company Strategy includes. In doing so define the business you are in, the key outcomes you want to improve for your customers and for the ABC organization, and what the company will do to achieve the desired outcomes. Allow time for questions and answers. You can do this through a webinar, an on-site meeting, a Zoom session, or a one-on-one session. However you do it just make sure that you take the time to really explain what you mean by a strategy, and explain specifically what your organization’s strategy really is all about. And then keep teaching it over and over.
  • The ABC Operations and What Affects Productivity and EfficiencyHave a course that explains your company’s operations. Operations are what an organization does to create and deliver the value your customers purchase. This could be a video or a live session on-site or on-line. The key is to clearly explain what your company does to create and deliver the value your customers pay for. In this session you can also discuss what increases the productivity of your operations and what decreases the productivity.
  • How the ABC Company Makes and Loses MoneyThis is really ABC Business 101. Print out a spreadsheet and show people what money is coming in and where it comes from and where money is going out and where it goes to. I’m not suggesting you print everyone’s salary on this sheet. I just mean show in general buckets where the money is coming in and where it is going out. Then explain what can happen to improve profitable growth in a sustainable way. The more people understand a word problem, the more likely they are to help solve it.
  • Innovation: A Willingness to Innovate and Steps on How to InnovateHave a video or a live message from multiple people about the importance of investing time in creating more value for customers. Talk about the importance of empathy, creating prototypes, testing out new ideas, and determining whether or not the idea adds value and is viable to make on a larger scale. Reinforce this introduction to innovation with an on-going series of videos or sessions on innovation. If you want innovation to become part of the fabric of your organization, reinforce it over and over and over.
  • How to Build Teamwork that Works to Win at ABCWe’ve all been on one form of a group or another, but that doesn’t mean we really learned about teamwork. I encourage you to put together an interactive course on teamwork, and teach it to every employee in your organization. A team is a group of individuals who support one another in fulfilling a meaningful purpose and achieving important outcomes. While that’s an easy idea to write, it’s a complicated and vital idea to understand and implement on an on-going basis.
  • How to Attract, Hire, and Develop the Type of People You Want at ABCDo not leave this incredibly important topic just in the hands of the HR Department. It’s everyone’s job in an organization to attract the type of people you want in an organization. It’s the job of every manager to hire and develop those people. This needs to be understood clearly by everyone. I encourage you to put together a course that everyone can take on the type of people you want in your organization, and on interview approaches you can use to determine if a person will be a good match for your organization.Then teach a course for people managers on what to develop in your employees and how to develop those employees.
  • How to Strengthen Bench Strength at ABCThis is another important course that could be taught to all managers throughout your organization. It’s very important that every manager has an idea of how every role can be filled quickly and competently in case any individual leaves the organization, is promoted, or is unable to fulfill the role he or she was in.
  • How to Build, Strengthen, and Protect the ABC BrandThis is an enormously important topic that needs to be taught to every employee in multiple ways. This course could explain what a brand is, why it’s so important, what value the ABC brand is known for delivering to customers, how to strengthen that brand, and things that weaken the brand. Don’t leave this one just to the marketing department to do. This topic needs to be taught to every employee in your organization.Your organization’s brand is the magnet that attracts and keeps customers. Make sure every person in your organization understands your current brand and the value you want your organization to be known for creating and delivering to customers.


Every month in an organization there are two things that need to happen.

The first is what I call “your day job.” Your day job consists of what you need to get done today in order to have done your job. This can include a wide variety of things, but they all come down to what you are being paid to do.

The second is what I call “learning about your organization and how to make it better.”  This consists of the efforts in an organization to actively teach and learn key organizational ideas and processes that are necessary for the organization to succeed. This needs to happen on a consistent, comprehensive basis for all employees. If you’re not dedicated to building a great in-house university, you are actually robbing your organization of its vast potential. It does take time and focus and energy, but the payoff can be extraordinary.