This section presents a conceptual overview of the present study. In order to outline the context of analysis, the first part approaches the concept of the CU. The distinct features of CUs are highlighted by a comparison with the traditional corporate training department. The second part introduces the most common training evaluation models and highlights advantages and limitations. The third part investigates the evaluation of training within a multi-stakeholder context.
There is no universal definition of a CU in the literature: the numerous definitions that have been proposed since the 1990s (Allen, 2002; Dealtry, 2000; El-Tannir, 2002; Jarvis, 2001; Meister, 1998; Prince, 2003; Prince & Stewart, 2002) varied significantly and emphasized the different characteristics of CUs. If we refer to the definition proposed by the European Corporate Universites and Academies Network (ECUANET), ‘a corporate university (known also as an academy, institute, learning center or college) is an organizational unit dedicated to transforming the business-orientated learning into actions. It is planned, guided and closely related to the strategy of the company in order to achieve business excellence through the improvement of personnel performance and the development of a business culture within which innovation can flourish. Besides producing value from their intellectual assets, it helps the organization to identify and hold on to key employees, while permitting personnel to implement a valid learning process based on experience and the opportunities for career development’ (ECUANET, 2006, p. 1).
In regard to operational aspects, the literature highlights that a CU
contributes to the company's strategy formulation and supports the organization in its strategy implementation (Dealtry, 2005
; Eccles, 2004
); indeed, as stated by Dealtry (2005
): ‘[t]he CU, if well-founded, is the first step in ensuring that a hub of organic-learning, corporate degree programmes is timely and fits well into the overall portfolio of corporate provision so that it will serve the intellectual purpose of the organisation’ (p. 78);
is the main provider or coordinator of the training and development activities organized for the company's human resources and those of its customers and suppliers; it is fully supported by the company's top management; as stated in Barley (2002
): ‘[a]ll CUs need senior executive support. However, they do not neccessarily need to report directly to a senior executive in order to have an impact on the organization. In fact, there are three main places where responsibility for a CU resides: a chief executives's office, a human resource office, and a business unit’ (p. 45);
highlights the innovation pursued through partnerships with universities, business schools and public and private research centres: ‘in the context of the CU, facilitating the development of networks and partnerships with world-class learning partners in order to deliver learning interventions within the organisation is crucial’ (Prince & Stewart, 2002
, p. 806);
supplies its own training, development and knowledge management services with extensive use made of information and communication technologies (Macpherson et al., 2005
); as Prince and Beaver (2001
) stated: ‘a world-class CU is likely to be involved in the development and ongoing support of Intranets and knowledge management databases. Ensuring that individual learning is captured and made available as a resource for the benefit of the whole organization is likely to be a central function of a world-class CU’ (p. 193);
sometimes awards academic degrees or certificates; as stated by Andresen and Lichtenberger (2007
) regarding the CU in Germany: ‘a part from company-specific programmes, the vast majority of German CUs co-operates with institutions of higher education. They offer programmes that are equivalent or identical to university or business school education and in general are designed and/or delivered by accredited institutions of higher education. Partnerships between CUs and executive education departments of higher education institutions are becoming broader, deeper and more numerous today in Germany (p. 117–18).
In order to capture the essence of CUs, it is useful to compare and contrast the CU and a traditional training department (Meister, 1998), although, inevitably this involves some over-generalization. A traditional training department operates mostly on a reactive basis, responding to specific training demands that emerge at different levels of the organization. CUs are permeated by a holistic vision and aim to plan a business training system with the objective of translating cultures, values and missions into operational action plans. Training departments are typically included in human resources departments and report to a human resources manager, whereas the CU needs a stronger commitment, usually provided by the company's senior management, who are also represented on the board of the CU. The senior managers collaborate with the CU in strategy planning activities. The training activities provided by traditional training departments tend to be ‘prescriptive’, as they are defined on the basis of training needs analysis conducted by the department's staff. A CU uses a ‘sales process’ to provide its services, based on its expertise and knowledge of needs within a competitive market.
The above summary has employed a set of variables that will subsequently be used in the case selection for this study. It should, however, be viewed more as a continuum as shown in Figure 1. For this reason, the findings of this paper can be utilized by both CUs and training departments. The dimensions used can also provide a framework for managerial decision making and action.
Although a variety of training evaluation models exists in the literature (Garvin, 1995; Swanson & Holton, 1999), the most renowned and widely used is the hierarchical model (Kirkpatrick, 1975, 1994, 1996). This is based on four levels of evaluation: the reaction of the participants, their learning, the degree of transfer of what they have learned into practice and the impact of this transfer on the business results at an overall level. At this last level of evaluation, from the 1990s onwards, the need to translate the impact on business results into an economic value was included (Fitz-enz, 1988; Geber, 1995; Kearsley, 1982; Phillips, 1997; Phillips & Phillips, 2001; Tesoro, 1998). Indeed, the hierarchical model was integrated with the development of specific approaches that aim to appraise, in monetary terms, the resources used and the benefits gained in order to permit a cost–benefit analysis and the determination of a measure of the rate of return of the investment in training.
The analysis of the business practice leads to three main findings: (1) the hierarchical model constitutes the reference model, even if it is implemented differently within each business context (Lien et al., 2007); (2) in the main, the first two of the four levels of evaluation are used in an organized and structured manner (Bassi et al., 1996); (3) the return on investment models are not common because training costs and benefits are often characterized by a high level of immateriality and it makes difficult their ‘translation’ into monetary values (Abernathy, 1999; Alliger & Janak, 1989; McLean, 2005; McLinden, 1995).
There are three main criticisms of the hierarchical model (Bates, 2004). The first is that the model concentrates on far too small a group of variables. In fact, the four levels of evaluation that it proposes are based on an excessively simplified vision regarding the effectiveness of training, particularly because they do not consider the influences of the organizational context. A significant research stream (Cannon-Bowers et al., 1995; Ford & Kraiger, 1995; Kontoghiorghes, 2001; Salas & Cannon-Bowers, 2001; Tannenbaum & Yukl, 1992) documented the presence of a wide range of organizational, individual, planning and implementation factors regarding training that can influence the effectiveness of the training process, before, during or after the intervention. Such studies have empirically shown the impact of training process variables on performance that the hierarchical model does not consider, such as organization culture (Tracy et al., 1995), the values and the objectives of the organizational units in which training is provided (Ford et al., 1992), and the support of line managers in the acquisition of competencies and in their transfer into working practices (Bates et al., 2000).
A second criticism concerns the assumption of causal relations between the levels of evaluation; that is, the idea that it is not possible to achieve positive results at top levels if this did not occur at the lower ones. Many studies confirm such a criticism: various empirical analyses (Alliger & Janak, 1989; Alliger et al., 1997) have highlighted a lack of correlation among the measures identified at different levels of the model, which strongly disputes the concept of linear causality. Besides, the lack of such a relationship among the levels of evaluation does not support the hypothesis, implicit in the hierarchical model, that satisfactory results at superior levels implicate satisfactory results in the lower ones (Alliger & Janak, 1989).
A third criticism of the hierarchical model is the lack of a multi-actor perspective. In fact, the point of view that the model assumes is just that of the company, which is conceived as a unitary system. This criticism is linked to the concept of organizational effectiveness: recent studies (Altschuld & Zheng, 1995) reviewed several models for the evaluation of organizational effectiveness. They stated, ‘[l]acking absolute criteria and causality related to outcome, complex organizations should turn to social referents to demonstrate their effectiveness’ (p. 203). It means that there cannot be a single, universally acceptable model of organizational effectiveness. Coming back to training evaluation, the hierarchical model seems concerned exclusively with demonstrating the benefits of training from a singular stakeholder perspective in strictly financial and/or operational terms. This leads to neglect of the evaluation needs of all the other stakeholders involved in the training process and makes it most restrictive in a context such as the CU, which is characterized by many actors.