Constructive education

Ellis Don shows how a corporate university can offer employees a mix of well-branded, targeted learning and development opportunities
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/03/2010

Ellis Don’s university began about 10 years ago as a monthly evening session offered to workers. It was a social event for people to learn from each other, with guest speakers talking about the latest project or industry trends. At the time, there were few courses on construction management because it’s a very hands-on field, says Monica Darroch, a learning and development manager at Ellis Don in Mississauga, Ont.

“Our industry is fairly skinny when it comes to education opportunities,” she says.

But as the company grew to 1,000 employees, information usually handed down person to person was lost somewhat because of its size and geographic disbursement. As a result, those evening sessions became one small component of Ellis Don University (EDU), which now encompasses a range of courses and programs devoted to topics such as financial management, project management and planning and scheduling.

“It’s evolved to become the umbrella of all our learning sessions,” says Darroch.

When an organization takes control of establishing a broader learning strategy and aligns resources with its strategic priorities, there are huge efficiencies that can be gained, says Christina Cleveland, director of design and development at CMC Training in Toronto.

“Establishing the corporate university does put a little more control back in their hands, so they can have a better sense of where training dollars are going. And they can also influence what type of programming is available.”

Instead of employees pursuing education “willy nilly” by going outside without HR’s knowledge, a corporate university allows an organization to keep track of that investment and time and potentially mitigate costs by offering education internally or negotiating contracts with external vendors to offer a broader scope of training, she says.

“It also adds to the organization’s employee value proposition, so it establishes them as an organization that’s committed to investing in their employees’ development,” says Cleveland.

Construction is a very small, competitive market with employees with specialized expertise so EDU is definitely part of Ellis Don’s attraction and retention strategy, says Darroch.

“People want to know the company is investing in them and it’s aligned with the business objectives along with their own career development.”

The courses are offered in a variety of ways, such as face-to-face in a classroom with an instructor, self-guided e-learning or webinars, lunch and learns and on-the-job learning.

“It’s really the gamut of learning methods,” says Darroch. “You need to make sure it’s that blended learning approach. You need to have a combination of all.”

With the advancements in technology, corporate training is shifting to e-learning and web-based courses to reduce costs and make better use of employees’ time, says Gina Davidovich, a director at Bay 3000 Corporate Education in Markham, Ont. There are also smaller modules, pinpointed to their needs, which can be done during off-hours.

“Some industries are facing challenges with such a high percentage of workers retiring. A lot of these training programs have this succession plan objective as a way to build up skill sets and competencies that are going to be lost.”

As for the structure of the courses, Ellis Don is not a big proponent of certifications and designations.

“We tried that in the past and we found people were coming perhaps not for the right intentions,” says Darroch. “We encourage people to come because they feel it’s important to them, will help them with their growth. It’s more about employee development and career growth than, ‘Here’s the certificate of the day, make sure you attach it to your wall.’”

If it doesn’t align with company goals, “then it just goes back to your regular training department: What’s the flavour of the day or the month?” says Darroch. “It’s a centralized function, it’s managed and we make sure we are aligned with what the business needs are, strategic goals are for the organization from a learning perspective.”

The alignment piece is key, says Cleveland, and that means really taking a look at an organization’s strategic priorities and what competencies people need to demonstrate to move the company forward, depending on their broader business strategy.

Ellis Don incorporates self-developed programs or offerings from external associations such as the Construction Sector Council and Toronto’s George Brown College. But all of the programming and material is branded with “EDU.”

By outsourcing, “you end up having to police more, administrate more,” says Darroch, so the company tries to do as much as it can internally. And if EDU does partner, it incorporates its best practices “so it has our flavour and our stamp on it. Otherwise it becomes generic, off the shelf and people just don’t buy into that.”

Ideally companies should blend with the partner, so the recognition and the brand is strong for the corporate university, says Cleveland. The courses and programs should look and feel like those of the organization and not like an outside program being dropped in.

“It helps in terms of pickup from the employees and their ability to immerse themselves in the content,” she says.

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