The 5 Learning Models: University

| Comments

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been covering learning models that operate under fairly urgent time pressures. These models are Performance Support, Mass Distribution, and Partnership models. This week, I’d like to introduce the University Model, which exists on longer timeframes to accommodate both information dissemination, as well as more thorough skills development activities.


We Are an Institution of Expertise

The University Learning Model strives to offer comprehensive workforce training in both breadth and depth of content. Like Mass Distribution, the University Model offers a wide variety of content, however it also provides information for broad competencies and specific job functions in much higher detail. Similar to an actual university, this model often offers “elective” courses on subjects like presentation or leadership skills, which may be helpful but not crucial for certain workers to learn.

The classic corporate example in this model would be McDonald’s Hamburger University, a facility in Illinois where McDonald’s managers and franchisees can attend intensive classes, workshops, and simulations to learn the ins and outs of restaurant management. A physical university, of course, isn’t necessarily the norm for this model; in many cases, the university will be largely an online experience often described as a learning portal or Corporate U. It’s important to make the distinction between this model and a Content Management System which simply stores product and process information.

Compared to the previous models I’ve covered so far, the University provides a greater emphasis on the Skills Development learning pattern. Whether it is a live, simulated kitchen as might be found at Hamburger University, or an online group project with a team of collaborators, this model requires practice and repetition of skills, in addition to providing information and learning content. The distinguishing feature here is not necessarily the addition of simulations (which is exhibited more intensively in next week’s model, Innovation) but the breadth of available learning resources in both Information Dissemination and Skills Development.


  • The University Model offers a comprehensive training experience; all the content and skills required to perform a job is meant to be available in this central source.
  • In training, many people respond better to direct human interaction and feedback, which are hallmarks of this “high-touch” learning delivery method.
  • This model lends itself to creating well-defined training and career progression tracks. At any time, both the employee and the company will have a good idea of what more needs to be learned.


  • The University Model can have higher budget requirements than other models both in content development and delivery. This could include labor costs of dedicated instructors, travel expenses to attend offsite training, and time away from actual work.
  • In addition to a breadth of content expertise, organizations operating in this model require a deep understanding of workflow systems and processes.
  • When developing content for an online University, L&D must differentiate itself from a simple LMS by delivering a more engaging, interactive experience.


More than in other models, the University is very dependent on the quality of its subject matter experts, who must provide expertise in a wide variety of topics, but also delve deeply into the specifics of job functions. Because this is a high-touch delivery model, experts need to be adept at interacting with employees, and should have direct experience in the position they are training.

Particularly in cases in which the company is the content provider, much will be dependent on the organizational attitude towards learning. The University Model is an ideal structure for employees to be immersed in the company culture. L&D should be prepared to communicate the overall brand to ensure that it syncs with the learning process.

Connection to the Learning Revolution

As I discussed in the Learning Revolution post, there has been a shift in mindset from company-driven learning to people-driven learning. Businesses may appreciate being able to brand their training and push their internal marketing message through the University Model, but the time-sensitive information that employees need is increasingly available elsewhere, without taking the time away from their regular workflow.

This isn’t to say that the University Model is going to disappear in the modern learning environment, but the high budget requirements of the model may necessitate the separation of its functions into individual pieces. The Information Dissemination activities of the University will likely evolve into the Performance Support or Mass Distribution models. Meanwhile, the Skills Development activities will likely turn into the model I’ll be describing next week, Innovation.

Questions to Qualify if Operating in a University Model

  • Do you provide training to improve employee competencies across business units?
  • Do your training programs have well-defined tracks of modular learning activities and courses?
  • Have you formalized training in support of leadership development initiatives?

If you recognize that your organization follows the University model, you should be asking these questions to confirm that you are achieving both breadth and depth in your training programs. Next week I’ll be looking at the last of the five predominant learning models, Innovation. If you have any questions about the University Model or any other Saltbox Savvy topic, leave a comment below or get in touch with us here.


The reason the University Model tends to have high budgetary requirements is because so much (both content and high-touch training) needs to be available in one place. You may consider separating your corporate university into its Skills Development and Information Dissemination components. This will allow you to focus on deeper, immersive simulations required to develop skills in your workforce, while getting information and content distributed by more cost-effective means.