How to Build a University Inside Your Business

Investing in your biggest asset, your people, is one of the simplest, cheapest and most effective way to build your business. The trouble is that most in house training is badly executed with no formal curriculum and little inspiration connecting all the moving parts.

The book Mavericks at Work published in 2006 covered dozens of great innovative ideas and made a huge impression on me. Specifically one idea caught my imagination –   the creation of Pixar University.
Pixar was acquired by Walt Disney Company in Jan 2006 for $7.4 Bn. I became fascinated with the concept of creating a University inside much smaller companies. In Pixar’s case Randy Nelson was identified as the key person to drive the University. Pixar’s CEO Ed Catmull handed him an 8 page memo that highlighted the concept. The author of the memo  – Walt Disney himself had penned it in 1935 which had created Disney Art School which acted as the catalyst for Disney animation.

It was that concept that inspired me between 2007 and 2010 to implement the University Concept in two software businesses.  Let me share with you what I learned.

How to do It

  1. Explain the concept to all staff and sell the benefits. (highlighted below) Change is never easy and its so much hard work.
  2. Appoint one person to project manage the University and have him or her report to the Board member in charge. This gives the project manager authority to take control when deadlines slip.
  3. Brainstorm the subjects you need to teach your people to make them a success –  example here from a software group shows over 40 basic courses.
    These include:

    • The vision of the company & why it was formed
    • Core Product Knowledge for sales teams
    • Sales Process
    • Detailed product demo sessions
    • Pricing session
    • Role Playing sessions to allow sales professionals to test their knowledge
    • The basics of marketing and how it integrates with the sales process
    • Detailed sessions on the ROI your products generate
    • Courses on your marketplace and how your customers use your product
    • The basic HR principals and polices that support the business
    • General courses on negotiation, time management, communication skills
  4. Give the courses numbers to make it feel like a structured curriculum.
  5. Go for quick wins by pulling together a 4 to 6 week induction courses for all new starters. This will quickly demonstrate how practical the University concept is and it will give new recruits a great feeling that  investment in people is a high priority.
  6. Assign owners to each course whose responsibility it will be to design the slides, narrative, testing and delivery of the course.
  7. Involve senior management as owners of some of the courses. The Vision session must be delivered by the CEO.
  8. Consider external trainers for highly specialized courses eg IT Service Management – bring in a local ITIL expert to teach and test.
  9. Build advanced courses beyond the basics to ensure employees have something new to come back to
  10. Build Playbooks explaining courses with cheat sheets to reinforce what is taught.
  11. Find appropriate collaboration software to post files for future reference. (I found Dropbox very useful)
  12. To keep costs down, you need to build the administration of the University extremely light. Use as much of your existing collateral as possible. Standardize slides across offices with very little customization for the British version etc
  13. Build some cheap online videos to help.
  14. Have regular feedback sessions on what is working and what is not and ask for ideas for new courses that are needed.


  1. It builds teamwork, breaking down silos as staff start to appreciate what a colleague actually does every day.
  2. It build new skills. In the Pixar example, why teach drawing to accountants? – because it teaches them to be more observant.
  3. It allows people to fail together. When you role play a sales script involving your CFO it’s bound to be a learning moment!
  4. It gives you a selling tool when recruiting – candidates love the concept.
  5. It standardizes the onboarding process especially for sales team members.
  6. It creates a pattern of repeatable behavior that staff can return to again and again.
  7. It sharpens the skills of the teachers and builds a new respect for their skills around the company.
  8. It offers senior management the mechanism for translating compelling visions all the way down to sales scripts and to connect to all performance profiles (new phrase for job specs) of all employees.
    It answers the question – why is my job important?
  9. It allows all talent to be groomed and nurtured for career development in bigger & better roles.
  10. It build a more competitive business as knowledge transfers across the company building stronger client facing teams.
  11. Product road maps become clearer as intelligence from the market feeds back muck quicker into senior management.

Most companies do some form of training but there is something far more compelling when you build training into a lifelong commitment to staff around the University concept.

I conduct workshops for clients to help them execute the concept in their businesses. Reach out if you think I can help.


  1. A fantastic road map! I just forwarded it to a client to help him see a new future for him and his business.

  2. Thanks Paul & tell your client I can help implement it!



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