The Ultimate Guide to Building a Corporate Academy

Everything you need to know about the most impactful scalable training method for software companies today.

 

Building a successful corporate academy is no easy feat.

Even though most software companies have one, the field is still in its infancy, which means the skillsets, resources, and playbooks provided are minimal. The traditional approach of doing a Google search doesn't result in the answers to your questions.

That's why we developed this guide; to be a resource for organizations and education leaders to get an overview of everything you need to know about corporate academies.

Everything you'll find in this guide:

 

What is a Corporate Academy?

First, a definition:

A Corporate Academy is a formalized education initiative created by a business with the goal of educating the customer, industry, partners, employees, or any combination of all four with an emphasis on scalable methods.

A corporate academy is a strategy businesses use to train and develop their customers, industry partners, or employees.

Often they are branded specifically with "Academy" or "University" names or logos to indicate they are a subdivision of a larger organization with the sole focus of educating people toward their goals and success.

They're also referred to as:

  • Company Academy
  • Business Academy/University
  • Center of Excellence or Central Education Hub
  • Scalable training
  • Customer Education Training (although this has a singular focus, customer education)

Today's most common corporate academies are customer education programs in the software world as they're typically easier and less expensive to spin up and easier to tie top-line business results.

What they are not:

  • Knowledge databases for self-service
  • Repurposed blogs and other company resources turned into training
  • Ad-hoc training built on-demand 
  • Standalone training videos or other resources strategically placed into a software application

Corporate Academies differ from the items above in that they are proactively designed, intentional, and take a more holistic approach to the educational needs that drives more significant impact.

However, they’re often confused with the items above because, to an untrained eye, many of today’s Academies which are referenced as inspiration include all of the above. Still, they’re not them individually, and they don't start there. It's the difference between being strategic and approaching it top-down versus bottom-up.

Lastly, corporate academies are growing in popularity, with almost every well-funded software company building one.

There has to be something to it if everyone's doing it, right? We'll talk about the benefits next.

 

The five types of Corporate Academies

It's helpful to know that most academies fall into one of five categories.

The five categories are:

  1. customer academy
  2. industry academy
  3. partner academy
  4. employee academy
  5. all of the prior five, or any combination of them

A company's type of academy is based on the business and the academy's goals. Once the academy's goals are determined, it's easier to know which department it will sit within, clearly focusing on who its target learner is.

While most academies begin with one singular focus (i.e., customer education), it's not uncommon for them to expand the scope of learners to continue to impact the business positively.

 

What are examples of Corporate Academies?

Leading software businesses today are building corporate academies.

They understand the role scalable training plays in creating happy and empowered users, expanding revenue lines, and creating consistent messaging in the market from employees to customers.

Here's a shortlist of b2b and b2c companies with corporate academies:

Check out the Customer Education directory for more examples.

 

Why create a Corporate Academy?

The benefits of starting a corporate academy at your software company are immense.

If done well, they have the power to transform every area of your business, from increasing revenue and retention to growing your company's thought leadership in its category to, and even scalably educating your company's partners and future employees.

Below are just a few more prominent benefits companies experience when creating a successful corporate academy.

Educate & train customers

Educate your customers to be successful with your product in a scalable way.

Forrester quantified the impact on an organization when there is a formalized customer education program. They found the following results:

  • 6.2% increase in revenue
  • 7.4% increase in customer retention
  • 7.1% increase in lifetime value
  • 11.6% increase in customer satisfaction
customer education statistics

Additionally, some of those happy and successful customers will become power users who improve your software through user feedback programs or become advocates in the market that help grow your business.

Ultimately, companies that choose to educate the market and set it up skillfully can expect the following benefits:

  • Increase in product adoption
  • Increase in retention
  • Increase in cross-sell/upsell
  • Increase in Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)
  • Increase in NPS/CSAT
  • Increase in company promoters
  • Increase in conference and user group attendance and community engagement
  • Increase in the number of users who provide crucial software feedback

Educate & train the market

According to a Dell Technologies and Institute For the Future Report, 85% of jobs in eight years (2030) don't yet exist today.

There's a lot of change ahead.

With everything changing so fast and new concepts and methodologies emerging, people in today’s workforce need to be constantly upskilling, which creates a tremendous opportunity for organizations to be the "go to" source of information for their industry.

By creating education for your market, you tell the narrative that can lead your category while increasing your brand’s visibility and building a pipeline of potential customers or users.

Ultimately, companies that choose to educate the market, and set it up effectively, can expect the following benefits:

  • Increase in leads
  • Increase in likelihood-to-close
  • Lower lead-to-close time
  • Lower customer acquisition costs
  • Increase sales pipelines
  • Increase in brand visibility, credibility, & PR mentions
  • Increase in inbound links

Educate & train your channel

With a training program, you're creating more knowledgeable and up-to-date partners, making it easier for them to be successful. And a more successful partner program will increase sales, improve market ownership, and lead to happier, more successful customers, leading to improved revenue and customer retention.

While a corporate academy won't eliminate the need for 1:1 partner onboarding, conversations, and support on sales demos, it removes the repetitive training needs and questions that your channel team regularly faces.

A more educated channel program means a more empowered channel program.


Educate & train your employees

A recent study from IBM found that 84% of high-performing employees receive the training they require, compared to only 16% of employees at low-performing organizations. The correlation between employee training and success is clear.

For organizations to be successful, it starts with the employees having what they need to succeed.

Corporate Academies for employees often provide two types of training:

  1. onboarding
  2. continuous education

An academy is particularly transformational for high-growth companies that are onboarding many new hires a month. The study from IBM also found that new employees who do not feel they can achieve their career goals at their current organization are 30 times more likely to consider leaving than employees who feel they can achieve their carer goals. As new people join the organization, the need for scalable training that helps get them ramped up and is consistent and unified in the message grows.

Similarly, as your company evolves and introduces new products, expands into new markets, and rolls out new company-wide goals, you need up-to-date training to empower your people so they can advance your business. Corporate academies are also useful to get everyone aligned when carrying out large change initiatives and strategic projects.

Scalable training is the most productive and efficient way to do this.

A centralized hub for education

While a corporate academy can have a singular focus aimed at any of the target learners mentioned above, the value can extend to the complete value chain of the business by becoming the centralized learning function for all.

New data from the Customer Education Council Report 2022 states that ~42% of education teams sit within the customer success department, ~13% sit within marketing, and ~11% are their own department. While these numbers might be skewed because the report was created from the Customer Education Council, one thing is for certain -- there isn't one place that a centralized education hub should sit, but rather it depends on the unique needs of the business.


Create an ecosystem around your business

In a recent Ernst & Young piece, ecosystems are becoming increasingly prominent in businesses:

"I think the evidence is now clear that we are entering an era of ecosystem where most companies will heavily utilize ecosystem business models to drive innovation and the pace and capital efficiency with which they create customer value."

Boiled down and tailored to specifically Corporate Academy, the more your education programs grow, the more significant your impact on the business will be.

Salesforce's Trailhead is an excellent example of an ecosystem.

Trailhead has many hallmarks of today's top Academies. It offers training modules and certification programs, but they do much more.

It also connects software users through community, outlines career paths for industry professionals, helps users find new jobs and get promotions, shares inspirational stories of success, invites them to events they host, and more.

Individually, Trailhead programs and products are helpful, but collectively they're more potent because they interact together to deliver more profound value to their learners and software users.

You build a transformational corporate academy with loyal fans when your learners can trust you to help them level up their careers, and lives like Salesforce's Trailhead does.

Some ideas for creating an ecosystem built around education include:

  • Certifications & badges
  • Community
  • Local (or virtual) events for learners
  • Job boards
  • Forums or channels to engage and help one another
  • Success stories and learning examples
  • Provide career paths for learners
  • Connect certification badges to LinkedIn
  • Education Partner Program
  • Train-the-Trainer Program
  • Other unique content, access, or discounts for your Corporate Academy learners

A way to see & create additional business opportunities

Once many learners are going through your training programs, it's easier to mine the data to see potential opportunities and trends worth pursuing.

Here's a personal story to illustrate this example:

When we first started the HubSpot Academy team back in 2012, we had one goal: to educate our customers.

However, the more educational content we built, the more people we began to help, the easier it was to use the volume of data to identify high-value opportunities.

For us, we noticed a trend emerge from our customer training content - people who weren't yet customers (aka leads) - were joining our customer-only trainings. When we took a step back and looked at the data, we realized there was a gap in education for modern marketers using HubSpot or not, which resulted in industry-focused education and certifications.

And then, after a few years of educating the market, we noticed a handful or two University professors taking our certifications, which led to the creation of the Education Partner Program.

There are countless examples of how we used the data of our existing program to identify opportunities to create new training, improve current training, build new programs and expand our learner-base, which ultimately grew our impact.

 

How to know if you should invest in a Corporate Academy?

Before you invest company time, resources, and budget in a corporate academy, there are a few essential questions to answer.

Below are just a few of those important considerations that we've pulled together:

What are your organization's 1-year or 5-year goals? And how can formalizing a corporate academy help you to achieve these?

The organization's goals above will direct you to where there is an opportunity for you to have an immediate impact with a corporate academy.

Remember that just because you start with a specific target audience doesn’t mean you have to stay there. The most successful corporate academies expand their reach over to different audiences over time, increasing the number of people they educate and their impact on the business.

Who is the best target learner or departmental focus for you to start with?

Decide which target audience is the best fit for your corporate academy: customer, industry, partner, or employees.

There should be a single focus because each learner will need a vastly different program with different training and content.

The questions below will change dramatically if you focus on your customer versus your employee, so it's necessary to decide this before moving on.


What does success look like for us in our first year, the second year, and beyond?

Every organization might deem success differently. For one organization, it might be to create an in-person training team that travels the country training people at in-person hubs, while others wish to educate the industry and become the “go-to” resource on a specific topic, niche, or methodology.

Defining your success metrics will guide your team toward your vision while also letting them know what results they should focus on achieving.

Once you know what success looks like in the first and second years, double-check it to make sure it's reasonable. When a team knows that something is unreasonable or unrealistic, it's hard to be motivated and inspired to take action.


Do you have resources to support this initiative?

Resources take many forms, but for this question -- consider if you have the budget, time, buy-in, and people to help make this vision a reality.

If you don't have the budget, could you get it? Is there somewhere you can pull from to reallocate to this initiative? You'll need a budget to hire people, purchase equipment for recording webinars or videos, buy a learning management system (LMS), and even potentially market your program. You may not need a budget for all of these when you begin, and education leaders are often accustomed to being scrappy and making the most of the resources available, but it is helpful to have an idea of what might need a budget in the future.

Have you created space for people to invest time in making this work? It's unlikely this will be successful if you give it to people on top of their existing workload. There needs to be dedicated time set aside for people to think, plan, and take action to be successful.

Do you have the appropriate buy-in? Almost every project's success is dependent on whether there is leadership and influencer buy-in. Who do you need to educate, inspire, and gain the approval of before getting started?

The final resource you need is people, which has its dedicated section below.


Do you have the right people “on the bus?”

Building and leading a successful corporate academy requires a unique combination of skills. The business unit’s leaders need to have strong business acumen, program management skills, and an understanding of instructional design basics. 

At SaaS Academy Advisors, we consider Academy leaders like CEOs of a small business unit within the company. To be successful, they need a wide range of skills, such as leading a team to build a high-quality educational product, market it, sell it, iterate on it, and continue to increase its impact over time as the software and industry shifts. "Head of" roles execute almost all customer-facing functions within a business.

While not required to get started, if your goal is to create a transformational education academy for your business truly, you can expect to have the roles and skillsets listed below on a mature academy team:

  • Leader/Director/”Head of”/Manager
  • Program Manager
  • Instructional Designer(s)
  • Curriculum development or content creator
  • Presenter or Faciliator(s)
  • Editors
  • Video production and editing
  • Subject Matter Experts (this can be outsourced to other people internally)
  • Marketing
  • Operations


Are you prepared to make this work?

Academy leaders often ask us, "Will this be successful?” We believe the better question is, “How can you ensure it’s successful?”

Changing the questions will make the difference between your team just dabbling and being determined, trying and doing, failure and success. 

Reflect on whether you’re interested in making it work or prepared to do what it takes to make it work.

 

You've decided to build an Academy; what's next?

Committing to build a corporate academy is a big decision, congrats on making it here!

The quality of your program will be determined by the quality of your thinking.

Below we’ve outlined several areas to consider along with thought-provoking questions to guide your thinking:

Goals

As mentioned above, there can be many target audiences for your training and whomever you decide to target first, will determine which goals you set.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What is the goal of creating this corporate academy?
  • Which business department should it sit within?
  • What other projects are you willing to delay or forfeit to launch this initiative?
  • What are its success metrics?

A note on success metrics, it can be tricky to know when getting started which goals to set for your corporate academy and how they can impact the business.

Below is a graphic we share with clients to help connect the dots on their team goals, how they related to the department they sit within, and how they impact the top-line business metrics. Notice how a customer education-focused educational product has its own goals, which will lead to greater product usage, ultimately improving retention.

how corporate academies impact business goals

Quality standards

Balancing the drive toward your dream Academy while also setting realistic expectations is a skill. Everyone starts somewhere, and the goal of these questions are to help you to define the vision, and what is "good enough" to get started.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What is your dream academy/university? What does it look like?
  • What would be your minimum viable education product (MVEP) to get started?
  • What would be “good enough” for your MVEP? Can it be one-off online webinars, cohort-based ILT, or must it be high-quality on-demand videos? 
  • Do we need an LMS to get started, or is there another low-fidelity way to launch and improve from there?
  • What sacrifices are you willing to make to increase the quality?
  • What sacrifices are you NOT willing to make to increase the quality?
  • What are some metrics (e.g. NPS or qualitative feedback) you could set to determine if the training is adequate for the learner's and the business' needs?


Skillsets

You'll need a wide range of skills to create a corporate academy. Your team is not too different than a marketing team where there are various skills that are often unique (copywriting vs email nurturing), but overlap in their goals.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What skills have you determined you need to get started?
  • Do any of your team members have the skills and/or the drive to figure this out? What can you provide them to be more successful?
  • Where within your current company can you hire from or pull resources from?
  • What skillsets can we outsource to others? Common ones include the actual creation of courses and other instructional design needs.

Time

In most organizations, things need to be done yesterday which is the message you'll likely hear from leadership once you've achieved buy-in for building a corporate academy.

Like with most experimental endeavors, your likelihood of success will be determined by your ability to execute and make progress against timelines.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • In an ideal world, when will your MVP be launched? Is this a realistic expectation? 
  • What part of the process can you outsource to accelerate its completion?
  • How much time are you willing to let pass before investing further?
  • What sacrifices are you willing to make to expedite the launch of your MVP?
  • What sacrifices are you NOT willing to make to expedite the time to launch your MVP?
  • What are the milestones or work that needs to be completed and by what deadlines?


Budget

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How much money can you allocate to this, and where is it coming from?
  • Where areas need the financial investment to begin? People, equipment, LMS, marketing, something else altogether?
  • What are you willing to sacrifice financially to launch it?
  • How will you know it’s worth investing in this Academy further?


Marketing & Integration

Your program’s success will be determined by how many people it reaches and impacts; thus having marketing skills on your team and the ability to integrate it into your existing business processes are essential for growth.

For example, a corporate academy built to educate customers should be added to pre-sales conversations, onboarding processes, suggestions from their customer success rep, in-app for just-in-time help, and more.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Who will be in charge of growing the number of learners?
  • Who will be in charge of integrating this into the business systems and process? How can you ensure their success?
  • What teams do you need to align with that will benefit from integrating your educational content? What are their goals? What goals do you share?
  • What is in it for them to align with you and leverage your corporate academy resource?
  • Who are the departmental managers, leaders, or other influential people that can help make this possible?


Upkeep, Support, and Operations

Depending on the nature of your training, your content might need to be updated frequently. The need for updating your training content especially rings true if you’re a fast-moving software company with training on using the software. 

And similarly, the need for supporting your program and its learners will depend on the number of learners you're educating and the scalable support you set up with the academy from the start.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Who will be in charge of keeping this content up-to-date? What are your initial expectations or requirements? What programmatic progress are you willing to sacrifice to keep it up-to-date?
  • Who will be responsible for supporting it (users' questions, stakeholder questions, etc.)?
  • Who will be responsible for improving processes, operations, and infrastructure to improve scalability over time?


Additional questions based on your target learner:

Customer education-focused

  • Have we found our product-market fit yet?
  • Do we have enough customers to make this a worthwhile investment?
  • How complicated is our product? Does it need training? How do we know?
  • Do we have enough successful customers to know that our product is ready to create more?
  • Do we have successful customers to reference, in case studies and testimonials, to inspire other users to see what’s possible?

Industry-education focused

  • Is our market mature enough to have this need? What’s our potential total addressable market (TAM)?
  • How large is our online footprint today? What does our existing marketing engine look like?
  • How competitive is our industry, and will we be able to compete successfully?
  • What other training or education is out there on our topic, and how will ours be different?
  • Do we have enough resources to ensure this program's success?
  • Do we have a methodology, framework, or a unique perspective to add to the market?
 

How to Get Executive or Manager Buy-In

If you’re an employee wanting to create a corporate academy or university program, you’ll likely need to first get buy-in. 

According to Merriam Webster, buy-in is defined as:

"acceptance of and willingness to actively support and participate in something."

Whether you like it or not, buy-in is an essential part of getting started because it’s how you’ll rally excitement and support for what you’d like to do. It’s virtually impossible to be successful without it. 

To get an idea of what buy-in might look like, look to your organization’s culture for starting new initiatives like this.

Some companies encourage projects outside of the traditional scope of a job function but require them to be done on a nights-and-weekends basis until traction is proven. 

Others might require formal presentations with a manager, director, and VP-level buy-in. 

Regardless of which organization your company is, having a pitch deck for you to share internally with the appropriate stakeholders is essential.

The pitch deck will work as a living document that clearly and succinctly explains the opportunity available for the organization and why it’s worthwhile to spend its limited resources (that would otherwise be spent elsewhere) on this initiative. 

While the pitch deck is there for you to share with executives, managers, and other influencers, it’s also helpful for you as it will act as a forcing function to make it hyper clear to you why this is truly a worthwhile investment. With a pitch deck, you'll speak to your goals better and believe in your plans more, which will increase the likelihood of buy-in.

Regardless of whether you share this presentation, it is worth the time and effort. 

 

Resources to support your journey:

In the beginning, we mentioned that the most common type of corporate academy focuses on customer success since it's less expensive and easier to spin up.

Because of this, most of the research and resources in the market are centered around this type of education and target learner.

However, fortunately, many of the principles of instructional design, content creation, and assessments are the same, making the resources below still pretty helpful.

Scalable education resources:

  1. Customer Education Slack
  2. CElabs podcast
  3. Customer Education examples database
  4. Customer Education experts database
  5. Consulting, advising, or coaching companies. These types of 1:1 resources can be especially helpful when considering:
  • “What strategies are we missing?”
  • "What common pitfalls can we avoid to shorten our learning curve?"
  • “What should we do next?”
  • "How can we grow our program to the next level?"



 

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