Universities and International Organisations: a Partnership to Respond to Today’s Training Needs

In today’s fast-developing world, large-scale international and inter-governmental organisations must ensure that their employees have the necessary skills to perform their duties at the highest possible level of competence. This is by no means an easy task. There are several challenges that these organisations must face, including the high level of technical details of the subject matter, the large number of employees that need to undergo training activities, and – last but not least – the amount of resources necessary to plan and execute a coherent training program. An ‘ideal training program’ can be defined as a structured training and upskilling program that has a measurable impact on the workforce, does not take away too much time from the staff’s daily tasks, and is flexible enough to adapt quickly to the changes and innovations happening regularly in the organisation’s field of work.

Additionally, these organisations must face the challenges that broadly affect the learning and training industry, such as the need to rapidly deliver learning solutions that address specific issues, the preference for microlearning and personalised training initiatives, and the disruptions brought by technological innovations.

In general, these organisations have an internal structure dedicated to providing staff members with the right skills to perform their work duties. Even though internal training efforts can yield positive results, these organisations may not always be well-equipped to rapidly address the latest developments in their field or ensure that training initiatives are delivered promptly to large portions of their staff members. Furthermore, especially when considering online training, these organisations may not have the necessary flexibility to keep up-to-speed with the fast pace of innovations in online learning technology. When training demand exceeds these organisations’ internal capacity, the preferred solution is often to outsource the development of training programs to third parties.

Outsourcing to an experienced third party is an effective way to temporarily address some of the challenges listed above. Numerous actors can offer training solutions that respond promptly to certain skill gaps, particularly related to technical and procedural working skills, and leverage the latest technological updates. Normally, these actors also offer monitoring and follow-up services, ensuring that these training programs can be effective over time. However, international and inter-governmental organisations often require tailored training programs on topics that are novel, sectorial, and highly specialised. Addressing these topics requires a profound subject matter expertise, at a level that many of the actors available for outsourcing may not immediately provide. While this factor limits the outsourcing options for international and inter-governmental organisations, it also identifies a type of actor better suited to provide this type of service: universities and similar academic organisations.

As is widely known, universities have been incrementally mobilising a part of their resources to move away from classic undergraduate and graduate studies towards a model that caters to professionals through so-called ‘executive education’ activities. Due to their academic expertise and their networks, universities are exceptionally well-positioned to train professionals in a wide range of fields relevant to international or inter-governmental organisations. This is particularly true in the case of highly specialised knowledge-based or technical training. Generally speaking, universities can be much quicker than other actors in mobilising expert resources who possess a level of familiarity with the contents comparable to that of subject matter experts within the organisations. Additionally, when preparing learning materials, academic experts can leverage their teaching expertise as well as support staff, including learning designers and teaching associates. Finally, universities are experienced in online formats for teaching and learning; in fact, some of them have been at the forefront of the development of e-learning since its early stages.

In sum, universities are better placed than other actors to provide high-quality and high-level training services to international and inter-governmental organisations because they are closer both to scientific evolutions in specific fields and to technical developments in online education. However, for such cooperation to be truly effective, the two partners – the ‘university’ and the ‘institution’ – need to be aligned in a relationship that creates an environment where the training initiative can thrive. This would be particularly evident within the framework of a long-term strategic partnership, a type of cooperation that goes beyond the ‘client-provider’ relationship.

An ideal strategic partnership between an intergovernmental organisation and a university should have at least the following characteristics:

  • The ideal duration of the cooperation, jointly agreed upon by the two parties, should allow enough time not only for developing and running the training offer but also for monitoring outcomes and, if necessary, for implementing updates that either follow the feedback from training participants or reflect the latest changes in the field. The expertise of the university, in conjunction with that of the SMEs from the organisation, would be a key driving factor.
  • The learning outcomes should be shaped jointly by both parties. The organisation can define the learning outcomes from their perspective, focusing on their own business goals and their working expertise in the field, while the university can bring their knowledge of the topic and the pedagogical approach to the table.
  • Similarly, the content design should also be a joint activity by the two parties. In this endeavour, SMEs from the organisation should work closely with content experts from the academic side. The input from the first group is particularly important to ensure that the learning outcomes directly impact the organisation’s work, while the latter is instrumental in placing the course within the necessary theoretical framework. The strong academic expertise of the university, combined with their knowledge of the work practices gained through the development of executive education activities, will be an asset in this endeavour.

Assuming that a partnership takes the form outlined above, what would be the best format for the resulting training initiative? Indeed, the production of a single training course, either on a broad or narrow set of topics, would not be the most efficient solution to maximise the potential of such a partnership. Additionally, it would not align with the demands from learners in today’s professional world who, as described at the beginning of this piece, demand training courses that are concise, scalable, and constantly up-to-date. The format that better responds to these needs is that of a modular course offer, where the combined understanding of the subject matter by the university and the international or intergovernmental organisation can crystallise into multiple short thematic courses on specific matters, perhaps even held at different levels, that can be combined to form tailored training paths that better respond to the needs of each learner.

To conclude, it is worth addressing one of the biggest downsides of this type of partnership, which is the fact that a fruitful relationship between an international organisation and a university cannot be established overnight (or at the same speed as a client-provider relationship) but rather requires nurturing and close exchanges between the two parties to create the perfect conditions for this relationship to flourish. But once it does, the benefits of such a relationship over other types of cooperation, in terms of the quality and effectiveness of the resulting training program, will be evident and long-lasting.

Written for OEB Global 2023 by Jan Trevisan.

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