It used the be the case that you could go to an ivy league university, and you’d be a guaranteed top pick in a pool of job applicants. However, a changing market place includes the very real fact that today’s top companies are now looking at a very strong alternative to the ivy league contender. Corporate universities, like Apple University, are becoming equally (if not more) attractive for today’s top recruiters. There are three elements we need to look at the understand this shift in this thought leadership: (1) why is this happening, (2) what are corporate universities doing to draw such a wide appeal, and (3) how can the small business owner benefit from this.

Why We’re Seeing a Backlash Against Ivy League

In a recent article titled “Business Innovation: Why ‘Work-Play’ is a Winning Strategy,” I talked about how a classic institution like Oxford was being turned on its head by TED:

“Let’s take a look at two examples. The first is TED Talks, and the other is Oxford University. The underlying difference between these two idea tanks is that TED talk ideas circulate more virally and are more often referenced than just about any Oxford lecture you can recall. Sure, Oxford has the prestige but TED does the one thing Oxford never could: it plays. The Economist recently looked at how Ted revolutionized the ideas industry, adding that “TED has done more to advance the art of lecturing in a decade than Oxford University has done in a thousand years.” Oxford, on the other hand, takes itself very seriously.”

In a culture driven by innovation, we’re seeing that the older models of learning are too saturated in convention to adopt creative and flexible new methods of thinking. That’s one reason. The other reason, according to several recent blog posts on the subject, is that (a) ivy leagues dull the creativity out of people and (b) their unique grading standard doesn’t reflect the student. In short, institutions renowned for the status quo, that provide an ability to drop classes at the last minute and not have D’s and F’s reflected in a GPA, can’t produce an a educational climate that mirrors the real world.

The Apple Example: What Corporate Universities Are Doing Right

Corporate universities, like Apple U, are highly competitive by leveling the playing field with an all-star faculty. Apple University, for example, was a program created by Joel Podolny – the dean of Yale School of Management who was hand-picked by Steve Jobs. Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt recently wrote a piece titled “Apple University hires another high-profile academic,” in which he described Apple U as a stealth operation. According to DeWitt, Apple has successfully “created a kind of in-house MBA program by Steve Jobs, a self-taught business leader who made no secret of his distaste for conventional MBAs.” He continues with how Podolny in turn hired Harvard’s Richard Tedlow. As DeWitt describes, “one of the preeminent U.S. business historians…[who] after 23 years at Harvard, left in 2011 without so much as press release.” And most recently, DeWitt shares how the university has always hired Morten T. Hanse, labeled a “rising star at UC Berkeley’s School of Information.”

Apple U understands the need to not only preserve Job’s visionary thinking, but also the need to widely adopt the values Jobs placed in the product and services Apple provided. In order for the company to continue to thrive, there needed to be what I, in another post, called a “mini-me” … or in this case, a potential hundred new Steve Jobs.

Yet Apple isn’t the only company that’s favoring a new way to learn. Seb Murray of Business Because, in an article titled “Business Shun Business Schools for ‘Corporate Universities,’” names at least three other companies who have ditched business schools to develop their own “in-house training schemes…[because business schools] cannot work on the culture or the identity of the organization.”

What This Means for the Small Business Owner

DeWitt describes how 800 out of 70,000 Apple employees are currently in a leadership position or are primed to be potential future leaders. That may seem like a high number, but it’s really about 1.142% of employees. Still, 800 shows that the company is serious about priming future leaders, which most small businesses fail to do.

In addition to distinguishing leaders from “good workers”, business owners also need to look to a wider variety of pools for their next star talent. Someone with an ability to teach themselves different software skills and take on challenging projects, for example, is probably more valuable than the college graduate with the 4.0.

Finally, consider that most of the attendees at Apple U are already graduates, which means that you’re never really done learning when the business landscape keeps shifting. In order to stay relevant, you need to continue developing star employees through training initiatives that can include online universities, corporate universities, and even university extension courses.