Apple has long been in the educational market, but now the educational market is working its way into Apple
The company has hired Joel Podolny to helm an internal “Apple University” program. Podolny was most recently the head of the Yale School of Management (note that his bio had him there until October). Before that, he was at the Harvard Business School and taught sociology to the larger Harvard population; and even earlier, he taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, so there’s a connection to the greater Cupertino area.
Apple is being tight-lipped about the what, where, who (aside from Podolny), why, and so on of its new University program. All an Apple representative would say is that the company is “thrilled that he’s joining our team to lead an exciting new project.” But similar in-house learning institutions have long been in place at corporations such as McDonald’s (Hamburger U.) and—what a coincidence!—Pixar Animation Studios. Pixar, you’ll recall, was co-founded by Steve Jobs before his return to Apple as CEO.
Of course, MickeyD’s and Pixar are vastly different companies in structure, product and staffing, and the two “university” programs at each company reflect that. The former focuses on management training and includes, admirably, a college degree program, while the Pixar operation offers courses focused on creative skills, allowing even bookkeepers to learn the theory and technical details involved in Pixar’s style of filmmaking.
Since Apple isn’t saying much about the content and goals of Apple U., I have to speculate a bit about what’s up here. Stepping back from the specifics, it’s important to note that Silicon Valley companies have often relied on employee churn: It’s not uncommon for engineers, managers and workers at all levels to jump from company to company to educational institution and back to the original company. Rinse. Repeat. In fact, as evidence of that churn, Apple is now facing a lawsuit for hiring Mark Papermaster, a former vice president at IBM, and a judge has ordered that Papermaster not begin working at Apple until the fight is resolved. Perhaps the Apple U. project simply reflects bad economic times. Anyone paying attention of late knows the economy’s headed down, IT spending is off, and a lot of tech workers are getting nervous. I’m no management expert, but maybe cutting staff and then having to hire new people when times improve isn’t as cost-effective as training (or retraining) existing employees. Or maybe this is a bid to keep that employee churn to a minimum, the better to avoid watching all of that institutional knowledge constantly walking out the door. Or perhaps this is merely another, though oddly timed, Silicon Valley perk—similar to a gourmet cafeteria or packs of roving massage therapists. (Note to self: Need to track down one of those.)
There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of relevant new talent Apple could draw from, either in the industry or in the region—hardware, software and tech service companies have cut loose thousands of workers—and both the Pixar and McDonald’s examples aren’t about training people from scratch, either.
One thing those two have in common, though, is the goal of enhancing existing employees. There are examples of a PR assistant at Pixar taking in-house courses and moving to the 3-D rendering team, while at the same time retaining and expanding his share in the Pixar culture. And at Hamburger U, a promising line cook can get professional management training on his way to becoming a loyal—and company-trained—manager.
At Apple U, you may not see wholesale career changes, but it can’t be a bad idea to have various teams learn more about what others do and why (though, one assumes, doing so without the potential security risks to Apple’s famous industrial secrecy). After all, Apple is the exception in the PC industry in that it builds the whole widget, from motherboard designs to external casings to the OS to the final packaging.
Perhaps there’s a simpler reason for the arrival of Apple U. Jobs has long relied on close, long-term connections up at—well, near—his rarefied level. You don’t see annual shuffles at the senior VP level the way you do at some computers-as-commodity companies. Perhaps Apple U is being built as one way to keep familiar faces around even at lower corporate levels.
[Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications, including Salon, eWeek , MacWeek and The New York Times.]