09/05/2012 02:18 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Goodbye Corporate University, Hello Amazon Learning

Once considered the great "melting pot" that formed immigrants from numerous different countries into a unified culture, America has, in recent decades, grown not only to recognize but to celebrate the differences among its citizens. It's striking, given our increased appreciation for people's unique contributions to our society, that learning and leadership development models -- programs designed to cultivate, nurture and help sustain talent at big enterprises and small firms alike -- are still mostly viewed as one-size-fits-all. Why?

Maybe because it used to work. After all, the greatest corporate universities have reputations as strong and storied as the best higher education institutions in the nation. In certain circles, GE's Crotonville enjoys the same prestige as Harvard Business School.

But can these established institutions remain the bastion of learning and knowledge in this new era of globalization, fast-paced technological change and constantly disruptive business models? With their focus almost exclusively on classroom learning, fixed topics, a formalistic student-teacher relationship and lockstep planned curriculum, can they train the next generation of leaders, managers and employees with what companies need to succeed in an increasingly competitive and chaotic world?


We need to say goodbye to the traditional methodologies of corporate universities. The key to the future lies with the likes of Google, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon, companies where personalization and mobility is king. These cutting-edge organizations filter countless content options to fit our individual tastes and then deliver them to us wherever we are, whenever we want them. The secret is in the customization. This nimble, precision-targeted strategy has not yet trickled down into our management and training processes -- but it must. And it should begin with our leaders.

Let's take a page from Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. He knows more about his customers than most companies do about their leaders. What began as an early dot-com start-up in a two-bedroom house in Washington state is today the world's largest Internet retailer, anticipating crisis and managing change to see beyond obvious business channels to what the World Wide Web means for customized global commerce. It's well known that Bezos fired his entire marketing team once he realized there wasn't a need to segment his market; rather, he needed an algorithm to determine what people want.

Additionally, Bezos has instilled within Amazon culture a strong belief that making mistakes is an essential part of pursuing new ideas. Everyone is encouraged to have a fearless attitude toward experimentation and the future. This attitude is crucial to Amazon's ongoing success; without it, innovation would wither and die. After all, in today's economic environment, companies are seeking ways to achieve growth through innovation. Recent surveys show that the number of executives who believe in innovation as the key part of their business strategy is higher than 80 percent.

The irony is that today's business leaders are expected to be forward thinkers, visionaries who anticipate and invest in what will grow a company's profits; yet, they are expected to do it with corporate learning and leadership development content and delivery that are neither forward-thinking nor visionary. Outdated models of leadership development will be replaced by an Amazon-like algorithmic approach that capitalizes on individual strengths and leadership techniques tailored to each unique person -- all available anytime, anywhere. This model will not turn you into the next Jeff Bezos. It will do something much more valuable: help you become the great leader that is you.