Knowing he wouldn't be around forever, Apple CEO Steve Jobs created Apple University, an internal education program to help employees learn Apple's business culture and its history. First mentioned in Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs, Apple University was profiled in The New York Times yesterday.
Institutional knowledge is invaluable at large companies. Not everything fits easily into a transition memo or a job description — corporations need to have some method in place to guarantee that corporate culture and values are not lost to turnover and the passage of time.
In Apple's case, the company offers classes focusing on more traditional business school talents. One class helps leaders of companies acquired by Apple to better integrate into the company. Others teach company-specific case studies, including how Apple decided to make iTunes and the iPod work on Windows, a pivotal moment in company history.
Ensuring that newer employees know the lessons of the past helps Apple avoid making the same mistakes twice. According to The New York Times report, one class called "What Makes Apple, Apple" compared the Apple's TV's minimalist remote control (with just three main buttons) to a 78-button monstrosity that Google launched for a competing product.
"How did Apple's designers decide on three buttons? They started out with an idea, Mr. Nelson explained, and debated until they had just what was needed — a button to play and pause a video, a button to select something to watch, and another to go to the main menu.
"The Google TV remote serves as a counterexample; it had so many buttons, Mr. Nelson said, because the individual engineers and designers who worked on the project all got what they wanted. But, Apple's designers concluded, only three were needed."
With Apple closing in on 100,000 employees worldwide — though half of that is in the company's retail division — keeping the corporate culture intact will be a key job for CEO Tim Cook over the next decade. When Jobs took over in 1996, Apple was a fraction of the size it is now, and it was easier for executives to ensure that all employees were executing on the right things.
Now, putting new and existing employees through classes at Apple University will help ensure that the company continues to execute properly in the future.
Apple University is run by Joel Podolny, formerly the head of Yale University's School of Management. He was personally selected by Jobs when the program was formed in 2008.
The classes are recommended but not required, according to The New York Times report, but "getting new employees to enroll is rarely a problem."
Other companies, really both large and small, should look at forming some sort of internal education curriculum to help new hires and existing employees realize the vision for the company — both for where it's going, and how it got to where it is today.
It doesn't have to be as organized as Apple University, but preserving the best parts of corporate culture is extremely important to growing companies. As an analyst said in The New York Times piece, ingraining Apple's unique culture in employees "becomes very difficult the bigger you get."
Does your company offer ways to help new employees learn about corporate culture, or is it more informal? Let us know in the comments below.
Jordan Golson is an Apple Columnist for TechRepublic. He also writes about technology and automobiles for WIRED and MacRumors. He has worked for Apple Retail twice and has been writing about technology since 2007.