Are institutions of higher learning providing students with the knowledge and skills that corporations are seeking in employees? In this episode, APU Dean of the School of Business, Dr. Marie Gould Harper, talks to Elena Agaragimova about solutions to build stronger connections between higher education and corporations. Learn how the pandemic has accelerated the need for these partnerships, steps needed to support professional training and development discussions, and the role of technology.
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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Marie Gould Harper. Today, we are going to talk about redesigning higher education. My guest is Elena Agaragimova. I want to take a moment to provide some background information on her. Elena is an engaging skilled trainer and talent development specialists, credited with combining operations, education and international expertise to design and deliver programs for diverse audiences.
She is known for her ability to drive change within individuals, and organizations that are looking to reach their potential and maintain their competitive edge in the business world. She started her career in higher education, having worked across various industries, departments, institutions and regions.
In her recent years, she dove into business and founded the education platform that prepares you for the future, Bloom Youth and co-founded Bessern, an organization that focus on tech solutions for productivity and well-being in organizations. Elena has a strong passion for learning and development, promoting creative and engaging workplaces and all about optimizing performance through the development of others with a keen interest in neuroscience.
As a career and talent development coach, Elena has over 12 years of experience working with individuals across different generations, supporting them in achieving their professional and personal goals. She also recently wrote a guidebook on how to shift yourself and others toward a path to success.
Finally, she is a regular contributor to Forbes, Middle East and various publications and online platforms in the Middle East region. When she is not leading talent transformation, she volunteers her time to help young people with their career development goals. Elena, welcome back to our podcast, and thank you for joining me.
Elena Agaragimova: Thank you. It’s nice to be back.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Recently, there has been news regarding the best way to retool and upskill employees in response to companies moving toward the new norm of operations. We touched base on a couple of the topics when we last spoke, but what do you believe needs to happen in the learning and development field in order to make this transition happen and be successful?
Elena Agaragimova: Great question. Big question. Let’s just look at the way the higher education is shifting, so there’s a couple of things that are coming into play. One, a lot of talk in higher education is the value of face-to-face learning, right? Now, that we’ve experienced the virtual world, and many people are managing it quite well, right? So, on our organizational side and the higher education side, and now that you can potentially get your education from the comfort of your own home, that’s something to think about, right?
The whole idea that these one or two day face-to-face trainings on the corporate side of things, for example, are completely a dying trend simply because it’s not effective, and we’re seeing a similar shift in higher education.
Again, it’s probably not going to go away completely anytime soon, but looking at what alternatives might be coming into the market, which will disrupt the way we do things in our corporations and institutions. And when we have companies like Google that are saying, they’re going to do different programs, I think we’re going to have more and more corporations, especially in the technology field that are going to be coming out, and are going to be creating academies, learning environments, or buying out or partnering up with institutions.
So, let’s imagine, we’re in the DMV area, let’s imagine there’s going to be… I don’t know, a University of Maryland powered by Google. That’s just kind of what’s happening on a larger scale in the market at the moment. And from that, we look at how is this going to affect just the way we educate, whether in corporations, whether in institutions, and we can’t predict the future, but just looking at what’s happening, we can see that there’s going to be a major shift.
And so that is one of the biggest concerns, right? Is how are we going to make sure we maintain our competitive edge within this new sphere that we’re going to be living in as institutions and organizations.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I actually had a podcast and we were talking about the topic of what corporations are going to do. You’re the second person who mentioned that they’re just going to start some things themselves. I’m interested in, in terms of the technology field, do you think these are going to be new companies that are coming into education technology, or established ones that are going to add this particular area to their current portfolios?
Elena Agaragimova: I think it’s going to be a little bit of both, right? So there are a lot of Edtech companies that are coming up. On the same token, there are companies, again, like some of the big names out there in the tech world who are doing this out of necessity. So they are creating these sort of learning environments and talent development pipelines for their own growth, because there is a big gap between what universities offer, traditionally and what these companies may need in terms of their talent.
So it’s almost like these corporations have taken in their own hands and creating these environments where they say, “Listen, you don’t really need that four-year degree. We just need you to be able to code, and we need you to be able to do the software development, for example, or we need you to be really great at this cyber world and we’re going to train you and that guarantees that maybe you’ll stay with us for two, three years.” So it’s a guaranteed talent pipeline almost.
And that’s likely going to become more and more interesting, especially for the Gen Zs that are coming in. Generation Z are already very tech savvy. They are very interested in that brand of the company as well. So they tend to be attracted to the more popular names of more popular corporations, right? So it’s the lesser known ones are probably going to be left behind.
So the whole thing we need to consider is as organizations and institutions, we’re serving customers, and one of our customers is the talent. We want to attract them. And so who is this talent? And these are the Gen Zs coming in. What do they look for? Are they going to look for that traditional sort of education system? Are they going to look for companies to develop them? How are you going to attract that talent?
And I think on the bigger players, it makes sense for them to develop these sort of programs. There’s already a lot of them exist on the smaller Edtech providers, it’s an opportunity as well, because it is a big market. I think there’s a lot of opportunity within this space. We are an Edtech platform, so we’re kind of in this space as well. So, I think it’s both, it will be both, but we just need to keep in mind our customers who are the talent in this case.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Elena, I also wanted to know what are your recommendations to the higher education leaders on how to approach organizations to discuss partnership opportunities? What do you think they need to know?
Elena Agaragimova: I think first step is just awareness, making this a priority. I think that both sides have a lot to benefit from each other. And the thing is that we just need to have these conversations. I’m still just mind-boggled how so many from both sides, corporation and universities have very little contact with one another. It’s very minimal in most cases, right? It’s usually around once a year kind of career fairs or sort of internships, but there needs to be a more strategic sort of conversation that goes on.
But then that also brings another thought is the fact that in some industries, it makes sense for them to talk to institutions. But in other cases, institutions often don’t necessarily create the talent that the corporations look for. What do I mean by that is like the technology companies as higher education, we should be asking ourselves, why are these companies coming out and creating these learning academies when this is what institutions are there for?
So, going to the root cause of the problem is the curriculum. As higher education institutions for us to be attractive to some of these companies, for us to create the talent that they’re going to want to take hands-on, we need to make sure that we are preparing the right opportunities for the students to learn the right sort of curriculum that’s actually going to prepare them for the future work and going to make them really strong candidates in the job market.
It’s not about graduating with the best academic standing, right? That’s important, but it’s even equally important, if not more important, to graduate with a skill set that’s going to help you hit the ground running. And I’m not talking about just the technical skills, soft skills. The soft skills, the top skills that are needed for the future, like critical thinking, creativity, being resourceful, being curious, right? The sort of drive to find information that you need to find.
And in our, work with students, I can tell you that they’re very curious and very interested, but sometimes they don’t know where to go to find this information. And this is where institutions are there to sort of guide them. So I think that it’s a big question, Marie, and at the end of the day, there’s a lot of benefits for the two sides to talk, right? The corporations and institutions, but we need to be asking the bigger question of why is it that we’re not talking as much as we should be?
What is it from each side? Is there something missing on one side or the other? Is it because it’s not a priority? Because we can say, “Yes, let’s go and have this conversation.” But if it’s not a priority of senior leadership on both sides, not just university side or corporate, both sides, leadership needs to understand the priority and the importance of having these conversations and creating that roadway for fresh talent to enter the world of work when they exit the university or even prior to, give them the opportunities to sort of get those regular internships, et cetera, and make it a mandatory thing.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I enjoy your comments. And I’m going to share a story with you and probably have extra question because I hear the question that you’re asking me and I’m sitting over here shaking my head because in 2002, I came over to higher ed full-time on the academic side after being in corporate.
And one of the things that I found intriguing and why I felt I needed to do it was if you don’t want to be a part of the problem and want to be a part of the solution, what are you going to do about it? And me coming over to higher ed full-time was my answer to that question. What I have found is, both segments speak a different language. That’s my personal opinion.
And I think this is an ideal time to have the partnerships, but they have to be speaking about the same things. You have hit the nail on the head with some of your comments. I think what the focus is on is different for higher ed than it is for a corporation.
I was in an interview and I was explaining to the person that I get it, I get it, I know exactly what you are looking for. And I started to share some of the things our School of Business was doing, and that was refreshing to her because most of our conversations with higher education professionals, she leaves frustrated with, I don’t think they get what we’re really asking for.
We’ve talked about skills that students need. We have talked about what we perceive the need to be. Going back to those initial conversations to develop partnership with me sharing that with you, what’s the best way, in your opinion, to get both of these groups to the table and speak a common language?
Elena Agaragimova: No, it’s a big question. And there’s no easy answers. And in my thought, I just keep coming back to the piece of awareness. And it’s like with anything. There’s going to be a group of people on both sides that are just simply not going to see the benefit or they’re not going to make it a priority.
So if anything, I would say if you are an institution that is looking to form these partnerships, what kind of students are you educating? What kind of degrees they’re graduating with and where can they potentially go as their next future career in a corporate world, right? So aligning that because if you’re an institution that does not provide the topics that are very necessary, like cybersecurity or AI or these sort of things, it doesn’t make sense for you to go to corporations that are looking for that talent, because simply you don’t provide that.
So finding your sort of tribe in that space and saying, “Okay, who are the companies that I should be speaking with?” That’s part one, because you already have a common ground that you have talent that you’re educating, that hopefully is going to go into these corporations. So I think industry focus matters here.
And again, it’s like one third of everything in life, right? Only one third of your conversations is actually going to drive somewhere. The other two thirds is not going to make any kind of change. So you focus on that one third of people and organizations and institutions and the people on both sides that get this conversation and understand. So that should be the focus because I think there’s not enough success cases for the rest of the industry to catch on. So I think that if we able to have at least some success cases out there, more and more universities will be more aware and corporations about the benefit of these sort of partnerships. So I think awareness number one, focus, meaning within your industry.
And at the end of the day, it’s about, again, just finding that tribe because the last thing you really want to do at this stage is to have to educate the leadership in a corporate of why this is essential. We should be doing this in general as institutions and promote the sort of forward solution-focused way of thinking.
But at the end of the day, you want to find the audience that is ready to hear what you have to offer. And sometimes people are just not ready to hear that. And I’m hoping that with the whole COVID situation, a lot more institutions are going to be willing to have these conversations, because we’re now realizing that we don’t have a choice.
And now that the market is global, and you’re talking about the new generation of Gen Z, let’s say that are going into corporates, this is very important because these are the group of graduates that have more opportunities than ever before. They can now have access to a global market. They can be anywhere in the world. Why would they choose your corporation or your institution unless you offer them something different?
As an institution and a corporate that are looking to target this generation, because these are your customers, it’s almost inevitable that you need to create opportunities for them that will attract them. And if you’re not doing that, you’re going to lose them and then you’re going to lose your customers. Institutions are not going to have students that are studying with them and corporations are not going to have good talent that’s going to stick with them. So, it’s almost an inevitable conversation that needs to happen. It’s just a matter of, are people aware?
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. And I’m glad that you ended that statement with going back to the awareness, because when you said that, I started to think of a couple of things and remember a couple of situations that I’ve been in. Based on my experience, what I’ve seen, is some organizations may be aware of what they have to offer, but how they got to that point may not be what the corporation needs.
So it’s the skill of, can you receive the feedback from the corporations and then redesign and customize what you have to offer to fit their needs? And that goes into what I think is the second skill that is missing. And that is you have to be able to listen to what they are saying they need, versus giving them what you think they need. Would you agree?
Elena Agaragimova: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s natural, right? Change is difficult. So anytime you’re throwing something at somebody that’s requiring them to change, they go into panic mode. That’s a natural human reaction because we’re not comfortable with change. And when you’re talking about institutions that have been around for ages and ages, change in higher education takes time. And yes, there are a lot of big names that are still doing well through this pandemic, et cetera but you see a lot of the smaller universities and colleges are simply not able to make it through this wave.
And at the end of the day, it comes down to not necessarily changing the whole system. That’s not even, like from my side, that’s not what I’m even aiming at, but let’s make baby steps. Let’s just make micro steps in the right direction. So just because we’re looking to create some sort of different ways for higher education to continue, it doesn’t mean we need to get rid of everything, right?
It’s just alternative options or additional things that we can create that add value to our students and graduates who are, and again, I was just coming back to the fact that they’re are customers. Without your customers, you will not survive. That should be motivation enough, essentially.
But when it comes to making the change, it doesn’t have to be huge. So even if, as an institution, understandably things take time. But what can you do in the meanwhile to create small impact in your institution? For example, if a corporation comes to you and they say, “Well, we feel that the graduates from your institutions do not necessarily have the necessary skills.” Wonderful, find out what those skills are and try to offer alternative little mini, short courses, outsource to external providers to help students develop that missing link, to help them close the gap.
You don’t have to have all the solutions. You don’t have to recreate your whole institution, but find the solution. And again, with access to technology, that solution can potentially be affordable and accessible. I would say, starting with small steps in the right direction, progress is what essentially we all look for. We don’t look for perfection or complete change. We just want progress.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, and I agree. And you’re ending on a note that I believe goes back to the beginning of my original question. And that is, I think, I don’t want to say it’s like a buzz concept, but I believe everyone knows that we have to collaborate. We really have to collaborate and we really want to turn our society, our economic society around and go into this new norm fully prepared.
And I think it’s going to be a matter of multiple conversations and in my opinion, that’s okay because building good partnerships and relationships in my experience, it takes time. It’s not an immediate fix. It’s getting to know each other and trying to figure out what’s going to work in your particular situation. What are some of the challenges that you have found in the work that you do with your organizations?
Elena Agaragimova: One of the biggest, I guess, is it seems that what we see is that the conversation around change needs to happen has definitely accelerated in the last year and a half because of the pandemic. So two years ago, when we’re coming into institutions and we’re saying, “Listen, what’s your curriculum look like? You really need to start having conversations with these corporations and let us introduce you,” et cetera, they weren’t as keen to listen because priorities were different and everything was going fine and they were operating as normal.
When the pandemic happened, I think a lot of people had a reality check on institutional and corporation side because what happened on the institution side is like, “Okay, we are not able to keep some of our students. We realize that students are questioning, ‘Do I really want to spend the money to actually be this a university or should I just do something online?'”
On top of that, the technology companies are throwing in different academies, which is also a competition to some of the higher education institutions. On a corporation side, they realized that the talent they have is not adaptable. They’re not ready to necessarily adjust to whatever’s happening in the job market, which questions they’re upskilling possibilities, right? So, this is another place where institutions can help, right? Is how can institutions help with upskilling of not only students, but employees and organizations as well.
So, that conversation is happening more and more now, and both sides are willing to hear us out. But then, it still goes back to a couple of other challenges. One, either there is not the right sort of contact at either one of these that can drive this initiative forward. And that comes usually from senior leadership. So one of the biggest obstacles is the fact that senior leadership doesn’t see this as a priority. So for us, if senior leadership is not in the meetings that we’re having, we almost don’t have this conversation because there’s no point.
So although the managers on the ground that are doing the work and trying to initiate these things might see the benefit and they want to make it happen, if the senior leadership is not on board, it’s a waste of everybody’s time, frankly speaking. It’s very difficult to get things moving. So, senior leadership is one challenge. We see the shifting, but still, if the senior leadership doesn’t see this as a priority, it’s very difficult to make any sort of change.
On top of that, sometimes there’s not a specific person dedicated to innovation in how things are done. So there’s either not a person who’s dedicated or there’s too many people dedicated. Universities are infamous for committees. The biggest blocker is committees. We need to have a committee for everything, 10 to 12 people until everybody agrees, which slows everything down.
And in corporate world and in higher education, if only we could apply this lean, startup methodology, this experimental, this agile kind of way of doing business, where you just kind of experiment, you go through many experiments frequently to see what might work for you. If we’re able to implement this methodology in everything that we do, we’re much more likely to be successful.
Because the worst thing we can do is to delay and wait, because the longer we delay and some of these conversations take months and months, sometimes years to make a change. By the time you make a decision, there’s going to be another change coming, which is why a lot of institutions are behind in their curriculum because they know that they need to implement certain things.
They understand, but because of the way the structure is set up, they’re almost creating their own obstacles. Instead, dedicate one person or one small team that just goes and just runs with these ideas, implements experiments. That is how you get results, not by having conversation after conversation.
Maybe this would have worked five years ago or even two years ago. Today, those institutions are likely to be left behind because the world of work is going too fast and there’s too much competition coming in in terms of online learning, micro learning, self-guided learning, et cetera.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I like what you just said. I think that is something that, especially those of us who have been, or currently working in, higher ed and have had the experience of corporate need to always hammer down on the higher education environment. And that is the rate of change when corporations feel as though that they’re being under attack. It usually moves quicker than it does on a regular daily basis. And I think we’re in that type of environment.
So many businesses have struggled to stay afloat that they’re going into the “interim economy” trying to figure out and real quick what needs to be done. So, I think that’s going to be, I don’t want to say an obstacle, but an area that needs to be addressed when we try to develop these partnerships. We have two cultures that are trying to work together.
The other thing is I have a saying, “Time will not stand still for anyone.” And you hit on that when you made the comment about competition is coming in quick. And when the competition comes in, they have ideas and they’re ready to try them out. They don’t have these committees that we have in higher ed. They’re going to move out as soon as that idea is birthed.
Hopefully, there will be some beginning partnerships where people just get to network and know one another to see what they can work on together. I think that will be an ideal situation, especially for our organizations that are not used to working with another entity that has a different mindset.
But I think we’re headed for a good thing, a good thing, and a good time of change where we can learn from one another, assist each other with coming up with new ideas, that will fit into the new norm. So I’m still very hopeful. I don’t know about you that we can come to some type of solution, but it may not be the one that we think it’s going to be.
Elena Agaragimova: Yeah, no. I’m super optimistic. If anything, I see so much opportunity. I just feel very strongly about this topic. So, it might come off as if it’s all doom and gloom, but it really isn’t. So I’m hoping that if the listeners take away anything is that there’s opportunity here.
And another important factor here is that right now, if you look at some of the talent acquisition part, it’s usually hosted under HR. So, not many organizations, unless they’re the big multinationals, have a specific dedicated team for these sort of activities. So let’s be fair, right?
So a lot of times HR are leading on these things as they’re doing other things. So this is one of the small parts of their overall jobs, which makes it very difficult for them to keep up because this is a full-time job to somebody. And I’m still surprised at how many organizations don’t have proper learning and development structures in place that are able to handle the amount of challenges that might be coming their way, right? So, that’s one thing.
On the higher education side, oftentimes you have one counselor, I think that’s the average in like most large institutions across the US and even in other parts of the world, there’s one counselor per like 300 or 400 students or something like that. I don’t know. I forget. Maybe I’m getting my stats wrong, but it’s crazy numbers that this one counselor is supposed to manage with the students. And usually that same counselor, will be responsible for career fairs, will be responsible for corporate relations, will be responsible for alumni relations.
Again, having a dedicated person, that’s going to make this their sort of day in, day out type of work. This is also essential because we can’t expect that a career counselor is also going to be organizing corporate events and et cetera. It’s just not manageable. And this is, again, goes back to senior leadership. Do they see this as a priority? Do they have the budgets for the human resources to be able to place somebody in these very important roles?
So this is important to point out. So it’s not all the fault of necessarily of these departments, but sometimes they’re just overworked, underpaid and undersupported. And it’s very difficult to make change if you don’t have the backup of the whole organization or the whole institution who can buy into this is why we’re doing this.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. It’s sad and unfortunate and I’m wondering if companies are going to keep to this same practice, but in the past, anytime an organization went through a downturn, if something had to be cut, the money was always cut from training and development. Now, to me, that does not make sense because if you’re trying to reposition yourself to go in a new direction, it would seem to me that you would want your employees to be as prepared as possible and that’s training and development. So, it never made sense to me that you would cut that budget first.
But what we are experiencing right now with the pandemic, I am hopeful that a lot of organizations will understand that they’re going to have to do something from within first and that means the development of their employees. Therefore, cutting the budget of T&D may not make as much sense as it has in the past.
So I’m hoping that’s going to be the case. I haven’t seen anything out there. Have you seen any recent articles about education and learning and the future direction? I know there’s a couple of organizations that’s devoted to this particular field, but I haven’t seen any articles on that particular topic question.
Elena Agaragimova: So, yeah, you’re absolutely right on the part of the cutting of budgets, but one of the biggest things when it comes to employee retention, it comes down to engagement of employees. And not just engagement as, let’s all have a happy hour every couple of weeks, or let’s all have, I don’t know, a get together, a team activity. That’s not engagement. It’s very small part of engagement, but furthermore, we need to focus on the experience of employees and of our students as well, so on both sides, right?
So experience matters. And part of that experience is how is that person developing and growing within the company? Yes, usually the budgets get cut first when it comes to training and development, but at the end of the day, your people is what drives the business. If you’re not providing them the support and the knowledge and education, the mentoring, the coaching that they need to be successful, then you’re not doing your job as a leader. A leader is somebody who removes the obstacles, supports, opens doors, creates opportunities for their people to grow, develop, and drive the business forward.
One of the biggest reasons people leave is because they just feel that they’re just part of this number. They clock in, clock out type of thing. There’s no purpose. Their personal and professional goals are not aligned with organizational goals because the organization doesn’t take time to invest and audit, spend the time with their individual team members to understand what does this person want? What is the intrinsic motivation for being with this company, right? How can I get the best out of this person? And the way you do it is by aligning their personal growth and professional curiosity with your company’s growth. And this can be done at a very affordable, so it doesn’t need to have these ridiculous numbers next to them.
Right now, I think companies are spending globally or as of 2017, I think it was a McKinsey report from 2017 and I’m pretty sure this number is quite similar across board. They spend $395 billion, multinationals globally, every year on learning and development. $395 billion is spent on learning and development. And a lot of that money could be saved and spent in a more effective way, right? And with technology, we’re able to do that.
So before you would pay a ridiculous amount of money for a trainer for them to come, so you’re going to fly the trainer. You’re going to pay for their hotel for their stay and all of that. You’re going to rent a room in a hotel room or sort of rent a conference room, or some kind of a hall where you’re going to bring your employees. And you’re going to spend a lot of money, and that’s understandable if you want to cut that kind of budget, but it doesn’t mean you should stop learning and development in your organization. And technology makes it accessible, right?
So, we have beautiful platforms that are now available. We have micro learnings strategies that you can implement in your organizations where people can learn on their own time at the comfort of their home. You don’t need to pay all these extra ridiculous fees for trainers to come over and train your people.
And at the same time, again, with technology, you’re able to have these interactions, this human face-to-face interactions when people need support the most, you can do this virtually at a minimum, at one third of the cost of what maybe a corporation used to pay.
And the biggest thing, if anybody’s listening to this, takes away from all of this is that if you’re able to help the individual, the student, whoever your customer is, essentially, if you’re able to align their personal and professional aspirations with your company’s growth, you got a golden formula because a person who’s excited and motivated and feels fulfilled and has a purpose when they show up to your working space, it’s almost guaranteed they’re going to do a good job.
This needs investment, this kind of investment is something that’s a must for our businesses to grow. And again, it can be at one third of a cost of what we’re used to paying because of access to technology and all these different platforms and tools that we have access to now.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I think you did what you were trying to achieve. You did come up with some solutions. I think they were some good places to start and I think you have given a number of leaders on both sides something to think about.
I want to thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your expertise. I think you did an excellent job. This is a topic that both of us are very passionate about. And every time I have a conversation with you, I look at things from a different perspective. So thank you.
Elena Agaragimova: Thank you. Likewise, and I love your questions and they get me to think, and now this is going to be my homework for the weekend is I just realized there are so many more solutions that we have yet to come up with and that we have to experiment with. And that’s what we do. And I think that’s what everybody should be doing is let’s collaborate to really experiment and see what works and share what works.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. I’m like you. I’m optimistic that they are out there. We just have to be willing to come to the table and share through collaboration. We have been speaking with Elena Agaragimova. This is Marie Gould Harper thanking you for listening to our podcast today.