Six years ago, executives at professional services consulting firm Deloitte LLP began exploring ways to enhance the company's investment in training and development. After talking to the firm's recruiting officers on U.S. college campuses, leaders realized the high value new graduates and younger employees placed on training and development.

This revelation started a great "bricks or clicks" debate within the organization: Should the company invest considerable resources in a physical facility or simply increase its investment in virtual training? The majority of Deloitte partners felt strongly that a physical facility was the way to go because it would positively enhance workplace culture. Leaders then took the same question to its professionals, with a special emphasis on Generation Y employees. "Overwhelmingly, it came back that they wanted a physical facility, and they felt that the culture opportunity, not to mention the training, through a physical facility was unmatched," says Bill Pelster, managing partner, talent development at Deloitte.

So, in 2008, at the beginning of the economic downturn, Deloitte took the bold step of spending $300 million to open Deloitte University.

DU's campus is in Westlake, Texas, just outside Dallas-Fort Worth. The 700,000-square-foot training center sits on 107 acres, boasts 800 guestrooms, 35 classrooms, a fitness center, running trails and social venues, an amphitheatre and a ballroom. The company estimates DU will host up to 45,000 visitors each year.

One thing you won't find at DU is a traditional lecture hall. The programs are designed, as much as possible, to impart learning in a simulation-based environment. Pelster likens it to a flight simulator.

"Pilots spend a lot of time outside the simulator preparing for those two or three hours when they're going to be in the simulator practicing all those skills and see them come to life," he says. "And they've got a coach inside that simulator who's advising them on the procedures they took and what they could have done better, and different ways to look at the problem."

Employees who attend DU do some precourse work in preparation, and then when they're there, they're immersed in two to three days of intense simulation where they're working on complex problems.

"Almost all of the programs at DU are designed to bring people in, to set up the problem and then for the next two to three days, under the watchful eyes of coaches and facilitators, to work through the most complex issues our clients are facing today," says Pelster. "It's a chance for our practitioners to practice those skills, work with coaches, to really get a chance to collaborate and stretch those academic muscles before they go and apply them at a client site."

In addition, the majority of programs bring together people who might not normally work together. "They're designed to bring people together across the normal business silos that exist in any organization and break down those barriers and allow people to team in ways they don't normally team," says Pelster.

 

Real-life experience

Michelle Gallagher is a multistate tax manager in Deloitte's Parsippany, N.J., office. She's been with the firm for six years. Deloitte's multistate group holds an annual conference, which in 2011 was held at DU. She calls her recent stint at DU the "most valuable experience of my career," saying the training was interactive, hands-on, real-to-life and provided lots of networking opportunities.

Gallagher believes the DU experience is a benefit for employees in two ways: "When you come back from training, you're energized," she says. "And it truly shows you the company cares about its people."

She described one session in the ballroom with 17 different stations set up. Over the course of an hour or so, employees could visit up to five stations that interested them. "So, if you wanted to learn about a particular industry, for example, or something going on in a particular state, you could do that," she recalls. "You'd get a rundown from a partner about the hot topics in that area."

This fiscal year, Deloitte will offer 239 courses at DU. The facility will handle about 1 million of the 4 million learning hours Deloitte offers its employees each year. New employees will visit DU within 90 days of joining the firm. That's important not only from a training perspective, but also from a cultural perspective, says Pelster, "to help them understand the firm they've joined and the value we place on working in teams."

In fact, Deloitte refers to DU not only as its training center but also as its cultural center. As more employees go through DU, the experience will become common to all employees. "Given how virtual our professionals are, that they travel quite a bit and spend a lot of time at client sites, DU will be the one shared common experience that Deloitte professionals will have," notes Pelster.

As individuals are promoted at key milestones in their careers, they'll be invited back to DU. Or they may be invited back for specialized programs or industry training. On average, Pelster expects employees to attend DU every two to three years throughout their career. "It's going to be a regular tempo where people will come back to DU to practice their business skills in a creative way," he says.

Pelster also believes DU will help Deloitte stand out among its competitors, noting that, in the past, what Deloitte could offer relative to other professional services firms was about the same. Now, with DU, "not only will you learn your technical profession when you come here, but we will train you to be a business leader. We'll help you broaden your knowledge to really understand complex client problems and teach you how to interact with executives," says Pelster. "That message on college campuses has resonated and has started to differentiate us from competitors when we go after the same talent."

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