In his provocative book, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, Nelson Lichtenstein invokes Peter Drucker's pioneering exploration of General Motors (GM) in describing how every era has its "industry of industries."
When Drucker published Concept of the Corporation in 1946, Lichtenstein notes, automobile makers were dominant, and GM was the king of kings. Today, he explains, it's "the retailers, Wal-Mart above all," that have "set the standard for a new stage in the history of corporate capitalism."
It is precisely because Wal-Mart (WMT) occupies this prominent, if not preeminent, place that its announcement this month about providing assistance for its workers to receive college degrees struck me—and surely would have struck Drucker—as potentially of great significance. Just how great remains to be seen.
At a glance, it's actually tempting to dismiss this effort, for which Wal-Mart says it will spend $50 million in tuition assistance and other related items over the next three years, as less than ideal. Under the arrangements the Bentonville (Ark.) company has made with American Public University, employees can receive course credit, equivalent to as much as 45 percent of what it takes to earn a degree, for Wal-Mart training and "on-the-job learning." By 2012, 70 percent of Wal-Mart's 1.4 million U.S. workers will have had their jobs reviewed for "college credit eligibility."
Some will certainly see this as a strange way to promote learning. Why, after all, give credit for training and tasks that a Wal-Mart worker was going to be doing anyway?
Others are bound to attack this aspect of the Wal-Mart program as an attempt by the company to make a huge PR splash with relatively little investment. Although Wal-Mart embraced health-care reform and has become widely praised for its environmental practices, the low-price purveyor remains a polarizing force.
"Over the last few years, we've built a model for making a big difference on big issues," Wal-Mart's chief executive, Mike Duke, said recently. "We are well into this journey now. No one can doubt our sincerity." Actually, many do doubt the company's sincerity, continuing to see it, in Lichtenstein's words, as the leading example of a group of corporations that "churn their workforce, whipsaw their vendors, and have turned retirement pay and health provision into a financial lottery for millions of workers."
Promise of the Internet
But at least in terms of this latest educational initiative, I think Drucker would have been open to Wal-Mart's approach. For starters, he probably would have liked Wal-Mart's decision to link up with American Public, an online education company in West Virginia, instead of a better-known academic partner.
Drucker never much cared for the hauteur exhibited by elite colleges and universities, and he saw tremendous promise in teaching over the Internet. "The college won't survive as a residential institution," Drucker predicted in the late 1990s. "Today's buildings are … totally unneeded." In Wal-Mart's own survey of employees, more than two-thirds told the company they preferred an online university to a traditional campus.
Yet most intriguing to Drucker, I believe, would have been this notion of marrying corporate training and people's regular work routines with more formal instruction from American Public.
Wal-Mart says that the advantage to employees of racking up credits in such subjects as retail inventory management and customer relations while on the job is that it will put them "on a faster track to earning a college degree, reducing their length of time in school, and making the overall cost more affordable."
But that is missing the larger opportunity here. If coursework and regular work are integrated in a smart and thoughtful manner, each stands to reinforce the other, helping Wal-Mart's employees learn from both in new ways.
The Intellectual vs. the Manager
Too often, we consider learning to be something done stiffly, in a classroom. But that's silly. "Learning is a continuing biological process," Drucker said. "It begins at conception and ends only at death. We further know that learning is not an activity of one specific learning organ—the mind or the intellect. It is a process in which the whole person is engaged: the hand, the eye, the nervous system, the brain."
Being able to use all of these assets, Drucker suggested, will increasingly come to define "the educated person." More and more, he wrote in his 1993 book Post-Capitalist Society, we are going to "have to be prepared to live and work simultaneously in two cultures—that of 'the intellectual,' who focuses on words and ideas, and that of the 'manager,' who focuses on people and work.
"The intellectual's world, unless counterbalanced by the manager, becomes one in which everybody 'does his own thing' but nobody achieves anything. The manager's world, unless counterbalanced by the intellectual, becomes the stultifying bureaucracy of the 'Organization Man.' But if the two balance each other, there can be creativity and order, fulfillment and mission."
Whether Wal-Mart succeeds will depend not simply on how many of its workers become college graduates, but on whether it has found a way to blend education for a new age—one in which doers must also be thinkers, and vice versa.