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5 things today’s leading businesses can learn from universities

Harvard Business School
Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis | Getty Images
Harvard Business School

Colleges are constantly told that they should model themselves after businesses in order to increase efficiency and better prepare students to earn a job after graduation.

But colleges may also have a lot to teach businesses.

Dr. David A. Thomas is the incoming President of Morehouse College and previously served as the Dean of Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and as a Professor at Harvard Business School. He is an expert in preparing students for the business world, but he thinks that businesses have a lot to learn themselves.

"I think in higher education, we have some understandings that might be useful," he tells CNBC Make It.

Here are the five lessons Thomas thinks businesses could learn from colleges:

Thomas with Morehouse students
Thomas with Morehouse students

1. Millennials

"The first is engaging and motivating millennials," says Thomas. While businesses are struggling to recruit and retain millennial employees, colleges are constantly learning how to better serve the needs of this generation and generation Z.

Thomas explains that there are three things that colleges understand about millennials that businesses should clue in on.

First, millennials are looking for a purpose. "If you look at college campuses, it's very clear that young people, like generations before them, come to college wanting it to lead to a successful career stream — but they are also looking for purpose."

"They also have a desire to be what I call 'self-authoring," says Thomas. "Meaning, they want to define who they are and what their identity is away from any category."

Finally, he says that colleges understand how to mentor and develop millennial talent. "We have learned in higher education is that this a group for whom mentoring and role modeling is key to motivating them," he explains. "The old top-down orientation which is characterized as a management practice is not going to be as successful in motivating and retaining millennials."

According to job-site Monster, giant companies like GE, Deloitte and Boeing have made a commitment to mentorship initiatives because they increase employee retention and productivity.

Boeing for instance, pairs all business engineering, HR and IT employees with a mentor at the senior manager or executive level.

2. Sustainability

Thomas says that college sustainability initiatives are "driven by the need to reduce costs and be more economical, but it's also driven by the fact that our primary constituents, millennials and generation Z, value it," he says.

He says that businesses are starting to catch on to these benefits. One company that has stressed a commitment to sustainability is Apple. Apple's new $5 billion campus is meticulously energy efficient.

In a statement, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, "The workspaces and parklands are designed to inspire our team as well as benefit the environment. We've achieved one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the world and the campus will run entirely on renewable energy."

Dr. David A. Thomas
Dr. David A. Thomas

3. Technology

"Third, is using technology to enable lifelong learning and talent development," says Thomas.

One way in which colleges are leveraging new technology is by having students listen to lectures online so that they can participate in hands-on or discussion-based activities in class. "A number of universities have started to engage in something called 'flipping the classroom,"' he says.

He argues that leveraging technology in this way is more productive and efficient, but required colleges to totally re-think how they educate students. Reinventions like these could allow companies to train and retrain their employees more efficiently says Thomas.

Tim Quinlan, Director of Digital Platform for Learning at Intel agrees. "If you're not learning you're dying," he says. That's why employees at companies like Intell and Tesla use online learning platforms like Degreed, EdX and Khan Academy to learn new skills and stay up to date on the newest developments in their fields.

4. Create community

Thomas says that colleges understand that building community has positive externalities.

"Something we have learned through our efforts in fundraising is creating a community around shared interests," he says. "It leads people to invest in school priorities." This same technique has a wide range of applications for businesses, he explains.

For businesses, building community often means higher employee engagement and participation. "That can translate for companies into identifying a shared area of interest that allows employees to build community and contribute," says Thomas.

Companies are catching on to the benefits of building community among their employees and many organizations encourage employees to join groups like company sports teams and book groups.

One of the most collegiate ways that tech companies, in particular, are trying to build community among their employees is through a capella (yes, like that group from college). Dozens of corporate-sponsored teams compete at the annual Techapella competition, including Googapella and Alphabeat (both from Google), The Vocal Network (Facebook), Songbirds (Twitter) and more.

CNBC Tech: Apple Campus 2
Megan Hawkins | CNBC

5. Campus

"The last area is designing campus-like environments that promote high-quality interaction and learning," says Thomas. "I think in the business world, some of the best examples are in Silicon Valley."

Indeed, companies like Facebook, Google and Apple have all made big investments in building offices that promote community, collaboration and socialization. Aesthetically, many of them resemble college campuses.

The similarities between the offices of companies in Silicon Valley and college campuses are not lost on Thomas: "If you look at the way they are designing their businesses, they look a lot like the modern campuses of universities."

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