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Apple University revealed as plan to teach executives to think like Steve Jobs

A secretive "Apple University" program that the company initiated in 2008 has been clarified to be a way to teach executives to emulate and perpetuate the successful strategies of Steve Jobs.

In October of 2008, AppleInsider reported that Apple had hired Joel Podolny, the dean of Yale University's School of Management. While rumored serve as the new dean of an "Apple University," it wasn't clear what that position would be expected to accomplish.

A letter from Yale president Richard Levin only noted that Podolny would be leaving to "lead educational initiatives at Apple."

A followup report in November 2008 cited a source who stated that the new Apple University was "intended broadly as an HR type function for developing leadership and other required skills and knowledge within the organization."

The program was compared to both internal MBA programs that are common among corporations, and specifically a "Pixar University" program that enabled any employes to avail themselves of training at Jobs' parallel company.

"Obviously Steve Jobs knows about this concept," a former Pixar intern told AppleInsider, "but I wonder if he finally decided to tie together and probably expand a lot of separate parts of employee enrichment at Apple much like they have at Pixar under the University banner with a dean; in Pixar's case, Dean Randy Nelson. Wouldn't be at all shocked if Apple mirrored Pixar's healthy and successful model."

Apple University head Joel Podolny.

A "closely guarded project"

A new report by the LA Times notes that Apple University involves "a team of experts hard at work on a closely guarded project."

Apple does not comment on the program, but the report cited "a former Apple executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his relationship with the company," as stating, "Steve was looking to his legacy. The idea was to take what is unique about Apple and create a forum that can impart that DNA to future generations of Apple employees.

"No other company has a university charged with probing so deeply into the roots of what makes the company so successful."

Citing people familiar with the project, the report says Jobs personally recruited Podolny and assigned him the task of helping Apple to "internalize the thoughts of its visionary founder to prepare for the day when he's not around anymore."

Avoiding a move HP Way-ward

Jobs' vision for Apple University appears grounded in a respect for the culture created by Bill Hewlett and David Packard, the founders of HP, who Jobs expressed admiration of on multiple occasions. That mindset, called the HP Way, involved "choosing the right things to do" and sharing a common set of elevated values.

Jobs worked for HP as a summer intern after writing Hewlett as a 12 year old eight grader to request parts to build a frequency counter. Hewlett provided the young Jobs with parts and helped him to assemble the device, then offered him a job.

Jobs' subsequent trajectory with Apple Computer brought him into regular, close contact with the HP founders; Jobs himself noted that he felt like he had failed to carry the torch handed him by the generation represented by HP's founders after being ousted by Apple in the mid 1980s.

But Jobs also observed the gradual erosion of the "HP Way" as the company he once admired was taken over by Carly Fiorina, then run into the ground during and after her departure by the HP board of directors, not just in performing poorly but also losing its vision and its values.

HP's failure as a company reached epic proportions this year when the company announced it would spin off its PC division and kill its brand new webOS hardware group to become something else entirely, before flopping back on those decisions by removing its less than a year old chief executive and replacing him with a board member.

Apple University intends to codify and preserve the culture Jobs established at Apple, training its executive team to adopt "tenets that he believes unleash innovation and sustain success at Apple — accountability, attention to detail, perfectionism, simplicity, secrecy," the report notes.

"And he oversaw the creation of university-caliber courses that demonstrate how those principles translate into business strategies and operating practices."

Inventing an Apple Way

As AppleInsider reported three years ago, Jobs began modeling the Apple University concept upon Pixar University, "a professional development program that offers courses in fine arts and filmmaking as well as leadership and management to steep employees in the company's culture, history and values as well as its craft."

Jobs began searching for academics to lead the program five years ago, but accelerated his search in 2008 after his second medical leave. Podolny is described as "an accomplished scholar and administrator whose resume includes teaching at two of the nation's top business schools, Stanford and Harvard" and "is an economic sociologist who focuses on leadership and organizational behavior."

Prior to joining Apple, Podolny revamped Yale's School of Management, scrapping its individual courses in accounting and marketing to create multidisciplinary programs. He was expected to become a university president when he abruptly announced plans to leave to join Jobs at Apple.

"While there are many great companies," Podolny wrote students at his departure, "I cannot think of one that has had as tremendous personal meaning for me as Apple."

He recounted creating his first programs on the Apple II and producing his undergrad thesis on a LaserWriter at a glacial seven minutes per page.

Thus, while working to deliver his vision for mobile computing devices and pervasive cloud computing, Jobs also set in motion the means to preserve the very thinking and values that enabled Apple to produce its hit products over the past several years, and to continue to maintain that competency well into the future.