As engineering and construction firms have expanded their global footprints with new project sites and cross-border acquisitions, company "universities" are traveling along.

The geographic reach has broadened firm expertise, and technology has enabled better knowledge delivery and sharing.

But firms also face new challenges in training a more dispersed workforce, from added cost and tougher logistics to subtle cultural barriers that can impede global learning and adherence to the corporate culture. The push for employees to understand the grayer areas of new safety, diversity and ethics rules adds to the complexity.

Companies' rapid growth has accelerated the training mission. For Australia-based engineer Cardno LLC, now with 8,000 staff working from 290 offices on projects in more than 85 countries, a key mission "is developing globally consistent core-business skills across our staff," says James Hanson, group manager of Cardno University, its global learning platform.

Lori S. Sundberg, human-resources senior vice president at Jacobs Engineering, Pasadena, Calif., which now has 70,000 employees in 250 global locations, says trainers "must constantly evaluate and address the question [of] what's relevant. Programs aren't as linear as they once were."

Maura Horn, MWH vice president and director of global talent development, adds, "The speed of change is our No. 1 challenge. The content is constantly shifting, and the delivery model is evolving as we discover more and more approaches that appeal to different types of learners."

For Black & Veatch, the key "is to stay connected to our global business so we can address performance gaps almost as quickly as they are identified," says Mike Kelly, global learning and development leader.

Making the Investment

A smarter workforce has never been more critical to business, studies say. In a 2013 report, corporate training specialist Josh Bersin at Deloitte Consulting LLC says that, overall, business now spends more than $135 billion on global training.

His report said the 12% spending rise last year was the highest in eight years and that the average corporate dollar investment in "social learning" grew 39% from 2011 to 2012. "Skills are the new arms race," he says.

Assessment data are sparse for global training specific to the AEC sector, but industry experts confirm companies' added commitment. "Globalization challenges place training and leadership development activities as first-order priorities—as never before—in the most successful organizations with well-developed learning systems," says Ted Lower, a former executive of Union Carbide and ICF Kaiser who now consults on leadership development for EFCG Inc., an industry financial management adviser.

Lower sees "heightened demand" among firms for training in areas such as global and regional cultural assimilation, risk understanding and mitigation, post-acquisition business conduct, global teaming, and leveraging the talent and impact of "millennials" in the global workforce.

About half the 22,000-person workforce of Netherlands-based engineer ARCADIS NV is under age 35, according to Mariska van Ijzerloo, international human-resources director.

"We gently but firmly emphasize English as the company language, but we balance 'the ARCADIS way' by empowering regions to implement training that best benefits staff," she says.

Lower says EFCG is planning a study of firms' global training programs this year, focusing on the impacts of different approaches as well as the metrics of costs and benefits.

Denver-based PCL Construction says the faculty of its in-house "College of Construction" has more than doubled in recent years, including an internal "e-learning" staff focused on online courses, video production, and in-class and online, or "blended," learning, says Carol Glasgow, director of professional development.

Best Practices

Some firms report success in broadening localized training. Brazil-based contractor Odebrecht's Accreditar program, started in 2007 to train craft workers for Amazon hydroelectric projects, has expanded to sites in 11 other countries in South America and Africa as the company recorded higher jobsite productivity and lower turnover.

Accreditar teaches hands-on skills training and gives extensive instruction on safety, ethics and environmental concerns.

While Odebrecht adapts the program to each specific area, its fundamentals do not vary, says Luiz Gabriel Azevedo, sustainability director.

That provides a baseline quality-control standard for the company internationally and has helped impoverished locals find a path to employment, "a key impact in Africa and Latin America," he says.

Many firms are managing global training through more elaborate high-tech "learning management systems" (LMS).

Effective use of technology allows a broader range of training initiatives without big cost outlays and enables better measures of return on investment, says Cardno's Hanson.

John A. Madia, CH2M Hill Cos. chief human-resource officer and a former HR executive at Dow Chemical, says the firm's corporate university now has eight "schools" focused on business challenges, from risk and program management to innovation, leadership, ethics and compliance. The firm's LMS is evolving to deliver mobile training via laptops, tablets and smartphones and "facilitate offline training so that employees can access it anytime they want, wherever they are located," he says.

Black & Veatch is developing and delivering an electronic course catalog and enrollment software system, called iLearn, to enable employees "to find, enroll and take training," says Kelly.

Patrick Schaffner, Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president and global human-resources director, says changes in its new-hire orientation, first begun in the Americas and extended globally through blended and online instruction, has unified a once inconsistent training approach.

PB's LMS allows all employees to acquire third-party content from external vendors and reduces company costs through economies of scale, says Schaffner, who says its online library now includes 6,000 courses. "We have seen a sharp increase in employees actively seeking self-directed learning," he says.

CH2M Hill's Madia notes new corporate video training that now assists all employees in "providing a better understanding of the business of our business." Topics include foreign currency exchange, project guarantees and EBITDA (that is, earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization).

He says the videos "draw people in and keep them coming back for more." PCL just launched as a global training initiative its "solutions provider" program, to "reinforce our client-centered culture," says Glasgow.

Getting Social

Firms also are using technology to push training through social networks, particularly to younger employees.

"We are finding that informal sharing of valuable information among employee-created groups is increasingly becoming an effective way to reinforce certain kinds of learning material," says Jacobs' Sundberg. "We want our employees to reach out to others for the information they need, and we set up a framework so they can accomplish that."

ARCADIS is experimenting with more tech-based programs to "allow people to develop themselves and harness the power of the next generation," says van Ijzerloo.