A topic of intense interest and spirited discussion, the position of chief learning officer continues to emerge and take shape. Its development has prompted debates about who is “at the table” and who isn’t. This dialogue has raised the flag of long-term learning strategy over short-term tactics, ushered in a new business vocabulary for the training world and sensitized us to see that all learning must be articulated in the language of business and, ultimately, focused on business goals.
What makes a CLO? What qualifies one to be in this position? What do CLOs do, and what issues keep them up at night? What do they see in the future? A set of 464 learning executives, many holding the official title of CLO, responded to these and other questions as part of the CLO Futures Survey in order to determine current and future trends related to both the position of the CLO and the issues that concern the individuals who hold it. While there may be no surprises at some of the findings, the results do bear the weight of confirmation from a sizable group of learning executives.
The survey asked participants to respond to the three main areas of inquiry posed by these three questions:
- What are the critical issues facing chief learning officers now, and in the next five years?
- What are the competencies CLOs will need to address these issues now, and in the next five years?
- Who is the CLO?
There is a future component to the first two questions, but when the data was analyzed, it was found that the issues and competencies identified as critical today also were seen by the respondents as remaining critical over the next five years. The message was clear: If you want to know the future, look at what is important today.
Critical Issues Facing CLOs
The survey asked respondents to rate a set of 15 issues from “not critical” to “very critical.” These issues were rooted in the present and represent popular industry discussion topics that have been addressed in panels, articles and speeches over the past year. These issues also were discussed in a focus group prior to the release of the survey.
Of the 15 issues presented in the survey, five were seen as having the highest priority both now and five years from now:
- Linking Learning and Development Offerings to Corporate Strategy: This was seen as the most critical of all of the issues. The respondents strongly felt that all learning and development efforts must have this single point of focus. While other issues were important, this group saw them as a means through which the organization achieves its business goals. In the strongest possible terms, respondents were saying to their training managers and directors, “Understand these business goals prior to advocating any training solution.” The shift that they are requesting is in point-of-view. The current perspective is that many of the training professionals CLOs manage see training as the mastering of content, whereas CLOs see it as what leads to the achievement of business goals. This is the prize, and they want everyone to keep their eye on it.
- Job-Specific Learning: This was another critical issue for both now and the near future. Respondents feel that it is critical for any corporate education program to be linked to a set of competencies that support the learner’s job. While not a total rejection of generic training, the survey respondents were asking a very basic question: “If any training program does not improve the knowledge, skills and aptitudes that the individual needs to do his or her job more effectively, why are we wasting time and money on it?” Many of the respondents saw the individual’s job and its related competencies as a direct expression of the unique needs of the company. To them, if the learning was not relevant at this micro level, it could not be contributing to macro-level corporate needs. Again, this issue emphasized the single point of focus on business goals.
- Measuring Impact: Measuring impact was not primarily about return on investment (ROI), cost savings and justifying the training budget to the executive level. Many of the individuals who responded to this survey are “at the table” and already value learning and view it as a strategic tool. Consequently, they were more interested in the development of higher-level metrics that showed the impact of learning on corporate initiatives, such as retention, employee attitude, number of help-desk calls and increased revenue, to name a few. Additional insight into this issue can be seen in the respondents’ reaction to questions about CLO competencies, specifically, the competency of being able to “demonstrate impact on business performance.”
- Leadership Programs: This was a response to a growing concern related to changing demographics. Behind this item was the need for the early identification of high-potentials, along with the use of company leaders as faculty and mentors for their future leaders. The desire here was to accelerate both a formal leadership program as well as an informal mentoring program. There was a sense of urgency with this item, due to its direct correlation with upcoming changes in company demographics caused by the impending retirement of many senior leaders in five years, or less.
- Providing Innovative Learning: This was seen as the final critical issue. In order to more effectively achieve business goals, respondents are seeking learning programs that use more creative techniques to deliver knowledge, skills and aptitudes to their companies’ learners. The very fact that this issue was seen as critical points to the implication that current training programs fall short of offering new techniques that could enhance the training experience for learners. Examples of innovative learning techniques mentioned in the open-ended portion of the survey were on-the-job learning, mentoring, role-playing, simulations and case studies.
To determine what competencies are considered most important to CLO success now and in the future, respondents to the CLO Futures Survey were asked to rate a set of seven CLO competencies from “not critical” to “very critical.” These competencies were derived from a beta version of the CLO Futures Survey and vetted in a focus group.
Respondents selected the following as the top four competencies:
- Demonstrated Leadership Skills: This was selected as the top competency for a CLO both now and in the future. As a category, “leadership skills” includes the ability of the CLO to instill a vision, as well as communicate and sell that vision. Other competencies included in this category were the ability to think and act strategically to monitor progress toward and reach the business goals of the organization, along with the ability to decisively make course corrections when necessary. Additional leadership skills included building, motivating and mentoring teams, and delegating tasks to qualified team members. These same leadership skills have a direct and personal connection with the critical issue, “Leadership Programs.” Most of the CLOs in this survey were older than 45. Thus, the need to identify and mentor successors is not only a competency, but also an urgent requirement.
- Experience With Strategic Planning: This means experience planning, launching, monitoring and acting on long-range corporate initiatives. It was clear that this experience did not have to come from strategic initiatives involving learning, but from any strategic program that involved long-term programs that looked beyond the present state of the business and focused on major long-term change. It is interesting to note that this focus on “generic” strategic planning came from CLOs whose backgrounds were in general management and business administration. This bias is discussed further in the section asking, “Who is the CLO?”
- Knowledge of the Learning and Development Process: This was a key competency, especially for those CLOs whose antecedents were in business administration or general management. To them, this competency represented a desire to better manage the organization of training professionals by becoming more familiar with the basic concepts and vocabulary used by this group. This includes learning more about how to evaluate the impact of learning, acquiring the basic vocabulary associated with Kirkpartick’s levels of evaluation, learning how to go about doing a needs analysis, understanding what a competency framework is and how it can be linked to organizational goals, becoming familiar with established criteria for determining when to build and when to buy training products, knowing the different views of the adult learner and how each may impact training outcomes, and understanding the role that instructional design plays at various stages in the development process. Conversely, those CLOs whose antecedents were in education and training wanted to know more about business processes and related vocabulary and concepts in order to be more effective peers with their business-trained colleagues and more effectively focus the learning organization’s efforts on the company’s business goals.
- Demonstrated Impact on Business Performance: Respondents felt that a CLO should have experience identifying business goals, creating learning strategies that map to these goals and providing direction to help the training organization implement and monitor the entire effort. The CLO also must have experience leading strategic evaluation efforts, such as balanced scorecards, dashboards and their roll-up to key business drivers. Not only do CLOs need these experiences, but they also must understand key evaluation concepts and their vocabulary in order to better direct the practitioners in their organizations who implement the programs that measure impact on business performance.
Who Is the CLO?
To answer this question, demographic parameters were considered, including age, gender, education, career background and information about respondents’ organizations, as well as the industry verticals in which they reside. To focus on those who are already “at the table,” we looked at a subset of those individuals with sign-off authority of more than $500,000.
According to results of the CLO Futures Survey, CLOs are a highly educated, gender-balanced group. They are most likely to be more than 45 years old, with backgrounds rooted in combinations of education and business administration. This group can be typified as professionals who have come up through the ranks of their organization’s structure. Many started their career as managers, moving to director, then on to vice president and finally, to their current officer-level position. Most have been in this new position between three and five years. They tend to be long-tenured in their industry, generally with between 15 and 20 years of experience within their industry vertical. With some notable exceptions, the majority are members of organizations that generate revenues from $500 million to $5 billion, and have populations of more than 10,000 employees.
For their position, they value leadership skills and the ability to demonstrate impact on their business’s performance. This group identifies knowledge of the learning and development process as a key competency, along with having the skills and experience for implementing strategic programs that address the training issues critical to the organization’s success.
CLOs are learners. For those with a background in education, there is a strong desire to know more about general management and its concepts and vocabulary. Conversely, CLOs with general management backgrounds are strongly motivated to know more about key learning concepts and vocabulary. Recognizing the biases of their antecedents, both groups expressed a strong desire to assume each other’s point-of-view. If there is any new competency that the survey shows emerging, the desire for this hybrid mixture of learning knowledge and business knowledge is a strong candidate.
CLOs of the Future
The position of CLO will continue to emerge and evolve. The CLO Futures Survey has lifted the fish out of the water and examined it at a single point in time. We now place it back—but into a new stream. The next time that we examine the position of CLO, what will it look like? What forces within the stream of its business environment will have continued to shape it? These are worthy questions for a continued conversation.
James L’Allier, Ph.D., is chief learning officer and vice president, research & development for NETg Thomson Learning. Dr. Stacey Boyle performed the initial design and refinement of the survey instrument. Ken Kolosh provided statistical analysis of the data and assisted in writing up the initial results. Jim can be reached at email@example.com.