Video editing by Shaan Chadha and Colin Hohman
Information in this explainer video was gathered from Human Capital Media Research and Advisory Group’s report, “The Role of CLO: What’s Next?”
Video editing by Shaan Chadha and Colin Hohman
Information in this explainer video was gathered from Human Capital Media Research and Advisory Group’s report, “The Role of CLO: What’s Next?”
It’s been almost a quarter century since the formalization of the position of chief learning officer: In 1994, Jack Welch made Steve Kerr the CLO of General Electric. Of course, senior managers, often within human resources, had been responsible for workplace training for decades prior to the creation of the CLO role. This was more of an emblematic recognition of the importance of learning within a successful business. A dedicated executive was necessary to make sure the organization could continue to find the best ways to develop employee knowledge and skills.
The world of workplace learning has experienced seismic change over the past 25-plus years. Technology has evolved. New principles have been introduced. Even the way people do their work has fundamentally changed.
But what has happened to the CLO during this period? Has the role kept pace with the evolving needs of the workplace? How have the skills required to be an effective CLO changed? And perhaps the most important question of all: Does a modern business even need a CLO to enable the future of work?
More Than a Title
Before exploring the evolution of the CLO role, it’s important to acknowledge that not every organization has a formal CLO. The majority of companies, from small and medium-sized businesses to global enterprises, employ a role that oversees a significant component, if not all, of the formalized workplace learning function. They may be part of the HR team or embedded within the operation. They may be referred to as training director, head of learning, vice president of learning, chief talent officer or a variety of other titles. Regardless, their focus is making sure people have the knowledge and skills needed to do their jobs effectively and contribute to the overall success of the organization.
Every organization is different. The strategies and tactics used to support workplace learning can vary considerably. Therefore, while they have the same role in concept, the day-to-day of every CLO will vary. So, rather than examine the details of the job to determine how it has changed over the years, it is simpler to look at how their function — the organization’s overall approach to learning — has evolved. And since 1994, there have been four distinct phases of workplace learning that have shaped the CLO role.
1. The Academic CLO
The original CLO played a role very similar to the dean of an academic institution. Workplace learning was extremely structured and relied almost exclusively on a combination of classroom and on-the-job training into the late 1990s. Learning and development included large teams of classroom facilitators and peer trainers along with instructional designers and project managers.
The corporate university was the center of the workplace learning strategy. Employees were commonly required to take time away from their day-to-day work to focus on planned skill and career development activities. Training delivery was very expensive, but this was how corporate education was always done. The CLO was measured primarily on volume of training delivery, availability of development offerings and responsiveness to business requests.
2. The Digital CLO
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the internet happened. L&D rapidly introduced digital training as a cost-effective and scalable alternative to the classroom. The corporate university shifted its focus to culture and leadership training but was no longer the center of the workplace learning system. The CLO adjusted their budget to reduce travel and logistics expenses and add essential learning technologies, including a learning management system and basic authoring tools. Trainer roles were reduced, and digital content developers were added. While the tactics shifted considerably, the measurement focus on utilization stayed the same.
3. The Ecosystemic CLO
The 2010s brought the realization that the CLO never actually owned workplace learning in the first place. This was made clear as other teams, including sales, marketing, communications and operations, began to rapidly adopt their own tools and strategies for employee enablement. Technology had triggered fundamental changes in employee workflows and expectations, so every team started looking for ways to address their growing skills gaps. They may not have referred to their tactics as “learning,” but it was all in service of the same goal: an informed, capable, productive employee.
To address the accelerating speed of business change along with the decentralized reality of employee enablement, the CLO began to recognize their organization’s learning culture as a multifaceted ecosystem. This represented a near 180-degree pivot from the centralized, university-driven approach. Now, the CLO looked for ways to work across functions to support L&D. They challenged their teams to find meaningful integrations and connect technology, data and content tools to provide a holistic employee experience. The historic focus on push training began to give way to more pull concepts, such as mobile, social and self-directed learning, to balance scale and personal needs.
The measurement story also started to change. The CLO was under increasing pressure to validate the impact their function was having (or not having) on business results, an expectation that had been experienced by their executive counterparts for years. This meant that utilization stats were no longer enough. So, the CLO turned to their data partner within their organization to help their team begin to improve their measurement capabilities and expand the scope of “learning data.”
Challenges in the New World of Work
There are still plenty of CLOs who lead L&D teams that leverage a centralized, academic model for training delivery. At the same time, many CLOs have made the clear transition to a holistic, ecosystemic approach so their teams can leverage a wider range of tools and tactics to enable employee performance. Every organization is unique. Supporting a medium-sized business with a core set of roles is very different than supporting a global enterprise with an extensive number of functions and job requirements. An effective CLO must adopt strategies that best fit the needs of their business. There is no such thing as a “best way” to foster knowledge and skill development that fits perfectly for everyone.
Regardless of their business size or industry, many CLOs are now facing the same fundamental challenge. According to PwC’s “Talent Trends 2019” report, “79 percent of CEOs worldwide are concerned that a lack of essential skills in their workforce is threatening the future growth of their organization.” This is up from 63 percent in 2014. At the same time, research shows that, due to the current state of the global economy, companies are starting to prefer reskilling over external recruitment as a primary means to address their talent gaps.
Automation is rapidly changing the roles people play in how work gets done. Ninety percent of organizations are already in the process of designing jobs, according to the “2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends” report. In a world of near constant business disruption, organizations must foster an unprecedented level of agility to remain competitive long-term. As things stand right now, more than half of all employees will require significant reskilling in the next three years. But it’s foolish to think reskilling is a short-term challenge. Rather, CLOs must reimagine their function in order to provide the continuous development and support employees need to keep pace with their ever-changing job expectations.
4. The Modern CLO
The CLO must again evolve to help employees thrive within the modern workplace. However, this phase should not be focused on specific tools or tactics. Rather, providing clear value through L&D in today’s workplace requires a continued shift in mindset. Organizations with mature learning cultures may already be moving down this path based on what they learned during previous phases. The modern CLO must influence the entire organization — executives, stakeholders, employees — to think differently about the role of L&D. They must help people adopt a modern learning mindset and transition completely away from the idea that workplace learning should look and feel anything like traditional schooling.
By definition, “modern” is a moving target. Similarly, the CLO must constantly reassess how they provide value within their organization. While tools and tactics will change, a modern learning mindset is guided by a set of foundational, evergreen principles.
Agility. Continuous learning is a requirement in the modern workplace. The CLO must foster organizational agility by shifting their team’s focus from programs and content to systems and channels. L&D will only be able to help people keep pace with the changing needs of the business by connecting them to knowledge and skill development rather than requiring that they always build and deliver it themselves.
Impact. Like any other business leader, the CLO must be able to determine whether their efforts are having the intended impact. They must challenge their team to improve their measurement practices and tap into related expertise within the organization. The modern CLO must be willing to acknowledge moments when their efforts do not yield the intended impact and proactively improve their strategies as a result.
Data. L&D cannot move forward unless it improves its data capabilities. Artificial intelligence, adaptive learning, augmented reality — many emerging L&D practices require quality data to implement. Therefore, the CLO must prioritize this effort and integrate learning data with the broader picture provided by business data. They must partner across the organization to leverage data practices and expertise. The modern CLO must ask questions and make decisions using data in addition to their past experience and outside input.
Ecosystem. The CLO must continue their shift toward a holistic approach to L&D. Rather than seeking centralized ownership of reskilling practices, the modern CLO leverages a wide array of tools, channels and tactics in partnership with internal and external experts to help employees balance the push and pull of continuous workplace learning.
Workflow. The corporate university is not dead, but it cannot be the centerpiece of a modern learning strategy. Rather, the modern CLO pushes their team to provide learning and support opportunities when and where an employee needs them. Complex skill development may have a structured, academic feel when needed, but a modern learning strategy begins with a focus on the true moments of need that can make a difference in people’s day-to-day execution.
Personal. The future of learning should not be based on a specific type of content or technology. Rather, as jobs become more complex and skill development needs become more nuanced, the future of workplace learning will become personal. The modern CLO must adopt tools and tactics that can balance the needs of individual employees with the scale of their organization. By adopting modern learning principles such as data, ecosystem and workflow, the CLO can reduce their team’s reliance on one-size-fits-none training and adopt new practices, such as AI-enabled personalization and coaching.
In today’s workplace, mindset trumps talent. After all, an effective CLO must leverage the talents within their team and across the organization to bring their vision to life. They don’t have to be an expert in topics such as data, AI and experience design. Rather, they must understand the potential for such concepts and influence the culture shift needed before they can be successfully implemented. After all, if people continue to think learning at work should look and feel like school, the CLO’s impact potential will be extremely limited.
Is the CLO Still Needed?
In his 2016 Forbes article, “A Message for the C-Suite About Chief Learning Officers,” Dan Pontefract suggested that the true function of the CLO is more about purpose than learning: “This newly redefined CLO will now hold the keys to a more engaged organization, one replete with an army of purpose mindset employees.”
While not every organization has a true CLO, maintaining a formal role that works across the organization to help people do their best work every day is essential in today’s business environment. In this way, span of influence is infinitely more important than title. After all, the CLO does not own workplace learning. But, by applying a modern mindset, they can show people that learning is perhaps the most important part of work.
What has been your career path?
My role as a CLO for JPMorgan Chase, specifically with our consumer community banking business, is a bit nontraditional. I didn’t come up through a normal HR program; I had the privilege to enter the bank through our management development program. I spent time in our consumer community banking group as a general manager moving through various roles, predominantly for our branch banking business. I also had the opportunity to move into our commercial bank, where I served as an underwriter and as a commercial banker lending to hallmark names in the New York marketplace. Additionally, I supported the business, specifically the commercial bank, as a client service manager for our global network. Having worked within the commercial bank for a number of years, I also transitioned back into business banking, which is one of the sublines of businesses within the consumer community bank. It was in that role where the opportunity to transition into the chief learning officer role emerged. It allowed me to meet and work with another set of leaders within business focused on some of the same goals and objectives as we think about truly enhancing and transforming the experiences that we deliver to our clients across the globe.
What attracted you to and continues to excite you about learning and development?
Learning is so exciting right now because it is bringing together so many dynamics that we see in the broader economy. Whether it is the technological revolution as we look at the learning management systems or as we look at more digital learning modalities. It is that capability that is helping us shape our competitive landscape. Equally important is how we partner with other disciplines to ensure that we are arming our employees with the right tool sets, the right procedures, the right systems that are going to enhance their careers in the various job families that we deliver value across.
What lessons have brought you here?
Lessons really manifested themselves at key transitions. Specifically, moving from one job role to the other. They’re more memorable, because that’s where there was more stress on me individually, more stress on the enterprise in terms of ensuring that I had the requisite skills and knowledge to perform effectively within the context of that new role. As with any transition, there’s a material learning curve in many cases as individuals move to do other activities. Understanding that we recognize that learning curve, that we accelerate our ability to move up that learning curve, in many respects allows us to differentiate ourselves and deliver value faster to our customers and to the enterprise. I think about those transitions in my role from teller to branch manager, from branch manager to sales manager. Certainly, from leaving the consumer community bank going into the commercial bank as a credit underwriter and moving through credit training. Those are experiences that I draw on today as I face new challenges, as I think about bringing together the right team members to address those challenges.
What will the CLO role look like in five or 10 years?
The CLO role in five or 10 years will continue to evolve in a way that allows the chief learning officer to work much more in an integrated fashion with our chief information officers and chief marketing officers. This notion of lifelong learning, this notion of continuous learning, what some call learning agility, has never been more critical. It’s not just what it is we’re teaching, but it’s also critically important how we’re teaching it. What are the learning modalities that we are maturing and delivering across the enterprise? To do that effectively, the chief learning officer and the partnership with our chief information officers, with our chief marketing officers within the enterprise, will become even more critical and certainly I believe will enable us to deliver transformative value to our enterprise by really enhancing the performance of our people and increasing their success and ability to contribute effectively to our customers.
What is your most important career advice?
As I think about career advice, I think about it not necessarily through the lens of multiple jobs that individuals need to navigate through, but more through the lens of the skill sets and capabilities that need to be matured. I also view it in a more pragmatic way, in terms of a T-shaped diagram, where the broad horizontal are the soft skills that we need to navigate effectively. Specifically: communication, collaboration and executive presence. I’ve used the deep domain expertise as those types of capabilities that’ll allow us to be much more consultative and allow us to partner with the C-suite as we attempt to understand their key performance objectives and deliver learning capabilities that allow us to progress toward them, if not exceed them.
Let me set the record straight for those still in doubt: Hamburgers are not made of ham.
We live in a politically divided time when fake news and alternative facts have regrettably become a common part of the lexicon. But on that basic culinary fact we should be able to agree.
Yet even that kind of common knowledge isn’t always common. It’s a useful reminder for chief learning officers as another year begins.
There will undoubtedly be many new developments in education technology this year, emerging applications and exciting methodologies that engage learners and provide powerful potential opportunities for development. Technology is advancing at a dizzying pace that is exhilarating to watch. Access to the world’s entire collection of knowledge and expertise is at the tips of our fingers and learning organizations will march ever forward with new initiatives and programs.
That is the way it should be. Experimentation and innovation are the currency of the learning economy. Those who are able to learn better and faster are the ones who will rise. For CLOs, failure to launch new approaches and refine old ones is a personal and professional failure.
Yet amid the pressure to continually innovate, it’s important not to lose sight of the basics.
I’m not talking about using agile development techniques to design a course or evaluating the success of a program on the Kirkpatrick scale. It goes without saying that successful learning organizations should excel at the fundamentals of workforce education.
I’m talking about a different set of basics: building good relationships and continually checking your assumptions. Which brings me back to the hamburger.
A few weeks back, we had a breakthrough with my 6-year-old son. A vegetarian by practice if not principle, he avoided any kind of meat like it was a T-Rex on his tail. The sight of a chicken nugget heading for his plate would send him shrieking into the other room. Getting his growing brain a regular source of protein was a daily struggle. All that changed on Taco Tuesday of that week.
We added a little ground beef to his heretofore cheese-only taco and sure enough, he liked it. Like many an eager parent, I took it a step too far. When I suggested he could try a hamburger next, he shot me a look. “I might like beef but I’m not going to eat ham,” he said.
It was a great reminder to check my assumptions. It is called a hamburger after all. Identifying that small misunderstanding may just end up saving us from years of dinnertime aggravation.
As a chief learning officer, you may think you’ve checked all the boxes. You’ve done a thorough needs analysis, combed through all the relevant performance data, meticulously surveyed the state of current skills and aligned with critical business priorities. But a small misunderstanding can torpedo all that effort.
Even in the best-funded learning organizations where workforce development is central to business, chief learning officers have limited power to mandate compliance or compel people to participate in learning. Hard power is scarce. There’s always a more urgent task and a higher priority for busy executives and frontline workers alike.
The ability to influence others is the chief learning officer’s secret weapon. You have to work through others and channel their energies, passions and interests. The best do it so well that it seems effortless. But like a duck serenely floating in a pond, beneath the surface they are continually paddling.
They talk regularly to top leaders and worker bees alike. In many cases, they will actually do the job alongside them. Those learning leaders invest time and sweat to understand where workers struggle so when it comes time to solve a problem those workers know the learning leader has their best interests at heart.
Most important, they tell you the truth. They see you’re working with them rather than through them. And because you’ve listened and invested time and energy in them and their challenges, they’ll give you an honest answer when the time comes. They’ll let you know that they didn’t know a hamburger wasn’t made of ham.
When it comes to relationships, it’s hard to have a beef with that.
Sears was the undisputed king of retail when I was growing up.
Heading back to school? Sears had you covered with all the clothes and supplies you could possibly need. Washing machine went kaput? The Sears appliance store offered choices and styles to fit your needs.
Need a power drill? Aisles of Craftsman tools fit whatever your home improvement project might be. Fitness equipment? Check. New tires for your car? Check. Mattresses? Rest assured. Sears had it.
Sears stores were everywhere, from cities to suburbs to small towns. And in the rare event there wasn’t a store nearby, you could order just about anything and everything in the Sears catalog and have it delivered to you.
The company was the picture of stability and its massive Chicago headquarters served as a powerful symbol of that corporate heft. The Sears Tower reigned as the world’s highest skyscraper for 25 years from its completion in 1973 to 1998.
But it wasn’t just from afar that I saw that. My dad worked there. He started in the appliance department and slowly but surely moved up to managing a region of service centers. Under his watch, a fleet of vans visited hundreds of homes daily to install dishwashers, repair TVs or fix just about any home appliance, whether it was Sears’ Kenmore brand or not.
Sears was as solid and dependable as an employer could be. Until it wasn’t.
The tide turned in the 1990s. The retail business started to change as consumers turned to specialist brands. The internet killed catalogs. Dad took an early retirement package he couldn’t refuse.
Fast forward a couple of decades. The Sears Tower, vacated by the company after its 1995 move to the suburbs, took a new name in 2009. The last Sears retail store in Chicago — the city the company called home for more than 100 years — closed in July 2018. Corporate fortunes come and go but the lessons they teach can remain, particularly for learning organizations.
From the time the first corporate universities were established the focus was building something that lasts. Companies like GE and Motorola created some of the first modern corporate universities and established the new role of chief learning officer to run them.
The effort remains a worthy one. Staying relevant and competitive in business requires continuous investment in skills and abilities. A corporate-academic hybrid is the logical way to deliver it.
Now, some of those early investors are struggling to adjust. Motorola was split up and sold off piece by piece. Industrial powerhouse GE continues to grapple with the challenges of the digital age. What changed? Business did. Innovation happened, new models arose and the pace of change sped up.
Household names like Motorola, Kodak and Circuit City as well as Sears have waxed and then waned. According to one study, 88 percent of companies that were on the Fortune 500 in the 1950s are now long gone. Look at CEOs for further evidence. The length of their tenure at the top continues to drop, registering a median of five years in 2017.
That quickening pace of business transformed enterprise learning as well. Curricula and courses with year-long revision and development cycles gave way to learning in the moment of need. Seemingly evergreen skills made room for rapidly emerging skill sets and a more flexible approach to management and leadership. Learning and development has kept pace.
But the focus on permanence lingers — to create something special and fight like hell to protect it. It’s not a bad impulse but it’s one CLOs have to increasingly let go of in order to be successful.
Being a CLO isn’t a lifetime appointment. This isn’t the U.S. Supreme Court or a tenured professorship. It’s a business role like any other. You pick the best talent available, focus on a solid strategy and deploy proven tactics to make it happen. With a little bit of luck the combination of right people, right approach at the right time works — and it can feel like magic.
And then it’s over. There’s power in embracing the process and making the most of the situation you’re in. Companies are moving to a more agile business model. So are people. More often than not, your best people are looking for flexible and creative work. Learning for a limited time only isn’t a bad thing.
“] Technology is changing the way we gather information and learn at an increasingly rapid pace. Just a few years ago, if you needed to change the oil in your car and didn’t know how to do it, you would have dug through the glove compartment for the manual, read the instructions the best you could, then given it your best shot. (Or given up and taken it to the shop). Now, a quick search on YouTube will serve up a video — and sometimes several — showing you exactly what to do, step-by-step, for your make and model of vehicle.
The ubiquity of handheld devices like smartphones also means we can learn wherever we are. In just the past five years, global penetration of smartphones has increased from less than 19 percent to nearly 75 percent. For many of us, search engines are the go-to resources whenever we need to look something up, gather insights or learn something new.
This consumer-oriented approach to learning has affected the expectations we have for learning at work as well. We don’t want to sit through hours of one-way lectures given by an instructor who can’t relate to our experiences. We want to be empowered to set our own educational path and to learn from people (often our own peers) who clearly understand what it means to apply the learning in our role. When we need to learn how to do something specific, we want help to be as easily accessible and relevant to our circumstances as the oil change videos on YouTube.
These new expectations aren’t just restricted to millennials or Generation Zers who seem like they were born with a smartphone in their hands. The reality of today’s work environments means that everyone from Gen Z to the oldest of the baby boomers is being asked to get more done in less time. With technology at virtually everyone’s fingertips, workers in an increasing number of industries are developing what we call a “millennial mindset,” where they expect to be able to use technology at work to learn and gather information when and where they need it.
Let L&D Be Your Ally
If you’ve been offering product training sessions and little else, the insights above can leave you feeling a little overwhelmed. How can you possibly get from where you are today to where you need to be? If your organization has a formal learning and development department, you may be closer than you think.
The makeup of L&D varies from organization to organization, but generally, these teams have at least one or two people who are experts/specialists in learning theory. Best case scenario, they have already invested in a modern learning platform that you can leverage. If not, it’s likely that they have at least looked into modern learning platforms but haven’t been able to justify the investment to the business. You can provide them with the opportunity. Worst case, they have no idea what a modern learning platform is and you can help them up their game while you investigate the opportunity together.
Once you are ready to begin developing training services, whether they are classroom services or e-learning modules, you will need someone to lead the effort. Your L&D allies won’t be the subject matter experts, but they can help your SMEs translate their knowledge into useful enablement services.
If you don’t have a background in training, getting up to speed on the terminology can help you have a more productive discussion with the learning professionals in your organization. Here are just a few terms with which you should be familiar:
This story is an excerpt from “Sales Enablement: A Master Framework to Engage, Equip, and Empower a World-Class Sales Force,” co-authored by Miller Heiman Group CEO Byron Matthews and CSO Insights Research Director Tamara Schenk. This excerpt was adapted for Talent Economy. To comment, email email@example.com.