The title chief learning officer almost never came to be. In the mid-1990s, when General Electric Co.’s Steve Kerr lobbied the firm’s chief executive and chairman, Jack Welch, for the role, he first proposed the title of chief education officer. Welch wasn’t interested; there would only be one CEO at GE. The story goes Welch came up with the title of chief learning officer instead, and the rest is history.
Nearly 19 years later, as Chief Learning Officer magazine commemorates its 10-year anniversary, it’s hard to believe how far the role, and the industry, have come. There is no better way to show the different shapes the CLO role has taken than through stories, and we have four. Through the lens of four top executives — some current CLOs, some former — we show how dynamic the chief learning officer role has become.
Unlike other C-suite positions — say, the chief operating officer or the chief financial officer — the chief learning officer often means different things to different companies. To some, the CLO role remains tightly wound in technical skills training. For others, it has expanded to encompass a firm’s broader technical learning and leadership development effort. The learning leader also may be woven into functional aspects of the business, such as finance, operations or product development. Other areas where technology and evolving philosophies on how work and organizations are structured benefit from the learning leader’s touch as an informal chief culture or collaboration officer.
No matter what shape or form the role has taken, one thing is certain: Given the evolution and pace of the global economy, organizational learning and development is vital to business success. And chief learning officers, whether they go by that exact title or not, are the captains steering the ship.