The New Chief Learning Officer: 2008 and Beyond

The role of chief learning officer has been hard to define for years.  While it is becoming more prevalent (our research shows that approximately 30% of large organizations have a named CLO), the definition of what a CLO does is changing.
Typically the CLO is defined as the “business leader of corporate learning.”  At organizations like WalMart, Caterpillar, GE, EMC, IBM, Heidrick and Struggles Ingersoll-Rand, and many more, the CLO is the business executive who owns the corporations learning and development strategy, programs, and systems.

The most effective CLOs tend to be business people first and then learning experts second.  GE, for example, has rotated business leaders from various functions into and out of the CLO functions for each GE business.  Hewlett-Packard’s current CLO used to run the company’s PC business.  These individuals come to the job with a deep understanding of the talent, process, and business challenges which face their organization.  Such CLOs have institutional power:  they can not only develop and deliver high impact programs, but they can also interact with other business executives to drive alignment.  CLOs which function primarily as senior training executives tend to have much lower impact, because they are often viewed as being disconnected from the business.  A strong CLO focuses on alignment, communication, and strategic learning and development initatives.

In most organizations (70% or more) there is no CLO.  In these organizations the training staff often struggles mightily to find the right level of leadership.  What should the head of training do?  Where should they report?  What should they be called?  What background should they have?

As we enter a new phase of corporate learning (what we call the “talent-driven” era), let me explain what I believe the five most valuable “New CLO” roles will be.

1.  Business Manager of Learning. 

First and foremost, the CLO must understand the business’s key strategies and challenges, and therefore work hard to allocate resources and programs toward these challenges.  The CLO should feel no fear of outsourcing low-value training functions to focus on high value initiatives.  In today’s tight labor market, these are typically programs like leadership development, competency management, the integration of performance management processes with learning, coaching, and the implementation of career development programs.  As the business manager for learning, the CLO also spearheads major capital investments in learning:  a new LMS, a corporate video production facility, an upgrade to in-store training kiosks, and other learning-related capital investments.

2.  The Chief Demographic Officer. 

One of the biggest changes happening in US business today is the “hollowing out” of mid-level managers.  The CLO, typically working with the VP of HR, must have a clear understanding of the changing demographics of the workforce.

Not only must he or she understand the internal workforce demographics, they must also have a keen and intuitive understanding of the new learning styles of younger workers.  As the following chart shows, research clearly demonstrates that younger workers learn very differently from older workers.  The CLO must clearly understand these new trends, because he or she will have to lead the charge for new technologies, techniques, and approaches. 

At Countrywide Financial, for example, the Senior VP of HR has spearheaded the development of a company-wide video podcast program which features the CEO and other business leaders.  She clearly understands that the most rapidly changing and newest workers in the company have i-pods and expect to see “you-tube” style videos for their corporate training. 

New Corporate Workforce Demographics

3.  The Chief Performance Officer. 

For years I have wondered if the term CLO should be changed to CPO.  If one considers the VP of HR the “Chief Talent Officer,” then the CLO’s role should be to complement this function and create a relentless focus on human performance.   We have entered an era of culture and learning technology where “training” is of diminishing value.  More and more people learn through informal networks, online performance support, searching materials online, and joining communities of interest.  We call these elements “learning on demand” – the fourth stage of e-learning.

The CLO must clearly understand this trend and push toward developing and delivering human performance tools – not just training programs.  These tools may include a series of worker portals, filled with information, training, people to connect with, and new media.  The CLO is the person in the organization who connects business performance with human performance, and therefore should feel comfortable with a wide range of programs and initiatives – some of which go beyond traditional training.  One of our research clients, for example, has developed a set of “portfolio managers” who have the role of locating, arranging, and publishing a wide variety of content for employees in different roles.  This type of organization represents a forward-thinking performance-driven learning organization.

4.  The Global Learning Leader. 

We clearly live in a flattened earth – even the smallest corporations have global customers, global partners, and global operations.  One of the biggest challenges I hear about today is the need to globalize the learning function.  This means not only globalizing learning programs, but finding a way to globalize the learning technology strategy, the performance consulting process, e-learning, and other elements of corporate training.  We all know that learning styles and approaches differ by culture – so this globalization process requires a “federated” approach –one which distributes and localizes programs and delivery, yet centralizes highly specialized processes like content development and technology.  Many of our clients are working on globalization strategies, but the jury is still out on the best approach.  The CLO must be willing to invest his or her time in understanding and “morphing” the organization to meet global demands.

5.  The Chief Development Officer. 

We all know that the term “talent management” now plagues our industry.  Our research on talent management shows very clearly that organizations are working hard to integrate the processes of recruiting, performance management, leadership development, succession planning, and compensation into a cohesive talent strategy.  They are trying to focus talent programs and processes toward the most business-critical positions.  They are spending millions of dollars on new systems to further automate these processes, and tens of millions of dollars on change management and training to develop the new breed of managers.

Throughout every element of corporate talent management, there is a development component.  In the recruiting process there is a need for clear job competencies and onboarding programs.  In the performance management process there is a need for tightly interwoven career development and performance-driven learning options.  In the leadership development process we need clear leadership competencies, leadership assignments, coaching, and assessment programs. 

Through every single talent process there is an element of development – development of people, skills, capabilities, culture, and networks.  Who owns all this development?  The “training department?”  No.  The entire organization owns these development strategies – and the CLO is the only executive with the background, stature, and resources to develop and promote these development programs.  Many of them are not delivered by the training organization itself, but they must be facilitated, sponsored, and championed.  The CLO must identify, clarify, design, facilitiate, and sponsor these programs.

Bottom line:  The CLO Role is More Important than Ever.
If you have a CLO in your organization, consider these five roles.  Can you find the time and resources to focus in these five areas?  If not, you should redefine yourself and consider them strongly.  If you do not have a CLO, consider who owns these five functions?  If you cannot answer that question, then maybe a “New CLO” is in order.  In today’s growing business and highly competitive talent environment, the CLO is more important than ever.

[1] Our research on CLOs and their impact is derived from our research program The High Impact Learning Organization ®, which is an ongoing research program which has studied the management, governance, and operations of learning and development in more than 600 corporations.  For more information, visit http://www.bersin.com/hilo .

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  • Bonnie Brady

    Do you have any updates on the CLO trends for 2009? Is there an increase in increase in the % (from 30%)? Are the 5 roles holding steady, orr are there any changes?