The Need for a Chief Learning Officer

One of the ongoing debates in learning and development organizations is the need for a CLO.   In June I hosted a panel of three very effective CLOs at the ASTD conference in Atlanta and also had a series of conversations with a client about how they justified this role.   Let me say flat out that our research very clearly shows that large organizations (and mid-size ones) need a senior executive with responsibility for L&D in order to be effective.

What is a CLO?

First, what does the term mean?  In our research we define the CLO as a senior business executive with responsibility for an enterprise wide learning and development strategy.  This role is implemented in many different ways:  in some organizations the CLO is a very business-oriented person (rotated from another senior executive position) who has strong relationships with business leaders throughout the organization;  in other organizations the CLO is responsible for the “central” training organization, typically run as a “shared-service” center responsible for leadership development, LMS and other technology infrastructure, content development, and communities of practice among the “federated” training groups;  in other cases, the CLO is actually a senior learning executive who has been elevated to senior status because of his or her ability to add tremendous value to the business.  Organizations with the first model include HP, EMC, Caterpillar, and GE;  organizations with the second model include Marsh, Wal-Mart, and Sprint;  organizations with the third model include IBM and Heidrick and Struggles.

Centralized, Federated or Anarchy

Managing the corporate learning function is very difficult.  On the one hand, the best “training” is closest to the business problem.  Great sales training is delivered in the sales organization.  Great customer service training is developed and delivered in the customer service team.  On the other hand, there are a lot of core skills, technologies, and capital investments which should be shared across all training:  the LMS, content development tools and techniques, measurement processes, assessment methodologies, video studios, and more.  Hence what our research has shown, and we have written about this for several years, is that there are really three organizational models for learning and development:

  • Centralized model: 

Centralized Model - Soviet Union 

In the centralized model, like the Soviet Union, all decisions and all funding is in one place.  The centralized training group manages budgets, headcount, programs, technology, strategy, and vendor partnerships.  All “programs” emanate from this group.. and this group is often called the “Corporate University.”

This model works well in small companies but rarely works in larger, global, or decentralized organizations.  In this model a CLO is badly needed – because this poor group must strive to meet the demands of business managers and leaders throughout the company.  Here the CLO must not only organize, manage, and run this organization, but they must also negotiate with various business units for resources and particular program strategies.

  • Federated Model:

USA - Federated Model 

The federated model, which is far more common in most large organizations, is like the United States.  Here the centralized (Federal) training group owns “national” issues, such as leadership development, the learning management system, selection of enterprise-wide tools, vendor management and selection, a content development service, high-end development projects (ie. simulations, sales new hire training) and perhaps a series of communities of practice.  The “states” or local training groups (ie. customer service, sales, IT) handle local training needs, including local delivery and localized content development.

This model only works well when there is a constitution.  That is, there is an agreed-to set of responsibilities between the states and the federal government.  In some organizations the federal government is very small (ie. only runs the LMS) and the states are very big.  Take GE for example.  At GE, the “Chief” Learning Officer owns the LMS and global leadership development, and the GE businesses each have their own CLOs who own different programs and strategies.  The larger the organization, the more likely there will be “multiple federal governments.” 

Without a constitution, you end up with the third model, anarchy. 

  • Anarchy Model:

Iraq - Anarchy Model

In this model, everyone does whatever they wants – and they use whatever budget they can get their hands on.  Believe it or not, this is the most common way training used to take place and still does in large conglomerate organizations.  This is understandable:  over time training “distributes itself” closest to the business problem to be solved.  That is, the best training programs and the best content is always developed by people who are very close to the problems themselves, making it a challenge for the federal group to build highly responsive programs on behalf of the states. 

Our High Impact Learning Organization® model (described in detail in our High Impact Learning Organization research), describes the federated model in detail – and we have a fantastic two day workshop which helps organizations understand and implement this model.  Every organization implements it slightly differently, but there are a set of 12 key best-practices which everyone should understand.

Building the Learning Business Plan

In addition to building this model and establishing the constitution, the CLO has another important role:  building, socializing, managing, and measuring the organization’s learning business plan.  The L&D business plan is critically important (60% of L&D organizations do not have such a plan) because it establishes the organization’s mission, critical programs, budget, target metrics, key capital investments, organizational model, and alignment with strategic business investments. 

Alignment with HR-Talent Management

Finally, the CLO has an growing important role in coordinating the L&D function with HR and talent management strategies.  Our High Impact Talent Management research clearly shows that L&D is becoming a foundational process for all talent management initiatives.

Bersin & Associates Talent Management Framework

Bersin & Associates Talent Management Framework(r)

CLOs Really Matter

Ultimately, these and other issues are driving an even greater need for a Chief Learning Officer.  In our article coming out in August, we will discuss the five critical roles of a CLO and how they are changing.  For now, let us conclude that our research continues to prove that organizations with a CLO (a senior executive responsible for the corporate learning function) have much higher levels of business effectiveness, responsiveness, and efficiency than those without.  We look forward to hearing from you and to helping you establish the right role for a CLO in your organization.