Why would a university of all places need a chief learning officer? Isn’t that like bringing coals to New Castle? Or disciples to MIT? Are not all or most professors CLOs? But looking more closely, and especially from the inside, there are at least three reasons and benefits.
The first and most obvious is the need to prepare current and future students for the role of CLO. Accounting programs long ago focused on the role of the CFO and identified the educational requirements for that top executive position. A small number of enterprising programs featured the specific dynamics of the CFO in an equal and shared relationship with the CEO, which turned out to be prophetic alliance for many companies, especially in the wake of post-Enron reconfigurations. In addition, a few academics recently have taken a leaf from the field of education and moved in the direction of creating accountability standards for both CEOs and CFOs. In any case, nothing comparable is being done to develop a separate or joint management-CLO curriculum. What would it include? What connections should it have to other curricula? And who would teach it?
The second benefit is that a university-based CLO would challenge the faculty’s and curricula’s status quo. Unlike a VPAA, dean or department chair, who are usually absorbed in operations anyhow, a CLO would function as an independent, autonomous and intellectual ombudsman. Those outside of the academy may not fully appreciate its capacity for inertia. Less than one-fifth of all faculties engage in research. The working bibliography of almost all the rest bears the date of when they secured their terminal degree. In addition to challenging the faculty, the CLO would challenge existing curricula.
But why should that be questioned? For one thing, as already noted, current curricula do not include the acceptance of and preparation for learning officers. But beyond that and more comprehensively, many courses do not reflect the basic changes, urgent trends and new directions of current business operations, structures and leadership. Indeed, undergraduate business requirements typically are such a mirror match of those for the MBA and even the Ph.D. that the student is basically involved in duplicative rather than differentiated development. But to demonstrate the potential impact a CLO at a university might have on both faculty and curricula, the example of human resources will suffice, especially since that is a likely source of where future CLOs may come from.
HR is undergoing a crisis. Its training budgets generally have been decimated; many of its functions have been outsourced (including, sadly and most recently, 360-degree evaluation); recruiting, interviewing and orienting of new hires often has been parceled out internally, bypassing HR in the process; and e-learning often has been implemented as a training quick-fix or overlay without being accompanied with a follow-up and monitoring system. And on top of all that, along comes the proposal to appoint a CLO, a rescuer who sadly may not be able to save the falling House of Usher.
Who puts Humpty-Dumpty back together again? Same or new shape? What is the glue? Given the current fragmentation of HR, faculties need to question the basic assumptions of the field and review and redesign the entire curriculum. One of the unabashed goals should be to reclaim lost ground and prominence, but not by dressing up or hyping the old with e-learning and PR. Rather, integration has to become the new driving force and source of coherence. Employee evaluation, goal alignment and professional development have to become seamless. Employee empowerment has to be ratcheted up to include employee mission statements, self-gap analysis and personal and organizational forecasting. Above all, faculty have to focus on the future sources of human resources, which will offer CLOs access to the total range of trends, not just those affecting HR. In short, the task of an academic CLO is to bring the university boldly into the 21st century and beyond. A new HR curriculum would be a critical way to start.
Although the third benefit ideally is folded into the second, it is too important not to be separately identified and discussed. It is the involvement and empowerment (not unlike that of employees) of adult graduate learners in curriculum development. In effect, they would be the strongest allies, even versions, of the CLO. They would provide the faculty with a reality check. They are directly anchored in current operations and pressures, place a high value on problem-solving and are adept at translating academic and intellectual concepts into best practices. In short, they would be invaluable partners in the curriculum redesign of HR. If a new program to prepare CLOs were also in place, many would qualify and apply, spurred perhaps by the challenge of the partnership with faculty and each other.
Cynically but accurately, comprehensive opposition of faculty and even administration to having a CLO would be the best case for having one. The value attached by the academy to being protectively insulated from political machinations or the marketplace is often overstated. Moreover, such disengagement is frequently violated on both sides. Obviously, employed graduate students, often on tuition remission programs, routinely and happily bridge the gulf between work and study and often challenge the intellectual constructs that reinforce such gaps. In effect, each student is a case study. Then, too, some of the best business and HR faculty are active consultants who are constantly pouring new wine into the old bottles. When very successful, they often buy out their contracts on an annual basis and write best-sellers, which are really re-created consulting experiences laced with academic citations. In any case, the loss of such scholar-practitioners deprives the university of a model for students and shifts the interactive exchange between student and teacher to the unilateral distillations of a best seller.
The strongest advocates for a university CLO are those who have been stretched by students, are aware of academic inertia, myopia and opacity, and have worked alongside HR personnel going up a down escalator. Moreover, given all the reengineering that would have to be done and the predictable turf wars of faculty and administration, perhaps only the senior-level position of a CLO would have the clout and leverage to bring about the learning of change. Of course, the embattled CLO would have three allies: students, business (especially HR) and, of course, now a new magazine.
Irving H. Buchen received his Ph.D. in communications from Johns Hopkins and has taught at Cal State, University of Wisconsin and Penn State. He currently teaches communications at Florida Gulf Coast University and is a member of the business online doctoral faculty at Capella University. He also serves as management and human resources consultant at COMWELL, HR Partners and his own company Optimum Performance Systems. He can be reached at email@example.com.