Increasing competition in the marketplace and economic challenges put new demands on today’s leaders, including the chief learning officer. The learning function can only thrive if it makes a measurable impact on business results. The good news is that there are many ways to accomplish this somewhat daunting task. This article will explore an approach to adding increasing levels of value and identify some examples where the learning function has used innovative methods to make an impact.
Lessons From the World of Information Technology
CLOs come from many backgrounds and functions, and most CLOs focus on their clients’ needs. They have provided leadership, business and technical skills development. They have improved performance in terms of sales, operations and leadership. They have been great support functions and service providers.
There are, however, far more opportunities to create value and make an impact on the bottom line by assuming a strategic leadership role and partnering with other business unit leaders to create value. In a similar support role to the CLO, some IT leaders focus on providing service to the business units, improving system performance, improving IT employee productivity and increasing client satisfaction. Others make breakthrough changes. They implement leading-edge processes for “fast systems design,” reducing cycle time by 80 percent. They may partner with the business units to define business processes in days, rather than months. Finally, they take on a strategic leadership role, helping the senior leadership team identify business opportunities, such as linking customers directly to their systems to reduce customer cycle time and increase sales.
The CLO has similar opportunities to become a strategic business partner and make a major impact on the business through learning and organizational development solutions. Making an impact on the corporation’s bottom line or its Balanced Scorecard requires the CLO to take a strategic value-creation approach. Based on benchmarking and preliminary research, a model for value creation has been defined.
Step 1: Identify the Role of the CLO and the Learning Function
If you ask senior business leaders what the CLO’s role should be, they probably will say, “Develop our leaders. Give people skills to do their jobs. Improve the performance of our people.” They probably will not say, “Help us enter new markets faster and better. Improve our core business processes. Improve the cycle time for product introduction. Increase customer satisfaction. Ensure that we have the right leaders with the right capabilities.”
Define a role for the CLO that focuses on value creation and making an impact, not on training and hoping to make an impact. CLOs can play a number of different roles, as illustrated in Figure 1. Some CLOs move beyond their traditional roles to focus on improving individual and team performance. Some focus on developing human capital. Each role has the potential to make an impact by reducing costs, improving customer satisfaction or increasing revenues, but impact and value creation are not the central focus of the CLO. It is in the fourth role illustrated in Figure 1, which focuses on providing learning and business solutions that add value, that CLOs have established themselves as strategic business leaders.
Step 2: Create a Clear Vision of the Future
Once a role is defined, determine your “strategic intent” or what your organization wants to become. A strategic intent describes your ideal state in the future. Because organizations, like people, tend to become what they aspire to, it is important to develop a great strategic intent that focuses on creating value and making an impact. The strategic intent will become the focus for your strategy, as well as your organization’s structure and decision-making processes.
Step 3: Identify and Seize the Opportunity to Create Value
Early on in the process of moving into a value-creating role, you will be asked to “do training.” Turn these requests into opportunities to add value—and to demonstrate the value you can add. If asked to improve service skills in a call center or a financial services group, you could just develop a training program. As a value-adding alternative, you could benchmark organizations recognized as “service leaders” and study high-performers in your service groups. From these data sources, you would develop a model of “breakthrough service” for your client and identify the organizational factors to be addressed so that this new model can be implemented. Then, you would collect the current service level and identify a target for higher levels of service jointly with your client.
There are three approaches to creating value, as illustrated in Figure 2. First, as in the example above, the learning executive can turn a request for learning into an opportunity to make an impact. Second, the CLO can look for opportunities to partner with a business unit to support a strategic initiative from its inception. Third, CLOs can identify new opportunities for senior leaders and clients to consider that will add significant value to the business, possibly including a learning component.
As you identify ways to add value and continue to partner with your clients to help them succeed, you will have begun your journey. As these successes continue, you may be asked to join the client at the planning table. If not, ask to join in order to support them in the future with even better and quicker solutions. Look for opportunities to add value by participating in or leading other initiatives, even if they go beyond your role. And continually scan to identify ways to add value to the business.
Step 4: Develop a Talented Organization
It is normal to assume that the learning organization has training and organizational development capabilities. However, a diversity of capabilities and a passion for excellence are required in order to become a strategic business partner that adds value and makes an impact. Look for these skills and traits as you build or develop your organization. If CLOs and their leadership teams are to become strategic business partners, they will need myriad capabilities, including learning, organizational development, business consulting, strategic planning and most of the functional business skills. Select a leadership team with the education and experience across these disciplines to build capability within the organization and develop credibility with your clients. This diversity of talent can be realized through recruitment, as well as through development opportunities for existing staff. Rotating learning staff through line and staff functions is a great way to develop diverse learning professionals. Setting up learning as an ideal assignment to rotate high-performing middle-level managers is also an excellent approach. Identify team players who not only have talent in their area of expertise, but also a real commitment to excellence. In the end, this microcosm of the corporation will have the expertise, talent and enthusiasm to add value and make an impact.
Step 5: Create a Simple Strategic Game Plan
To realize your strategic intent, in addition to the talent in your organization, you will need a clear and focused strategic game plan. It provides the vision for the future, a set of priorities to focus on and the criteria for decision-making in the organization. You will want input into this plan from clients and some stakeholders. The purpose is to focus the organization and achieve your strategic intent. As you begin to have success with making an impact and adding value, incorporate these success stories with measurable impact into the communication of your game plan as a way to illustrate what it really means.
To realize your strategic intent, develop a set of five to seven strategic priorities or goals for your organization. Examples of goals for learning that help realize a strategic intent focused on value might include:
- Develop a Balanced Scorecard for learning with the measures directly linked to key business measures, such as revenue, costs, unit costs, cycle time, customer satisfaction and employee turnover.
- Implement a minimum of four opportunities to impact sales revenue and customer satisfaction.
- Implement one opportunity to reduce cycle time for a core process, such as product introduction cycle time.
- Implement one initiative that will impact the employee opinion survey.
- Require a business case for all new training and learning solutions.
- Develop 10 success stories that demonstrate the value created and the business impact realized.
- Identify one business opportunity to bring to a client or executive that will improve the business results in the corporation.
Step 6: Develop Success Stories
Creating value and making an impact is not enough to ensure long-term success. It is equally important to communicate that success to all key stakeholders—your people, your partners, your clients, the senior leaders in the organization and your boss. These stories should focus on identifying the value you helped to create and the impact you helped to realize. You should:
- Describe the opportunity to create value.
- Identify your partners and clients.
- Define the approach used to realize the opportunity.
- Identify the value created and the impact realized from the client’s and the corporation’s point of view.
Always write the first draft of the success story at the start of the project. Make it a part of the client proposal. Clients may have a hard time coming up with good measures of success. Help them identify potential measures of success in terms of value creation and business impact by covering typical measures from a Balanced Scorecard. (See Figure 3) Seeing these measures often helps a client define some measures of success for their own area. In addition, you should include the key business objectives achieved, such as “Implemented a new sales model that is expected to increase revenue per salesperson by 7 percent.”
Collecting results can be time-consuming and costly. By collecting this information in partnership with key stakeholders, you help demonstrate the value added. If specific measures cannot be collected, it is often possible to collect “leading measures.” These are the measures that are correlated with and predict the results or “lagging measures.” For example, an increase in the number of sales calls per salesperson predicts an increase in sales. As part of an initiative, you may be able to collect these leading measures for at least a sample of the project. For example, when doing a project to have the sales force work virtually, collect the average number of customer visits before and after. Use this data to predict some increase in sales. As another example, reducing product introduction cycle time by 80 percent by moving all product introductions to e-learning is a measurable, specific, impressive and reasonable measure of success.
These success stories can be added to the communication of your strategic game plan to provide new executives and clients with examples of what you can do for them as a partner, to communicate the impact your organization makes, to explain what the strategic game plan really means and to help change stakeholders’ perception of learning from a support function to a strategic business partner.
With 25 years of experience, June Paradise Maul provides learning and consulting solutions to help clients add value to their business and impact their results. She has held senior leadership positions in operations, strategic planning, information technology, human resources and learning. For more information, e-mail June at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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